Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Letters from Omaha

Alice and William in the early 1890s
In the summer of 1893, Will Miner was traveling the country as a representative of the Hutchins Refrigerator Company (a subsidiary of the California Fruit Transportation Company) and trying to sell his newly-patented tandem draft rigging on the side. Although Will was a determined and ambitious young man, two other things were very much on his mind that summer: his beloved Alice, and the great exposition then taking place in Chicago. Its official name was the World's Columbian Exposition, but to Will it was just "the Fair." 

During an extended trip to Omaha, Nebraska in August 1893, Will frequently wrote to Alice, and he talked about the Fair almost as much as he talked about how much he missed her! Will's letters show just how much this event meant to Chicago residents, and how proud they were of the great "White City" that had miraculously emerged on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Court of Honor and Grand Basin, overlooked by the Statue of the Republic

Intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Fair opened a year late, on May 1, 1893. Like its predecessor, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the Columbian Exposition was designed to celebrate scientific and technological progress. But the organizers also intended to show (as one writer put it) "that the finer instincts of humanity have not suffered complete eclipse" in the drive towards progress and prosperity. Art and culture would also be on display, and the classically-inspired white exhibition buildings would provide an ideal setting for the moral lessons to be learned at the Fair.

"Chicago Day" set a record for attendance,
with 716,881 visitors
Will first mentioned the Fair in a letter to Alice written on August 15. He noted that Omaha was as quiet as Chicago on a Sunday, and observed, "There is certainly more business in Chicago than any place I have seen in this country, the Fair is helping us more than we realize untill we see how other towns are suffering from dull trade." In the summer of 1893, the United States was in the midst of a serious economic depression (known as a "panic" in those days), but the influx of visitors to the Fair (26 million over six months) surely helped Chicago weather the crisis.

Will wrote again the next day, saying, "I trust you are enjoying the events at the Fair which I see by the Chicago papers are very interesting. Yesterday was a day of events and I hope you saw the races on the lagoons." He also reported, "People out here are doing a great deal of talking about the Fair, they all agree that it is superb."

Ladies' Safety Bicycle, 1889
Alice must have reported to Will on her Fair-related activities, because in his letter of August 22 he said, "Am glad you are having such nice cool weather for wheeling and seeing the Fair." He looked forward to returning to Chicago, when they would "take some trips on the wheels." Bertha Trainer was taking riding lessons, and once she was done, the whole family would be able to cycle together. The introduction of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s led to a national craze for "wheeling." Unlike the old penny-farthing bicycle, with its enormous front wheel, the safety bike was stable and easy to use. Women, in particular, took to cycling with great enthusiasm, and the bicycle became a symbol of the freedom of the "New Woman" in the 1890s.

A week later, Will wrote that he was "getting anxious to hear from you as no letter has arrived up to date, suppose you are busy seeing the Fair this week with sister Lou." And "speaking of the Fair, I believe I can thoroughly appreciate it when I see it again, it seems an age since we were there last together, am sorry to be away from Chicago so much during the Fair for we both miss much of its best features."

Interior of Machinery Hall
Will and Alice likely had many more chances to visit the Fair before it closed on October 30, 1893. Given what we know about Will Miner's interests, it's likely that Machinery Hall and the Transportation Building were two of his favorite exhibits at the Fair. The Transportation Building contained 8 acres of space devoted just to railroads, including an extensive display by the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, which showed "the development of locomotives and cars from the rudest and earliest days to the present time."
The Transportation Building's gilded and polychrome facade
stood out among the neoclassical structures of the White City

We don't have any letters from Alice written during this period, so we don't know exactly what she thought of the Fair. But for someone with interests in art and history, the exposition offered plenty of opportunities to study both. In my next post, I'll be looking more closely at the ways in which colonial architecture, furniture, and decorative arts were presented at the World's Columbian Exposition.

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