The 1933 Chicago World's Fair: A Century of Progress

The 1933 Chicago World's Fair: A Century of Progress

by Cheryl R. Ganz
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University of Illinois Press


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The 1933 Chicago World's Fair: A Century of Progress

Chicago's 1933 world's fair set a new direction for international expositions. Earlier fairs had exhibited technological advances, but Chicago's fair organizers used the very idea of progress to buoy national optimism during the Depression's darkest years. Orchestrated by business leaders and engineers, almost all former military men, the fair reflected a business-military-engineering model that envisioned a promising future through science and technology's application to everyday life.

But not everyone at Chicago's 1933 exposition had abandoned notions of progress that entailed social justice and equality, recognition of ethnicity and gender, and personal freedom and expression. The fair's motto, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms," was challenged by iconoclasts such as Sally Rand, whose provocative fan dance became a persistent symbol of the fair, as well as a handful of other exceptional individuals, including African Americans, ethnic populations and foreign nationals, groups of working women, and even well-heeled socialites. Cheryl R. Ganz offers the stories of fair planners and participants who showcased education, industry, and entertainment to sell optimism during the depths of the Great Depression. This engaging history also features eighty-six photographs—nearly half of which are full color—of key locations, exhibits, and people, as well as authentic ticket stubs, postcards, pamphlets, posters, and other it

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252033575
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/12/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Cheryl R. Ganz is the chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C. She was the curator and designer of the "Pots of Promise" exhibition for the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and is the coeditor of Pots of Promise: Mexicans and Pottery at Hull-House, 1920-40.

Read an Excerpt

The 1933 Chicago World's Fair

A century of progress

By Cheryl R. Ganz


Copyright © 2008 Cheryl R. Ganz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03357-5


Sally Rand and the Midway

The idea of someone dancing with ostrich feathers appealed to me.... My mother ... hurried me past the packed pavilion, but I managed to see one of the pictures out front, and there Sally had turned around, fan dropped, and was showing her big peach-colored bottom. I felt I had seen something of importance.... It was part of the century of progress and I was happy to be part of it too, to have seen the future in Sally's bare bottom.

—Donald Richie

Years after glimpsing the poster showing Sally Rand's bottom, Donald Richie remembered the exhilaration he felt as a nine-year-old when he and his mother escaped their cheerless daily life in Lima, Ohio, by visiting A Century of Progress. His aunt had given them the money for the train ride to Chicago. Despite the passage of years, recollections of the fair's magic never slipped away ... the Sky Ride, the Hall of Transportation, exhibits of Kraft cheese and flashy new cars and Pabst's Blue Ribbon Beer. Relaxing in a Midway café, he recalled, his mother hummed "The Isle of Capri" while "looking so different from the way she looked around the house." From the Sky Ride view of downtown Chicago, Richie rhapsodized, he beheld the "whole progressive century laid under [him] like a map."

Millions of fairgoers returned to communities across the nation and shared similar feelings of buoyancy and hope for the future with their neighbors. Almost all remembered the scandalous fan dancer Sally Rand. In Rand they saw both "the most beautiful woman in the world," as Cecil B. DeMille referred to her, and a woman determined to succeed despite obstacles presented by the Great Depression and the nation's court system. They wanted to reclaim that determination for themselves.

John S. Van Gilder, a businessman from Knoxville, Tennessee, found in the fair both commercial inspiration and his opportunity to behold the glorious Sally Rand. Daily headlines announced increasingly grim economic news, and as vice president of McClung wholesale hardware, Van Gilder needed inspiration. When a photo of Rand, the rags-to-riches showgirl, performing her fantastic new bubble dance caught his eye, he made up his mind. He would go to the international exposition to see Rand perform, and touring the fair's exhibits would give him a sales advantage. Further, he would try to get one of Rand's four-foot balloons as a souvenir. His excitement soared. The thought of the fair and Rand's bubble made him feel light, optimistic. Like Donald Richie and his mother, Van Gilder sought an escape from the daily doldrums of the Depression era.

