Thursday, April 28, 2005

Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States

For the past two months, readers in the west suburbs of Chicago have been reading Devil in the White City by Erik Larson as part of the Big Read program. Larson will speak next week in Willowbrook, capping a very successful effort by eight libraries. As the program winds down, I am reminded of another speech and another book about worlds fairs.

Robert Rydell, a history professor from Montana State University – Bozeman spoke to the LITA Forum last fall about the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. After showing a short video on the fair with interviews of people who had attended, Rydell explained how bankers, industrialists, and other civic leaders organized world fairs to market their cities and their goods to the international community. As early as 1876 when the first international exposition was held in London, promoters were building crystal palaces and white cities to dazzle fair goers from around the world, their potential customers. In this context, electric lights, appliances, telephones, automobiles, industrial equipment, farm implements, and other new technologies were introduced to the public.

While wealthy business people from around the world attended the fairs, the majority of attendees were middle class people from the host country, many taking their first vacations. Also at the fairs were the indigenous peoples from non-industrial countries who were brought by the promoters to populate global villages set up at the fairs. In the villages, these people built their traditional houses, practiced their crafts, sang their national songs, danced their dances, and wore their costumes. Many of these people were on constant display and restricted to the villages, night and day. Like zoo animals, they were sometimes taunted and even poked by badly behaved fairgoers. The promoters did not faithfully provide for these people either. Some world village people died during the fairs from injuries, diseases to which they had no immunities, and malnutrition. Others who survived to return to their homes embittered toward the industrial world.

1904 was really much like 2004, according to Rydell. Western industrial nations saw the technically undeveloped world as a market and assumed that the indigenous people would want the new technologies and the societal and cultural change that followed. Many third world people fought foreign influences, rejecting technologies that threatened their cultures and societies. There were always side effects to the exchanges of goods and ideas that displeased both the developed and undeveloped countries. The undeveloped countries often lost as much or more than they gained.

When I returned to my library, I added his book Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States, which surveys all the American fairs. There have not been any in the United States in twenty years. The New Orleans fair of 1984 was a financial disaster and was followed by several criminal indictments. Chicago cancelled its 1993 fair in the wake of the controversy. The authors of this book tell the stories of all the fairs in the U.S., starting with a fair in New York in 1853. Business people and civic leaders organized fairs regularly in the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most people remember these fairs for their entertainments, dazzling architecture, and technical innovations. Less remembered is the discrimination against women and minorities, the abuse of foreigners brought to America to populate primitive villages on the fairgrounds, and the use of fairs for propaganda that would now be shocking to most people.

Robert Rydell, John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. Washington [D.C.] : Smithsonian Institution Press, c2000. ISBN 1560989688

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