The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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According to Erik Larson, when was the first world fair, and why did the architects of the Chicago world fair feel like they had to “out-do” that fair?

Erik Larson says the first world fair was the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. The architects of the Chicago World's Fair wanted to outdo it because America had been embarrassed by their showing at the Exposition Universelle. Also, the Eifel Tower was seen as proof that France had outdone the US in steel and iron engineering.

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In 1889, France hosted the Exposition Universelle. Erik Larson says it was so impressive and large that visitors didn't believe anyone could outdo it.

The Eifel Tower was the centerpiece of the Exposition Universelle, and it was something that challenged American architects. Larson says that it was proof that France had outdone American engineers. The Brooklyn Bridge and Horseshoe Curve were magnificent but they were no Eifel Tower. American engineers didn't think the Eifel Tower would be the architectural marvel it is. At that time, they thought it would be a blight on the Paris landscape and be an embarrassment for years to come.

America had its own exhibits at the Exposition Universelle. According to Larson, they were jumbled and didn't have a clear plan. It was unimpressive and even embarrassing. While no other country outdid France, America didn't even come close. Since patriotism was at an all-time high as America's power on the international stage grew, American engineers didn't want this to be the lasting impression they left.

The idea of hosting a world's fair in America was born—at least in part—from the desire to create a better impression, outdo the Exposition Universelle, and design something more outstanding than the Eifel Tower.

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