Van Gilder made the trip. He enthusiastically reported back to his traveling salesmen that the exposition was an education in tomorrow's uses of electricity, paint, construction, merchandise, and entertainment. "Any merchant visiting the Fair cannot help but come back home a BETTER MERCHANT!!" While there, he visited hardware exhibits and had a private tour of the lagoon fountain's waterworks. He even enjoyed the honor of pushing the button to start its colored light show. But nothing he saw or did those three days compared to the few magical moments of watching Sally Rand perform her bubble dance on an outdoor stage.

With the dramatic opening of Rand's dance, all Van Gilder's thoughts of the outside world evaporated. Strains of soft music, semidarkness, and the parting draperies set the stage for a blue spotlight that pinpointed Rand and her iridescent balloon. Her nude body, covered in white greasepaint, appeared statuesque. Van Gilder recalled Rand's entrancing performance: "With all the grace of a woodland nymph, she toyed and danced around and played with and tossed into the air her transparent soap bubble. Somehow, one felt as though secretly watching some little woodland creature at play in the moonlight."

Van Gilder arranged a backstage meeting with Rand to request that special souvenir, one of her luminescent bubbles. A gracious Rand, wrapped in a silk kimono, shook Van Gilder's hand. Hearing his request, she apologized that because of the high cost to produce the special balloons, she could not part with one. Instead she gave her admirer an autographed photograph of herself posing with the bubble, another for his Rotary Club, and sealed the moment with a kiss. The next day Van Gilder sent her roses with a note expressing how she made life in the world more delightful.

For John S. Van Gilder and many, many others who attended A Century of Progress, Rand's rise from poverty embodied optimism and faith in progress. Clearly, she captured the spirit and significance of the 1933–34 Chicago world's fair. At the same time, her ingenuity, daring, and independence spoke provocatively to changing notions of women and sexuality, something only time and perspective would reveal.

The Sensational Sally Rand

Harriet Helen Beck wanted to make it big in show business. It was in her blood. She had run away from her mountain home in Elkton, Missouri, at age fourteen, determined to join a carnival. She had been around the country some since then—Kansas City, New York, Chicago, Hollywood. One could even say she had enjoyed a bit of success, performing in the circus, vaudeville, nightclubs, and even bits in silent movies. But she hadn't really made her mark. And in 1933 times were tough. Family radio programs had cut into vaudeville's audiences, and theaters countrywide had reduced the number of contracts they made with traveling troupes. Good-paying jobs for a showgirl were few.

Her life having recently scraped some low points, the ambitious Beck hungrily sought contacts and a venue. An astute self-promoter, she knew she must market herself, and she needed a new twist, something sensational. She found the twist that spring in her risqué and thoroughly captivating fan dance. Believing she had something salable, she needed only an audience. "I realized from the outset," she recalled in 1935, "that 90 percent of the merchandise that is sold in this country is sold to women. In my case, that presented obvious difficulties." No ingénue in the business world, she understood the maxim "the quickest way to get ahead in any industry is to present the product to the largest possible number of persons." Chicago's glorious world's fair offered the perfect stage. Her fortunes were about to change. Twenty-nine-year-old Harriet Helen Beck—a.k.a. Sally Rand—would take Chicago by storm.

Finding an "in" proved difficult. She approached contacts such as Charlie Weber, a county commissioner who operated a beer concession at the fair's "Streets of Paris," but she ran into dead ends. "I've used up every friend and connection I've got in Chicago," she complained to her employer, Ed Callahan, "but they [world's fair commissioners] refuse to see me." Callahan had hired Rand at the city's Paramount Club. Hardened by uncertainty and disappointment, both valued creative thinking and tenacity. Together they schemed.

Accounts differ as to exactly how Sally Rand landed her notorious and extremely lucrative position at the fair's Streets of Paris concession. One thing is consistent in each account, however: an uninvited and scantily robed Rand crashed the exposition's posh preopening party riding a white horse. It's not clear who put Rand up to the stunt. After all, Rand herself was known to embellish her stories. Filtering the known details, however, it appears that the saga of the flamboyant performer's grand entrance began with Callahan and Rand plotting the strategic entrée in a dark tent outside the fairgrounds on the evening of May 27, 1933. Inside the Streets of Paris concession, Chicago's elite enjoyed the fair's glitzy Parisian-themed opening extravaganza.

