The “Beaux-Arts boys,” as Burnham called them, remained in Chicago for a week and then returned in a private car at the end of February with their completed sketches. Unrolling them on the walls of Burnham’s library, a blazing fire in the heath, they explained their ideas to the fair’s grounds and buildings committee. As the winter afternoon drew to a close, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who had been brought to Chicago to advise on artistic matters, approached Burnham, took him by the hands and declared: “Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the Fifteenth Century.” Donald Miller, City of the Century
The idea of an exposition is something that’s somewhat lost in an age of passive entertainment and mass-media. In fact, its hard to imagine one million people ever attending a single event, let alone having an active interest in human progress, art and culture (sorry to be realistically cynical). Imagining that twenty-seven million people attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 would seem beyond comprehension.
Consider that on any given day in 2006 a little more than 200,000 people passed through Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Fewer than two million people lived in Chicago in 1893. The 1893 U.S. population was about twice the number of Exposition attendees. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics ended with 3.8 million tickets sold.
Chicago’s 1893 Exposition was perhaps the most influential of the great American expositions, and because of the large number of attendees, one of the easiest to collect memorabilia from. Memorabilia can range from books to tickets, prints to stereo-view cards, maps and more. A good place to start might be ebay #290140071370, a book of official views from the exposition.
Of course the earlier the exposition, the more difficult it becomes to collect memorabilia. Before Chicago, Philadelphia was host to the first American exposition, an event attended by some ten million people in 1876. I was recently happy to purchase on ebay a small Liberty Bell-shaped decanter from the 1876 Exposition. Don’t confuse 1876 items with “fifty years later” event in 1926.
The 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition is another to look for. President William McKinley was assassinated at this exposition. Saint Louis held one in 1904, and San Francisco in 1915, an event celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. An interesting item currently available for the Buffalo is a short-line railroad timetable promoting the event (ebay item 170132361023). Like the 1893 Chicago event, which helped the city recover from the great fire, the 1915 San Francisco event helped breath new life into the city following the 1906 earthquake.