The 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World Fair
The Chicago 1933 Century of Progress Fair was a designed to be a beacon of hope for a
better future based on modern developments in science and technology as
expressed through the informational exhibits and modern designs of the fair
(Schrenk 2007, 1). In the 1920’s various Chicago civic leaders and business men
suggested some kind of exhibition should be held to celebrate the centennial of
Chicago’s incorporation as a city in 1833 (Findling 1994, 43). An organizing
committee of one hundred members began to plan the Century of Progress World
Fair in 1927. There was an architectural commission responsible for the
building designs and site planning and the Science Advisory Committee of the
National Research Council which developed the central theme of the fair
(Findling 1994, 46). The fair was to focus on the services of science to
humanity which was specified in their official motto, “Science finds, industry
applies, man conforms” (Findling 1994, 92). They wanted to show visitors though
applied science exhibits how basic science connected with their daily lives and
how the marriage of science, technology, and industry would lead to recovery
and prosperity. The scientific theme represented a major shift in American
society towards technology based consumer culture focused on increasing public
appreciation of the sciences’ importance to modern life (Schrenk 2007, 20). Modern
products were thus marketed as the saviors of society and generated a perceived
need for mass produced products (Schrenk 2007, 27). A perfect example of this
ideology of consumption which allows the consumer to access the “better life”
is the General Electric’s kitchen modern model which was called “Freedom”
(Rydell 1993, 124). By participating in consumption of the new and modern one
could finally experience true “freedom” and efficiency.
The Century of Progress exhibits were designed with the specific mandate to focus on the process, not the
product, of science and industry as a way to engage and enlighten the viewer (Rydell
1993, 99). John Sewell the director of exhibits reiterated the importance of
process; “If the process is brought out with dramatic showmanship the public
will remember the name of the company” (Findling 1994, 100). Dramatic
showmanship was played out through mechanical motion and lights to attract
fairgoers and maintain their attention. Key examples of participatory
showmanship were found in the most popular exhibits such as General Motor’s full
operating Chevrolet assembly line, the Firestone pavilion’s working tire
factory with a singing colour fountain, and the Chrysler exhibit’s quarter mile
testing track for visitors to ride with famous movie stunt men or race car
drivers (Findling 1994, 103).
In addition to the educational and scientific exhibits, the fair also had a midway for the fairgoers to
“escape” to. Novelty sites included the infamous Streets of Paris where one
could watch a fan dance of nude dancer Sally Rand, the Skyride, and the
enchanted island for children (Findling 1994, 125). The organizers recognized
the need to appeal to the masses in order to be successful and thus made large
profits by offering “sleazy midway acts” for those who needed a break from the
intellectual and educational science exhibits (Findling 1994, 118).
The architecture of the fair followed the same theme of drama and spectacle as the exhibitions. The large modern
colourful exhibition halls, futuristic model homes, and progressive foreign
buildings made the Century of Progress a distinctive contrast to the
neo-classical character of previous American world fairs (Schrenk 2007, 5). The
architectural committee consisted of local and well-known architects and
conveyed a distinctively modern sensibility through its bare unornamented
stripped classicism Art Deco forms and modern streamlining (Findling 1994, 71).
Almost all the buildings had innovative materials and construction techniques
including Bakelite, glass bricks, and Formica (Findling 1994, 71). The new
building materials, and tight economic times, led to the important use of
colour and lighting as ornamentation. The façade of the buildings became a
major focus; architecture worked as a skin as it encased and represented the
modernity, progress, and innovation of interior exhibit spaces and the dramatic
lighting and colour. The representational nature of the architecture to connote
modernity and progress was reiterated in the millions of promotional postcards
created for the fair sent out across the country and taken as souvenirs
(Schrenk 2007, 226).
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