The Chicago World’s Fair

The United States has not hosted a world’s fair or expo since 1984, so many kids today aren’t even aware they exist. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 can be a fascinating subject for students for many reasons. It holds a unique place in U.S. history because of all the “famous firsts” that were introduced there, from Cracker Jacks to the Ferris wheel – even the hamburger was sold in America for the first time at the fair. Students who are beginning to learn about electricity and energy can read about the differences between alternating current and direct current. The scientific and technological advances by Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison led to the event being the first to be extensively lit by electric light.

Another topic to discuss related to the fair is civic pride. Chicago was not initially considered a contender to host the fair because it had the reputation of being a dirty and dangerous city, known mostly for crime and for the smells associated with meat processing. After the beauty of the Paris Exposition in 1889, when the stunning Eiffel Tower was presented, Americans were worried that a rough-and-tumble city like Chicago would make the United States a worldwide laughing stock. Discussing how the incredible architecture, art and landscape design made visitors feel about their living environment is a great way to introduce hands-on activities that improve your school and community, like litter clean up, graffiti removal and community garden projects.

Thank you for being a part of the Professional Educators Network. We hope you enjoy this new installment of History’s ARTifacts. Please watch the educational video with your students, download the poster by this month’s artist, Katrina Matejcik, and watch Katrina’s Meet the Artist video.


Meet the Artist: Katrina Matejcik


Activities for The Chicago World’s Fair

The Chicago World’s Fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s journey to America. It also showcased exhibitions and displays from all over the world. This happened at a time of industrial and technological expansion that connected the world in ways never before imagined. Discuss with your class how the mix of cultures may have affected people’s perceptions at the World’s Fair in 1893.
In 1893, a one-day ticket to the World’s Fair cost $00.50. Have your students use this inflation calculator to figure out how much the ticket would cost today. They can also use the calculator to project how much a similar ticket would cost at various points in the future.
The 1893 World’s Fair was one of the first to make extensive use of electrification both for lighting and for use in the exhibitions themselves. At the time, there was something of a “war” going on between the two methods of transmitting electricity: AC power versus DC power. The war was fought by two giants of electricity at the time, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Have your students research these two inventors and learn about their intense rivalry. Discuss the innovations they each pioneered and how they remain relevant today.
The amusement rides at the 1893 World’s Fair took place in a Chicago location known as the Midway Plaisance. Ever since, any amusement area at any carnival has been referred to as the “midway.” Talk to your students about how words and phrases get incorporated into a society through pop culture. For context, also have them explore Shakespeare’s language. Many phrases from his plays are still in use today, including: “wild goose chase,” “love is blind” and “break the ice.”
This month’s poster by artist Katrina Matejcik was created by making and photographing paper models of buildings and structures inspired by the 1893 World’s Fair. Students can make their own paper models or even build dioramas of buildings, structures and gardens. For inspiration, students can look to architectural works by Frank Lloyd Wright, Julia Morgan, Frank Gehry and many others.

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