It was quite a show. Everyone who mattered was there, laughing and dancing and enjoying lovely food at the Café de la Paix. They had all been invited to celebrate A Century of Progress, and many of the three thousand or so guests undoubtedly patted themselves on the back. Huge reserves of energy, enthusiasm, dedication, and money had gone into putting it all together. But the wonderful colored lights that lit the Midway—the fair would be dubbed the Rainbow City—blurred reality's harsh contours and softened the starkness that cloaked Sally Rand and most other Americans every day of the week. Even the city of Chicago was bankrupt, but no one would have guessed it, as the cream of Chicago glided through the party in formal evening clothes or in clever costumes that sometimes aped their social inferiors—cavemen, Native Americans, peasants, and French maids. Costumed fair workers drifted among them, portraying artists' models, soldiers, top-hatted gentlemen, and flower venders.

Meanwhile, in the tent outside, Rand prepared her costume and makeup—a long white velvet cape, a flowing blond wig, and a floral ankle band. Satisfied, she approached the exposition's entrance gate, but stunned guards refused her admission without an invitation. Dejected, she returned to Callahan at the tent. A clever man, he suggested using the fair's back entrance, accessible only from the lake. Not unfamiliar with wealthy bootleggers and their lavish cruisers, Callahan returned shortly with a borrowed yacht. The two conspirators loaded their rented and very skittish white horse, saddled in white leather. Rand then mounted and sat side-saddle. She adjusted the wrap that concealed her naked body as Callahan maneuvered to shore. Rand prepared to stage her entrance.

Beyond the gala's soft, warm ring of light, a virtually nude Lady Godiva disembarked unnoticed. She entered the gate and rode boldly through the Streets of Paris and onto the main stage. Astounded, Chicago's merrymaking high society simply gaped, and then, seeing her as a novel addition to the planned entertainment, they burst into applause. The police arrested Rand for obscenity, but the horse remained to be photographed with the enthusiastic spectators. An exposition attorney facilitated her release, the press reported her prank, and the Streets of Paris hired her the next day as their headline attraction in the Café de la Paix's floor show. In 1934 the vaudeville comedian Will Rogers wittily credited Rand with the fair's success, something no one at the extravagant opening affair could have imagined.

Years later Rand gave an interview that evoked Lady Godiva and that night in May 1933. The ride, she recalled, did indeed secure for her a lucrative niche in the fair's activities. More than that, it made a social statement. She had felt a sense of satisfaction at having exposed herself to the elite women who were wearing expensive gowns. Rand claimed that riding naked was like saying, "How dare you have a dress of thousand-dollar bills when people are hungry?" Wearing those dresses, she alleged, "was such bad taste."

And so it was a question of taste. Chicago's "high and mighty," as Rand referred to them, might have said the same about the naked Godiva. The reality was, though, that Sally Rand's outrageous behavior made a statement about Depression-era Chicago and A Century of Progress. In fact, Rand became the fair's enduring icon for optimism and hope, a true Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches figure. Though risqué displays of female flesh were nothing new—mesmerized spectators had ogled hoochie-coochie girls at burlesque shows and speakeasies for decades—Sally Rand blazed new trails at the 1933 world's fair. It was a fortuitous convergence of disparate circumstances.

Simply put, the fair had to pay for itself, and admission fees could not cover the entire bill. The Midway, though, brought in the cash. Organizers looked to attractions such as the Sky Ride and the food and beer concessions to generate income for the fair. In the beginning they also saw the sensational Sally Rand and her many imitators as other potentially lucrative draws. But the showgirls' public nudity conflicted with the fair's image as educational and crime-free. What about morality, decency, and good taste?

Fair organizers simply looked the other way, at least in the beginning. As they planned and designed the fair, their vision controlled business leaders and exhibit designers, but in their need for revenue, they shunned attempts to control popular culture. That they maintained this laissez-faire approach to the Midway opened the door to a level of sexual exploitation and the spectacle of sexual display for which Sally Rand emerged as the representative.

