Step right up, folks, and look behind the curtain to see the real backstory of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. You'll see Sally Rand dance her famous hootchy-cooch covered only by a few well-placed bubbles, watch as Negroes stay away in droves on "Negro Day" and whites protest in rage when they learn that the first settler of Chicago was black. Follow the war of the women as society matrons refuse to be hoodwinked by a female of questionable morals. And find out which was the greater attraction in "Old Mexico" - the replica of a Mayan temple
- or Rosalia's famous fan dance.
Cheryl Ganz is chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. In writing this book, she opens our eyes to the America of 1933, from its highest aspirations and most daring innovations to its darkest secrets. At a time when the restraints of the Great Depression were somewhat offset by the repeal of Prohibition, when laws against obscenity were at odds with the acceptable display of "artistic" nudity, the ethos of the carnival backlot joined hands across the table with the city fathers of Chicago to create a spectacle meant to highlight "a century of progress" in the heart of the Windy City.
Located on more than 400 acres of lakefront within blocks of Chicago's downtown, the event featured two major elements: light and color. Chicago was known as the "white city" because of its large expanses of white stone architecture. Paint companies were encouraged to transform the white city into the "rainbow city" with new tints and hues. This book has copious illustrations, including pages from the full-color brochure produced by the American Asphalt Paint company to present their optimistic view of the future through the use of 28 vibrant new mixes. As for light, one of the most remarkable events at the Fair was the opening, on May 27, 1933, when, at dusk, the entire fairgrounds was lit up by a distant star, Arcturus, using power that "had left the star forty years ago, during the time of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair." Ganz explains that "The electric companies had provided the research and equipment to transmit electrical impulses from the star's captured light via revolutionary photoelectric cells and Western Union lines to the Fair arena...with the final contact of the master switch...colored lights flooded the exposition buildings and searchlights reached for the stars."
Not surprisingly, the new craze, the automobile, was featured in a central role, with GM setting up actual assembly lines that produced a car an hour while amazed fairgoers looked on. One car was given away every week. The Ford exhibit demonstrated road-building techniques through the ages and gave fairgoers a chance to relax at an outdoor orchestra shell and watch a lightshow every evening.
But just as exciting to the 1933 fair visitor was the prospect of making a long-distance telephone call. Lucky visitors to the AT&T exhibit might be chosen to make a call to one of 54 cities while crowds listened in with headsets. "Over a thousand long-distance calls were placed each week."
Real premature babies were displayed in modern incubators and kept under the watchful eye of nurses and the general public until they were chubby enough to be returned to hospitals.
Souvenirs included everything from the usual gewgaws like jewelry and beer steins to Brownie Box cameras, Sears radios, and the World's Smallest Bible.
Foreign countries were represented with mock-ups of Swiss, Italian and Mexican villages. Virulent anti-Nazi sentiment came to the fore, along with German immigrant pride, with the visit to the fair of the magnificent German airship, the Graf Zeppelin. Similar controversy surrounded the efforts of Negro clubwomen to give fair space to a replica cabin representing the colonization of Chicago by Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, son of a Quebec trader father and a black slave mother. The black consortium was successful, but a white woman of shady credentials failed in her quest to gain respectability among Chicago's female aristocracy by sponsoring a "Temple of Womanhood."
One of the interesting portions of Ganz's book is the epilogue which answers the question, where did it all go? After the Fair shut down its turnstiles in October, 1934, the great spectacle of the Century of Progress rapidly faded into nothingness, so that "today only the ancient Roman column donated to Chicago by Mussolini remains." Some of the scientific displays were transferred to Chicago museums, and a pygmy elephant and 500 monkeys were shipped off to Long Island. The Negro clubwomen who got recognition for Du Sable as Chicago's original settler wrought a work of permanence; his name became a prominent part of Chicago's history after the Fair closed. Many of the Fair's notable buildings are on view at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park. As had been hoped, A Century of Progress did bring progress - and profits - to the city of Chicago. Attempting to generate enthusiasm for the future in a citizenry weighed down by poverty and pessimism, the fair showed Americans what their country was capable of.
However, Ganz suggests that the rags-to-riches saga of Missouri mountain girl Sally Rand, who magnetized fairgoers (and went on bubble-dancing into her 70s), might have been the real inspiration for discouraged Americans. If she could rise above circumstance and into the national spotlight, well, anybody could.