Friday, March 25, 2016

Forgotten World’s Fairs: Detroit, 1889

If you are a regular reader of this blog, or know me in real life, you probably have noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with world’s fairs. So you can imagine how I felt when, while reading a letter to William Miner from his sister Jottie Mitchell, I encountered a reference to an exposition in Detroit that she was planning to visit. A fair that I’d never even heard of? I was already doing some research on another forgotten fair—the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial of 1926—and now here was another, even more obscure one. The Detroit International Exposition and Fair of 1889 turns out to be a really interesting example of a pre-1893 world’s fair—and an example of how even big events can be almost completely forgotten.

Aerial view of the Fair, from Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1889

Detroit in 1889 was still a decade away from opening its first automobile factory and boasted a diverse manufacturing economy, producing shoes, soap, paints and varnishes, hoopskirts, patent medicines, railroad cars, and packaged seeds, among many other commodities. Located on the Detroit River, which connects the Great Lakes with the St. Lawrence Seaway, it was a major port as well as a railway hub. But Michigan was also still predominantly an agricultural state, and the organizers of the Exposition and Fair hoped to demonstrate all that the region had to offer in both manufacturing and farming.

James McMillan, Exposition
President and founder of the
Michigan Car Company
The idea for a fair in Detroit had been a subject of much discussion for many years. City boosters wanted to hold an annual event that would be bigger and better than the Michigan State Fair, which moved among various cities. Like many Americans, they had been captivated by the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and were certain that a fair was a sure-fire way of drawing attention to their city. The president of the exposition corporation was James McMillan, someone Will Miner undoubtedly was familiar with, as he had made his fortune as a builder of railroad cars and was now representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate.

The corporation purchased 72 acres of vacant land just outside the city line, at the point where the Detroit and Rouge Rivers meet. Workers were brought in to drain marshes, lay railroad tracks, and build docks for excursion boats. Local architect Louis Camper designed a massive 200,000 square-foot exhibit hall with an observation tower, from which (as a writer from Harper’s Weekly put it) “may be seen a panorama worth an hour’s study.” To the left was the city, “tinged over with the smoke of industry,” and to the right, “the green fields of Canada.” On the river, barges, schooners, and steamships continually passed, while “all alongshore the giant elevators and the prosaic warehouses give strong contrast to the dim beauty of Belle Isle and the farther stretches of river and woodland, and the drifting sails of commerce.” The fairground and its surroundings united the natural world and the man-made world in a way that was particularly satisfying to 19th-century Americans.

Cattle and Sheep Exhibit
River Rouge Historical Museum
The Exposition opened on September 17, 1889. Although the day was rainy and many exhibits were still incomplete, the fair promised to be a success. There was so much to see, said the same Harper’s contributor, that only a “professional pedestrian” could hope to do it all in one day. In addition to the mechanical and agricultural exhibits, there were other wonders to behold: a house made entirely of soap, a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty, Professor Woodward’s trained seals, a pig who could play cards. There were games of baseball and lacrosse, horse racing and yachting competitions. The Detroit fair combined educational exhibits of art and technology with sideshow attractions in a way that future fairs would not.

Soap Cottage
River Rouge Historical Museum
By the time the fair closed on September 27, it had produced a tidy profit of $5,000 for its investors. It would run again for three more years. But in 1895, the land was sold to the Solvay Process Company, which tore down the exhibition buildings and began mining for salt. The former site of the fair, according to Detroit historian Richard Bak, is now “a toxic landscape of smokestacks and blown-out houses with the bleakest future of any neighborhood in the city.” This was an outcome that city residents and visitors to the fair probably never could have imagined. In 1889, they had every reason to believe that Detroit—along with the rest of the nation—could look ahead with boundless optimism toward a prosperous future.

So why has the Detroit Exposition and Fair been forgotten? Its original structures are gone, but that’s true of most fairs, which were never meant to be permanent. It was an annual event which ran for only ten days at a time, unlike other fairs which ran for six months, which meant that it ultimately received fewer visitors. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the Exposition Universelle going on at the same time in Paris—the main building’s tower may have provided a spectacular view, but it was no Eiffel Tower. From the perspective of later observers, it was probably also neglected because of the overwhelming success of that other great midwestern fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. But to visitors like Jottie Mitchell, it was a “grand affair,” one which symbolized all the hopes they had for the Middle West.


Richard Bak, “A Fair to Remember,” Hour Detroit, February 2009

Brendan Roney, “All Roads Lead to Delray,” Detroit Historical Society blog, December 2012

“Detroit International Fair and Exposition,” Environmental History in Detroit

Friday, March 4, 2016

From Kentucky to Chazy: Anna Ernberg and the Berea Fireside Industries

Advertisement from the Plattsburgh Sentinel
In August 1926, the Redpath Chautauqua arrived in Plattsburgh, bringing a variety of musicians, lecturers, and other entertainers to the North Country. The Redpath Chautauqua was a descendent of the original Chautauqua Assembly, established in 1874 in Lake Chautauqua, New York to combine recreation with religious instruction and informative lectures (if this sounds familiar, it’s because it was also the inspiration for the Catholic Summer School at Cliff Haven). In 1904, Keith Vawter started the first circuit or tent Chautauqua, in which a group of performers traveled together on a set route from town to town, staying a week in each location.

