Monday, January 7, 2008

They are Mohammedans in faith, polygamous in custom, and bandits by instinct

Something remarkable happened to me while in St. Louis last weekend. I mentioned -- just in passing -- that I lived in Chicago, and a fellow just gave me a book he'd gotten off of eBay. Just like that!

The book bears the unwieldy title of The Magic City: a Massive Portfolio of Original Photographic Views of the Great World's Fair and Its Treasures of Art, Including a Vivid Representation of the Famous Midway Plaisance, and it is, of course, a compilation of photographs from Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. It was published in 1894, the year after the fair's magnificent run. As might be expected from a free, 113-year-old book, the copy I got is in "poor" condition: the pages have some water damage around the edges, many have developed a purple discoloration, and the binding has pretty much come apart. But the photographs are still in fine shape and all the text is there.

The photos are mostly 8x10, so they have massive amounts of detail. They include overviews of the fair grounds, shots of each major building (including at least one view of Sullivan's Transportation Building that was new to me), and many shots of the exhibits -- including the many indigenous peoples shipped from around the world to be displayed at the fair.

It's an incredible document of an incredible event, and a window into a time whose mores and values were often quite different than our own. The sheer scope and scale of the fair is mind-blowing to behold. Architecturally, it was a time when people loved their buildings unabashedly:
As the Manufactures Building held the wondering interest of multitudes by the unexampled magnitude of its dimensions, so the Administration Building struck with amazement, and won the unstinted admiration of every World's Fair visitor by its incomparable beauty and artistic magnificence.

Culturally, Victorian society was equally sure of itself:
A typical Bedouin, with his main transportation dependence [a camel], stands before us in the photograph, nothing being omitted in the characterization of the roving bandit of the Asiatic Steppes, as he is seen in his own desert country. His tarboosh, bournouse and gibbeh, his trusty scimeter [sic], and a countenance reflective of the cruel instinct that he vainly seeks to hide beneath his richly colored robes, are conspicuous as they are typical. His patient beast of burden, demure, but equally treacherous...

Our illustration is one of two Sioux men, whose style of dress shows the result of contact with civilization. In earlier years their rainment was principally a breech-clout and blanket, but progress has effected changes, which, though gradual, will in a few years more eliminate every appearance of savagery in the dress and customs of the plains Indians.

....and amazingly odd:

Babies of strange peoples have a fascination for us grater even than have the customs which often excite our amazement. Indian mothers have always found large profit in exhibiting their papooses to overland travelers, and who is it that would not give a quarter for a peep at a real Chinese baby?


The exhibits were lavish beyond compare: sculpture, furniture and paintings from around the world. Machinery of all types. Native dwellings. Dioramas. Entire mock streets and villages. The world's first and still largest Ferris Wheel. Secondary buildings that are all but forgotten against the grandeur of the main buildings, but would be landmarks in their own right if they still stood today. Today, little remains of the fair besides the Museum of Science and Industry's grand building, and the Wooded Island that stands in a lagoon behind it.

It's nothing short of amazing that nobody has re-issued this remarkable document.

1 comment:

lynn said...

Sounds like you have a publishing career ahead of you (if you are willing to risk the wrath of the savage Bedouins, that is).

Can we see some photos?