Amusements on the Midway

For those seeking an escape from the Depression's doldrums, the Midway was pure magic. Concessions included entertainment other than fan dancers and peep shows. Strolling the streets of the Midway, patrons could visit the American Indian Village and the children's Enchanted Island, see how movies were made, ride a roller coaster, experience Battle of Gettysburg panorama paintings displayed in a rotunda cyclorama, watch men wrestle with alligators, and strain to see trained insects in the flea circus. They could gape at barkers spouting obscene language and making lewd gestures while spectators grumbled at show cashiers who had shortchanged them. And then there was the Living Wonders freak show, which displayed physically challenged humans with names and titles to exaggerate their differences. Extremely obese men and women, heavily tattooed men, "Siamese" twins, persons with skin diseases and missing appendages sang, danced, and performed everyday functions in ways that awed spectators. Ripley's Odditorium, wrote a friend of Agnes Nestor, a fair trustee, "certainly was odd!" The friend then noted curiosities that amazed her most—a man who pulled a girl in a cart with his eyelashes and a woman who could swallow her nose.

The Infant Incubator displayed scientific advancements in an atmosphere of medical professionalism, attracting large crowds. Spectators stood in awe as nurses and doctors busied themselves with as many as twenty-five premature babies, including twins and triplets. Regional hospitals sent the babies to the incubator immediately after birth. Each tiny infant's mother delivered her breast milk to the site, where nurses kept it in a modern electric refrigerator until fed to the baby through a catheter. When a baby had attained sufficient weight and health, it "graduated" and left the incubator with its joyful parents.

Fairgoers thronged to the Midway's Midget Village, which boasted the largest midget population ever gathered in one place. The entire village's construction and accoutrements were proportionate to the size of the residents, who operated the businesses and provided musical and theatrical entertainment. Visitors could watch the mayor at work in city hall, shop in the grocery store, or have their hair cut at the only midget barbershop in America. The midgets occasionally married, and visitors could enjoy the ceremony and festivities. Visitors could also dispatch or receive a telegraph, with midget messengers serving as couriers. They cut quite a figure in their tiny regulation uniforms, supplied by Western Union Telegraph.

As with any carnival, souvenir shops attracted Midway visitors whether they had money to spend or not. Though many tourists bought souvenirs to carry home as reminders of their grand diversion, most souvenir venders lost money. That fairgoers had so little to spend accounted for some of the problem. One salesman commented, "We estimated when we went that we would sell three times more than we did." The cost-to-sale price ratio was also a big factor. Since people had so little to spend, venders sold items at giveaway prices and often realized no profit at all. Then there were the clerks' wages, which amounted to a 10 percent commission. The fair too took a cut—5 percent for miscellaneous charges and an additional 10 percent sales commission. To top all this, theft dragged the final tally into the red. All this underscores the fact that alcohol and exotic sexual displays loomed large for managers trying to cover the fair's expenses.

Little Egypt, the sensational belly dancer who in 1893 had helped inspire the transformation of public culture, recreated her famous Streets of Cairo show at A Century of Progress's Oriental Village. By then she was sixty-two. A native of Damascus who lived in Chicago, she told a reporter later that her belly dances had never revealed her midriff, and she was shocked by the nudity she saw on the Midway in 1933. Her comment that she would never face the public as did "the nonchalant young things of 1933" makes a statement about the change in sexual mores that had occurred since Chicago's first world's fair.


Excerpted from The 1933 Chicago World's Fair by Cheryl R. Ganz. Copyright © 2008 Cheryl R. Ganz. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction, i,
1. Sally Rand and the Midway, 7,
2. Chicago Boosters Set the Stage, 28,
3. A New Vision for a World's Fair, 52,
4. The Vision on Display, 67,
5. Women's Spaces at the Fair, 85,
6. African Americans and the Du Sable Legacy, 108,
7. Ethnic Identity and Nationalistic Representations of Progress, 123,
8. Aviation, Nationalism, and Progress, 137,
Epilogue, 151,
Notes, 159,
Index, 199,

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