When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion first enter Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, they are awestruck by the wonders that fill the city. The scene is based on author L. Frank Baum’s memory of how he felt when he visited the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The first World’s Fair featured innovations like the Ferris wheel, alternating current electricity, the first commercial movie theater, and a moving sidewalk. Attendees were also introduced to the hootchy-kootchy dance and a new-fangled clothing option: the zipper. Planned as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, the fair became an exploration of the American Spirit throughout history and into the future.
Chicago won the right to host the first World’s Fair, besting New York City; Washington, D.C.; and St. Louis. New York architect Daniel Burnham and Connecticut landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the exposition to be the ideal city on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago, Ill. Often called the “White City,” the exposition featured large pavilions designed in the French neoclassical style ringed artificial lakes on 630 acres. The wonders of the age were on display both inside and out of the buildings.
“The White City was the zenith of this civic awakening, and its full significance cannot be appreciated without grasping this connection. Built by Chicago’s elite, the White City was their vision of what a great city could be like at a time when the country’s large cities were almost universally thought to be ugly, disorderly, dangerous, and ungovernable. Passing from the ‘cluttered ugliness of the city itself’ to the orderly magnificence of the White City, many fairgoers believed—or at least hoped—they were seeing the American metropolis of tomorrow,” history professor Donald Miller wrote in American Heritage magazine.
Before this vision came to be, it had to be built. Companies across the country submitted bids for the work that needed to be done and other people flocked to the area looking for work. West Virginians could be found among them.
The History of Hampshire County notes that 20-year-old Francis M. Alderton of Chicago, a native of Hampshire County, worked as an overseer for a portion of the exposition grounds.
Edward Drummond Libbey of the New England Glass Company, who had a contract to make glass windows, fixtures and light bulbs for the fair, traveled to the Hobbs & Brockunier Glass Factory in Wheeling to enlist skilled workers to help with the job.
One of the workers he found was Michael J. Owens who had worked in the glass industry since he was age 10. “Libbey felt Owens displayed the leadership skills needed to manage his new factory and hired him. Owens supervised the Toledo plant, and also a glass plant in Findlay that made light bulbs for the new electrical industry,” according to the University of Toledo Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections.
When the Libbey Glass Company got a $200,000 contract to build a working glass furnace at the fair, Libbey put Owens in charge of the exhibit.
“When it initially failed to draw crowds, Libbey decided to allow visitors to apply their admission fee to the purchase of glass trinkets inscribed with the company name. The exhibit became a huge draw, with many coming to see a dress sewn for Broadway actress Georgia Cayvan made of spun glass. Spun glass, which would eventually become the basis for a major new glass company in Toledo in the late 1930s, was a brand new technology for the time pioneered by Libbey’s company,” according to the University of Toledo Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections.
As construction proceeded and the grand opening of the fair approached, states and other countries made plans for displays even more impressive than Libbey’s. On March 14, 1891, the West Virginia Legislature formed the five-person Board of World’s Fair Managers of West Virginia. The board’s job was to create and oversee a display that showcased West Virginia’s resources, products, and general development.
Because coal was a major resource in the state at the time, the board wanted an extravagant display that would shine amongst coal displays from other states. Back then, the Big Vein Coal Seam in the northern part of the state, where West Virginia meets Maryland, was 14-feet wide along much of its length. Its clean-burning, low-sulfur, bituminous coal was popular for powering ocean liners, riverboats, locomotives, and steam mills (grinding mills powered by steam engines). The members of West Virginia’s World’s Fair board wanted to show the world how impressive the coal seam was.
In his memoir, coal miner Kenny Bray wrote, “My grandfather and some other men were assigned to take out a section of the coal to be displayed at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. They wanted to display it as it appeared in its natural setting before being mined. He said the coal could not be mined in one piece because it would be too large to handle, so they dug it out in four large pieces that could be reassembled outside to appear in its natural formation.” The coal sections were then crated up and shipped off to be reassembled in Chicago as part of the West Virginia exhibit.
The World’s Fair opened to the public on May 1, 1893, and featured 200 buildings, canals, lagoons, and other structures. It lived up to its “White City” moniker. People came from all over the world to admire the grandeur, reacquaint themselves with history, and get a glimpse of what the future might hold.
Different days had various themes, and certain days were dedicated to each of the states. West Virginia had two days dedicated to it: June 20 and August 23, the latter of which it shared with Delaware.
