Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition was a World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893 that commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The Fair was located on 630 acres, encompassing Chicago’s Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance. Over its six month run, the Fair drew approximately 26 million visitors, played host to exhibitions and participants from 46 nations, and featured attractions that included the White City, the Fair’s elaborately designed neo-classical exhibition buildings, a full-size replica of a Viking long ship, the world’s first Ferris Wheel to be opened to the public, and a myriad of other wonders of 19th century technology, art, and agriculture. For promoters, the overall goal of the Fair was to present America as an empire at the apex of its power to the rest of the world. As Karen P. Zimmerman states in “Promoting the Prairie Cornucopia: South Dakota at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition,” “…they (the Fair’s promoters) hoped to demonstrate the great industrial power of the United States and symbolize the passing of leadership from the Old World to the New.”
It was during a lecture at the Fair that Fredrick Jackson Turner announced that the United States’ Western frontier had been tamed. This notion held particular relevance for the young state of South Dakota, which had just achieved statehood four years prior to the opening of the Fair. As if constructed with Turner’s announcement in mind, South Dakota’s exhibitions at the Fair ephasized the prosperity and the signs of “highly civilized society” that could be found in state. South Dakota’s promoters hoped that the evidence of the efficiency of the state’s educational system, the quality of work produced by its mining industry, and the numerosity of the crops yielded by it’s farmers on display at the Fair would prove South Dakota equal to its fellow states in the East.
Furthermore, for South Dakota, exhibiting at the Fair was more than just a matter of pride, it was a necessity. In the 1890’s, South Dakota was in dire straights; it had lost most of its crops to drought during its first year of statehood, which caused the state’s economy to crash and forced many South Dakotans to leave the state or accept outside aid. Zimmerman notes that promoters “saw the Chicago fair as an opportunity to counter the image of South Dakota as a poor place to live. These optimists believed the adversity was a stort-term problem and that good advertising could offset the effects of the drought and boost the numbers of people will to move to the state.”
South Dakota’s poor economic state also made it difficult for the state to raise money for the Fair exhibitions. When Governor Arthur Mellette first appealed to State Legislature for an appropriation of funds to be put towards South Dakota’s exhibitions at the World’s Fair, he was denied. Luckily, several citizen groups took up the cause of fund raising, forming the World’s Fair Commission and the Women’s Commission. It was not until two months before the opening of the World’s Fair that the State Legislature made any move to financially support South Dakota at the Fair. On February 16, 1893, the legislature provided 60,000 dollars to aid in the cause. Combining these funds with private donations, the World’s Fair Commission and the Women’s Commission, were able to build a State Building, and organize argricultual, industrial, educational, and craft exhibits. See below for images and additional information about South Dakota and World’s Columbian Exposition.
–Information gathered from: Zimmerman, Karen. “Promoting the Prarie Cornucopia: South Dakota at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.” South Dakota History, Vol. 23, No. 4., and Report of the South Dakota World’s Fair Commision, Chilson Collection. Photographs: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chilson Collection; Views of the World’s Fair, Chilson Collection