World's Columbian Exposition, Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Project


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Among monuments marking the progress of civilization throughout the ages, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 will ever stand conspicuous. Gathered here are the forces which move humanity and make history, the ever-shifting powers that fit new thoughts to new conditions, and shape the destinies of mankind. Evidenced on every side are subordinations of the physical and the enduring supremacy of mind, while ready at hand are all those contrivances of civilization which help to elevate and ennoble man, to refine his tastes, enlarge his ideas, enrich his interests, and further his deliverance from the despotisms of nature. Halos of fresh thought descend and possess us. Questions and ambitions arise, instinct with new powers and new purposes. Objects of beauty meet the eye and illume the imagination; the aroma of culture fills the air, and knowledge is drawn in at every breath. Here is vitalizing food for men of reflection, for men of action, a wealth of stored experiences which comes to us as an inheritance of the past and a promise of the future - instrumentalities, each having its influence on the social structure, to the greater unity of mind in all that pertains to the happiness of the race. Men are flashes of thought, which come and go; results alone remain. Human nature changes but little, if at all; it is in this laboratory of life, with its enkindling, energizing potency, that are found those realities of progress which underlie the surface polish of society, and which carry all before them.

Obviously, a gathering like this of men and things from every quarter, each country contributing of its best, must promote intellectual activity and physical energy, and accelerate progress in all its departments. As the intellectual and industrial are quickened, so are the moral and aesthetical, the tendency being to enlarge the social ideal, to lessen the evils of isolation, and bring into greater prominence organization in humanity. There is an education which seems perpetually to test the intellectual possibilities of man; an education which comes from the commingling of peoples and the comparison of things, quickening sympathy and promoting harmony in the whole human family; an education for the educated, for the intelligent and studious, who naturally derive the greatest benefit and enjoyment from that intercourse which stimulates thought, and tends to the repression of learned egotism.

As the work of social reconstruction proceeds, the spirit of unity strengthens, and intellectual supremacy becomes more and more pronounced, for we must henceforth look to social power for our greatest benefits, political power having already bestowed upon us its best.

More than forty years have elapsed since the first of the great world's fairs was opened in London, covering a space of a million square feet, and contained within the walls of a single edifice. At the time it was regarded as a marvellous achievement, an undertaking which would not be again attempted, and certainly would not be excelled for many a year to come. But the success of this exposition, its financial success, its success as an artistic and spectacular display, and as a display of industrial products and mechanical inventions, quickly led to others, each surpassing its predecessor in magnitude, and for the most part in the character of its exhibits. Just as the London Exhibition of 1851 was thrown into the shade by those held later in Paris, Vienna, and in London itself, so all were eclipsed by the Philadelphia Fair, which, on the hundredth anniversary of the nation's birth, introduced a new era in the nation's industries and arts. Even on a more magnificent scale was the Paris Exposition of 1889, the centennial anniversary of the founding of the first republic. All these efforts, however, have been surpassed by the Chicago Exposition, dedicated in October, 1892, to the great navigator, who four centuries ago set foot on the New World shores, opening the way for the founding in this western hemisphere of many nations and governments. But though the plan of the present international exposition arose in the desire to celebrate in a proper manner the discovery of America by Columbus, the originating idea was made subordinate to the purposes of progress, and the celebration soon became lost in the exhibition. A hundred years hence it may be this Exposition will itself be deemed worthy of a celebration, and that without other excuse than its merits, for at the Chicago Exposition there is no greater wonder than the Exposition - except Chicago.

During the four decades that have elapsed since the date of the first universal exposition, such marvels have been wrought in the way of industrial, mechanical, and commercial enterprise as have placed the world as many old-time centuries forward in the path of progress. In 1851 there were in the United States but a few thousand miles of railroad and telegraph line. There are now 170,000 miles of the former, and more than that mileage of the latter. Apart from telegraphy the uses of electricity were almost unknown. It is now applied to locomotion, the the lighting of streets and buildings, and to other purposes for which but a few years ago its application would have been deemed impossible. Of still more recent origin are such marvels of inventive ingenuity as the telephone and phonograph. Meanwhile, improvements in mechanical appliances have more than doubled our volume of agricultural and manufactured production, giving to us the means of supplying all Europe with food staples and all the world with manufactured wares. The decades of the past, however, have not proved more prolific of beneficial results to the race than will the decades of the future. Following each one of these throngings of humanity, wherein all men and nations are brought nearer to one another, into closer commercial, political and social relationships, is a general awakening of intellect, and a further polish given to the surface of human affairs.

And as in its ethical influence this industrial display is but little behind its intellectual and material influence, so in the artistic it is but little behind the ethical. If for science and industry an historical panorama like this does so much, for art and the cultivation of the beautiful it will do more. The Exhibition itself, and taken as a whole, is a work of art; in the selection or rather creation of the site, laying out the grounds, and placing the buildings, the artistic instinct was brought into play no less than in the architecture and decorations. Grounds and buildings in their general aspect are things of beauty, and will do more for art in American than a generation of teachings after the ordinary method. Art and architecture are baptized anew in the healthful atmosphere of our great mid-continent. Nothing has been done for a mere display of skill and ingenuity, but everywhere the marvellous is made subservient to the useful and reasonable. Yet in general effect few if any grouped buildings ever presented a more artistic or impressive spectacle, homogeneous and scholarly, being a triumph of the aesthetical no less than of the material.

Of the several world's fairs which have been held, little now remains in the way of description save what has been preserved in books. In due time, their purpose accomplished, most of the buildings of the present Exposition, these splendid edifices which have been reared to science, art, and industry, and to which all the world has made its pilgrimage, will be taken apart, and their contents removed. Then all that will be left of this brilliant spectacle will be in the minds of men and in printer's ink. Many of the beneficial effects will remain, as I have already indicated, in garnered experiences and crystalizations of thought; much will be lost which were well worth preserving. The reproduction and record in book form will exercise an influence for good throughout the centuries. In this age of ideas, which in these splendid displays find such fitting expression, how greatly is civilization indebted to the printer's art, and how important it is that this art should be properly exercises, that the books written should be true to their great exemplar! The writing and publishing of a book which shall attempt to do justice to the subject offers a field for the highest ambition. It should be in the strictest sense a work of art as well as of material and moral instruction, and above all should faithfully reproduce this panorama of the nations, so brilliant and yet so transitory. It is the earnest hope of the author that his task will not prove altogether unworthy of this greatest of human displays, but in some small degree will aide, like the Exposition itself, in promoting a broader sympathy and fellowship in humanity, and enable us somewhat further to fathom the undeveloped might of man.

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