In what ways can we perceive the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as a pivotal moment in American history? In what ways is the 1893 “World’s Columbian Exposition” both a crossroads and a dividing line American history?

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The 1890s was a period of both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the United States. The year began with Congress passing one of the most pivotal acts in American history, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The same year, at the urging of John Muir, Congress designated Yosemite as a National Park. A few short months later, the Wounded Knee massacre occurred when federal troops fired upon a gathering of Lakota Sioux Indians. The event signals the end of American Indian resistance in the west and rapid expansion. All of these events happen in 1890 and is the context for the Chicago World's Fair and Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Columbian Exposition is the more commonly known name.).

Three years later, in 1893, the 1893 World's Fair opens in Chicago with great anticipation and fanfare in the heart of the nation. Chicago was the first city in American history to host the international event, beating out cities like New York and Washington for the honor. The theme for the fair was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the new world and a celebration of American industrial ingenuity. The event is so historically significant that the City of Chicago commemorated the event by having a star placed on the flag of the city! Contrast this event by what occurs in the same month of May, a massive decline in the value of the Stock Market, resulting in financial chaos, panic, and depression.

The 1893 World's Fair is pivotal in American history in several ways. The first is the United States, by hosting the fair, is recognized along with the great cities of Europe as a culturally significant and a player in international affairs. The fair became a source of national pride and helped to cement the international reputation of the United States as a cultural and industrial progressive nation. Visited by millions, the fair crisscrossed European culture with American and spread throughout the United States innovation represented by the exhibitors.

One invention dominated the fair. Created by an American engineer from Pittsburgh, G. W. C. Ferris, the Ferris Wheel dazzled the crowd. And though electricity was still in its infancy stage of development in most parts of the country, the other great technological invention, the electric generator, was turned on by President Cleveland to the delight of the crowd powering the different innovations in the fair's main concourse. Electrical power was proven to be efficient. Within a few years, the technology used to power the fair would become commercially available, bringing electricity into factories and homes in the major urban areas of the United States. From the perspective of national pride, the fair was a commercially profitable and cultural success.

However, the success of the fair also highlighted the less attractive parts of the American culture. African Americans fought for the right to display historical and culturally significant artifacts. Though eventually winning the right to display historically significant artifacts, they were not given prominent positions in the fair's main display areas. American Indians were shown in culturally demeaning ways. Women artists found themselves in a similar situation as African Americans. The price of admission excluded many more impoverished Americans steeped in the throes of a beginning national depression. The fair highlighted both the cultural and economic divides experienced by many parts of the country.

The successes of the 1893 World's Fair from a historical perspective weigh favorably against the aforementioned negative aspects of race, gender, and social class divides in the 1890s. Like many international events, the divides in society seem less insurmountable and not as high as they are in reality. The 1893 World's Fair is one event that historians tend to look on favorably as a positive societal turning point in the history of the United States.

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The World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the first world’s fairs held in the United States, was an important watershed for the city of Chicago (where it was held), the Midwest region, and the country as a whole. The choice of Chicago for the exposition indicated the changing definition of the city and the Midwest as centers—they were becoming both literal and figurative crossroads in national development.

The approach to urban development was also significant, both for the planning process and for the actual execution of the fair. The overall concept of how to transform a growing city, and the process of completing the massive fairgrounds and numerous buildings, had a lasting impact on Chicago and on future approaches to city planning. The fair’s technological features, such as its widespread use of electric light and its emphasis on consumerism, were also hallmarks of the age.

Although the city, with a Great Lakes port and railroad connections, had been growing for some time, its location and strategic economic significance had not previously received sustained attention. The new focus on Chicago went along with awareness that the sea-to-sea expanse of the United States would now dominate independent development on either coast. During the exposition, the idea of the country’s completeness—and the need to go beyond its borders for a “wider field” in which to employ “American energy”—was also emphasized in Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark speech on the closing of the frontier.

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