On June 20, 1893, the 30th anniversary of West Virginia’s admission into the Union, the stately West Virginia building at the fair was dedicated. The Wheeling Intelligencer described the building this way: “It is built of West Virginia material in colonial style, and cost the state the sum of $20,000. There are no exhibits in it of the state’s resources, the building being erected with an especial view of furnishing a headquarters to West Virginians while visiting the fair. It is a pleasant home, and all citizens of the state will be heartily welcomed within its walls, where they will find pleasant resting places and polite attendants to look after their wants and furnish information. There are a number of interesting relics to be found in the building, among which are the chair and safe used by Lee in writing his terms of surrender to Grant, and several John Brown relics. The state’s industrial exhibits will be found in the main buildings of the fair.”
Of the building’s dedication, the Intelligencer reported, “The building was not decorated and the exercises were simple, but appropriate. The building was crowded all day with West Virginians and people from other states, fully 2,000 visitors calling during the day. When the ceremonies opened, the assembly hall was packed. It presented a handsome appearance, being draped with flags of all nations, and bunting.”
Though Gov. William A. MacCorkle was scheduled to give a speech, he was unable to attend. In his place, Gen. J. W. St. Clair addressed the crowd “with a speech full of eloquence and patriotism,” noted the Intelligencer. In addition, Archibald W. Campbell, former editor of the Intelligencer and an outspoken and influential leader in the statehood movement, spoke about the state’s achievements in railroad construction, coal mining, lumbering, petroleum drilling, riverway improvement, and education.
Of Campbell’s speech the newspaper opined, “No man is more competent than Mr. Campbell to handle the subject, for none is more familiar with the history of which he took so prominent a part in forming. It was a splendid and instructive address, and listened to with profound attention.”
Besides noted speakers, the program included vocal and instrumental musical performances. Kurnie Smith of Parkersburg whistled “The Mocking Bird” and “delighted the large audience beyond expression,” according to the Intelligencer.
The second West Virginia Day featured speakers from both Delaware and West Virginia. The length of the program, which included speakers from both states, prompted the Intelligencer to declare, “There were entirely too many speeches.” The newspaper approved of the reception, however, noting that “there was a great spread of peaches, watermelons and other dry and wet refreshments in the assembly room, and everybody did full justice to the lay-out.”
Fair attendance for that day numbered 178,699, of which 147,939 were paid admissions. This tally fell far below attendance on Chicago Day, October 9, when 716,881 people flocked to the fair. During the six months that the fair was open, more than 27 million people attended.
West Virginia won a number of awards at the first World’s Fair. Gov. MacCorkle later told the state legislature, “Our exhibitions of coal and coke in its variety of qualities, purity of kind and thickness of seams was easily paramount amidst the world’s greatest collection. The award of the most-expert judges has forever settled our superiority in this great product. In our forestry exhibit no state in the Union could dispute our first place. Our agricultural exhibit was fine and our collection of oils was easily classed with Pennsylvania and Ohio. Our iron ores, building stone and fire clays were second to none. We received the highest awards for coke, coal and timber. The exhibits of coal and timber were the most-numerously visited and examined of their respective kinds at the World’s Fair.”
Besides showing off the state’s natural resources, West Virginia also touted it achievements in fine arts. Noted artist Lily Irene Jackson of Parkersburg exhibited two large oil paintings, Watching and Waiting and Anticipation, both of which portrayed dogs. In addition, Lewis “Jack” McElwain, a West Virginia fiddler, earned a first-place finish at the fair.
A Lasting Memento
One of the reasons cypress trees are found in West Virginia today is that visitors to Louisiana’s exhibition at the 1893 World’s Fair were given cyprus seedlings to take home. Many West Virginians returned to the state, planted them, and watched them flourish.
Unfortunately, some state residents also brought back something else: smallpox. According to the Biennial Report of the State Health Department of West Virginia 1893/94, “It was supposed that the infection was carried from Chicago, where the disease existed during and after the World’s Fair. The number of cases did not exceed five or six owing in great part doubtless to the promptness of the recognition of the physicians in charge.”
The first World’s Fair proved an economic success for West Virginia. Gov. MacCorkle told the state legislature that because of West Virginia’s participation in the fair, thousands of inquiries were made for land purchases. Land sales spiked and a number of companies also opened in the state.
“The World’s Fair proved to be of incalculable benefit to West Virginia,” Gov. MacCorkle proclaimed.
So many firsts and innovations came out of the fair, it is not surprising that more World’s Fairs would follow, but none has ever achieved the uniqueness and wonder of that first fair. Nor have any of the other fairs had a greater impact on American society.