The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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What were some of the novelties that people saw for the first time at the Chicago World’s Fair? Explain briefly the impact of those novelties.

People experience a number of new technologies at the fair, including electric lights, the telephone, and processed foods. These innovations laid the groundwork for 20th century consumer culture.

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At the Chicago World's Fair, there were a number of technological innovations. Fairgoers could hear a symphony orchestra playing live in New York via long distance telephone. The first motion pictures, created by Edison's kinetoscope, were shown. Exhibits also included an all-electric kitchen, complete with electric dishwasher. New processed foods were introduced at the fair that remain part of our daily lives, including Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Cracker Jacks, and Shredded Wheat cereal. One of the defining characteristics of the fair was the widespread use of electric lighting.

All of this served to distinguish the "White City" from the "Black City" of Chicago, where the streets were still dimly lit by gas and the soot from burning coal covered everything. The vision of the future represented by the fair was compelling—a city where machines did much of the work, the use of electricity kept everything clean and quiet, and the telephone made it possible to talk to anyone, regardless of distance. The future was a place of grace and ease.

More importantly, the popularity of the fair meant that this was a future that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds wanted to possess. The fair pointed the way to the consumer culture of 20th century America. Perhaps its most lasting legacy was its implicit argument that this future was within our grasp now, and that progress would only continue to make things better and better.

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