On the fifth day of Redpath’s stint in Plattsburgh, August 19, Anna Ernberg gave a lecture and demonstration of dyeing, weaving, and handcraft. The advertising in the Plattsburgh Sentinel gave no further information about Ernberg, perhaps assuming that audiences would be familiar with her. As the head of Fireside Industries at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, Anna Ernberg was one of the most visible proponents of the Appalachian weaving revival in the early 20th century.

Coverlet given to Alice Miner by Anna Ernberg
Having completed her lecture but with another day to go before heading to the next stop on the circuit, Ernberg and her son Axel spent the following day in Chazy, visiting Heart’s Delight Farm and taking a tour of the Alice T. Miner Museum conducted by Alice herself. As she later wrote of her visit, “It was more than delightful and we are both very grateful to you for your kindness and hospitality.” As someone who was working for “the revival of the Arts of our grandmothers,” Ernberg was impressed by Alice’s efforts in collecting examples of textile art “and arranging it all so true and beautiful.” To show her appreciation, she sent Alice a “kiver” for her collection—a coverlet in the Blooming Leaf pattern, made using the “Summer and Winter” weave, which differs from the overshot in that it produces a reversible fabric, light on one side (for summer) and dark on the other (for winter). The coverlet is made from three panels and is shaped to accommodate a four-poster bed.

Anna Ernberg weaving on the small counterbalance loom
she designed and introduced to Berea, 1912
Born in Christianstad, Sweden, in 1874, Anna Ernberg emigrated to the United States with her husband when she was in her twenties. She lived in New York and taught weaving at Pratt Institute and Teachers College. In 1911 (now a widow with two young sons) she was invited by Berea College president William Goodell Frost to run the school’s weaving program. In addition to the work she did as an instructor, supervisor, and designer, Ernberg was a tireless fundraiser who traveled to major cities throughout the northeast to sell the products of Fireside Industries. She was a popular speaker with women’s clubs, patriotic organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, church groups, and art organizations. By 1917, she had raised enough money to fund a new building called the Log House, which held the looms, spaces for finishing work, sales areas, and an apartment for Ernberg and her sons. In 1930, she was chosen by Ida Tarbell as one of the 50 outstanding women in America, a list that also included Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Mary McLeod Bethune, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Amelia Earhart.

Ernberg directed Fireside Industries for 25 years and turned it into a reliable source of income for the college. When William G. Frost became president in 1892, he introduced the free tuition policy that continues today. Students needed to work to contribute to their tuition as well as room and board expenses. He also had learned that coverlets were an excellent promotional tool and were much appreciated as gifts to donors. Selling woven textiles would make money for the school and would become central to the school’s public image.

From the Berea Quarterly, 1912
When Berea College was founded in 1855, it was both coeducational and interracial. However, in 1904 the Kentucky legislature passed a law prohibiting integrated education. Although the college challenged the law and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the school lost the case and from 1908 until 1950 (when the law was changed), Berea admitted only white students. In the 1910s and 20s, the supposed “pure Anglo-Saxon heritage” of Berea students became a selling point with potential donors. Many people believed that the isolated regions of the Appalachian Mountains were home to Americans who closely resembled the original 17th- and 18th-century English settlers. These mountain folk, it was hoped, would help to counterbalance the influence of African-Americans in the south and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe nationwide.

An example of the way Berea emphasized the links between
“southern highlanders” and early colonists
Because weaving was so closely associated in the popular imagination with the colonial era, Fireside Industries and other Appalachian weaving programs strengthened the perception that mountain residents represented (as Woodrow Wilson put it) “an unspoiled stock...of the original stuff of which America was made.” These images of the noble mountaineers existed side-by-side with stereotypes of Appalachians as feuders and moonshine-makers, which educators like Frost worked hard to dispel. Mountain folk were only “backward” because of their isolation, he argued; education and economic opportunity would “uplift” them and allow them to take their rightful places as useful citizens.

In an article on coverlet weaving in the south that appeared in House Beautiful, author Mabel Tuke Priestman praised the domestic weaving revival for being “a very important step in the labor movement, as it gives employment to those living in rural districts, who have few interests in their monotonous lives, and saves from oblivion a beautiful craft, distinctly American in its conception.” Anna Ernberg and Alice Miner certainly would have agreed with this sentiment (whether weavers themselves had the same ideas about their “monotonous” lives is another question). Woven coverlets represented all that was good about the past—diligent work, self-sufficiency, thrift—in a form that was aesthetically pleasing. By bringing these pieces into the modern home, collectors hoped to transmit some of the values associated with them into the present day.


If you are interested in learning more about the Appalachian weaving revival, Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Philis Alvic is an excellent place to start. For an earlier assessment of the craft revival, try Allen H. Eaton’s Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, originally published in 1937. Appalachia on Our Mind by Henry D. Shapiro is the classic work on the place of the mountain South in American consciousness. In All That Is Native and Fine, David E. Whisnant examines how the “cultural missionaries” who came to Appalachia created their own version of folk culture.