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U.S. Census Bureau History: 1893 Chicago World's Fair

World's Fair Bronze Medal

The U.S. Census Bureau exhibit at the 1893 World's Fair included a demonstration
of census clerks tabulating 1890 Census data using Hollertih Tabulators. The
display earned Hollerith a bronze medal (similar to the one above), designed by
scultptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and U.S. Mint engraver Charles E. Barber.

Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On May 1, 1893, more than 100,000 people celebrated the opening of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair in the city's Jackson Park. Formally known as the "World's Fair: Columbian Exposition," the 6-month celebration honored the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the "New World." Most visitors remembered the fair not because it honored Columbus, but because it showcased the bustling city of Chicago, IL, which recently became the nation's second-largest city. Although the exposition's "Beaux Arts" architecture was reminiscent of 17th and 18th century France, the displays within these structures exhibited the frenetic pace of American industrial and economic growth. The fantastic sights left most visitors awestruck by the promising future that lay ahead for the United States.

St. Louis, MO; New York City, NY; Chicago, IL; and Washington, DC, all vied for the opportunity to host the 1893 World's Fair. On April 25, 1890, Congress awarded the fair to Chicago thanks to a last minute funding campaign that saw Chicago's elite industrialists raise millions of dollars more than the New York bid backed by that city's wealthy financiers.

Construction of the fairgrounds and buildings began soon after Congress awarded the fair to Chicago. Within a year, 40,000 people were working at the site that comprised more than 600 of the meticulously manicured acres of Jackson Park, which had been designed by landscaped architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. Workers built 14 main buildings (enclosing 63 million square feet), food and drink concessions, numerous smaller buildings, and an 80 acre "Midway Plaisance" containing carnival-style rides and attractions. The construction consumed more than 75 million board feet of lumber, 18,000 tons of iron and steel, 120,000 incandescent lights, and 30,000 tons of staff—a type of white plaster facade that encased many of the buildings and earned the fair its "White City" nickname.

Three years and more than $28 million later, 100,000 people attended the fair's May 1, 1893, opening ceremony. Among the attendees was President Grover Cleveland, who started the generators that powered the fair's lights, exhibits, and rides. Between May 1 and October 30, 1893, more than 27 million people attended the fair. Visitors could view state-sponsored exhibits and cultural displays from 46 participating nations. The fair's 14 "great buildings" housed artwork, cultural displays, and the latest technology and inventions in fields that included agriculture, mining, manufactures, transportation, and machinery.

A smaller building—the U.S. Governments Building—contained exhibits sponsored by the cabinet agencies, displays of currency, carrier pigeons, a massive California redwood tree, and two floor-to-ceiling tanks of fresh and salt water fish. Among these displays was the U.S. Department of Interior's Census Office exhibit. During fair hours, census clerks tabulated data from the 1890 Census using Herman Hollerith's electric tabulating equipment. The speed with which the clerks punched and tabulated cards containing data mesmerized the crowds and earned Hollerith a bronze medal for his invention.

The fair ended on a somber note 6 months later, when disgruntled office seeker Patrick Prendergast shot and killed popular Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison in the foyer of his home on October 28, 1893. (Prendergast was executed for the murder on July 13, 1894.) Instead of elaborate closing ceremonies, the fair held a public memorial service for the city's beloved mayor. The fair gates closed on October 30, 1893, with an artillery salute and the lowering of flags. A military band played quietly as the last visitors exited the fairgrounds.

A series of fires destroyed most of the fair buildings in 1894. A few remain today, including the Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry) in Jackson Park and the World's Congress Building (current home of the Art Institute of Chicago) in Grant Park. Despite the loss of these buildings and exhibits, you can still use census data and records to learn about the people and technology that made the 1893 Chicago World's Fair so remarkable. For example:

  • The 1840 Census was the first to include Chicago, IL. In that year, Chicago's population was 4,470. The city's population grew to 29,963 in 1850; 112,172 in 1860; 298,977 in 1870; and 503,185 in 1880. Chicago was the United States' second-largest city at the time of the 1893 fair, with a population of 1,099,850. The city was the nation's second-largest until Los Angeles, CA, surpassed it in 1990. As of July 1, 2016, Chicago's population of 2,704,958 was still third in the nation behind New York City, NY (8,537,673), and Los Angeles, CA (3,976,322).
  • One of the most popular attractions at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was the Ferris Wheel Link to a non-federal Web site designed by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Between 1893 and its demolition following the 1904 St. Louis, MO, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, more than 2.5 million people rode the original Ferris Wheel. Ferris reaped little reward from the ride's popularity. He was bankrupt when he died of Typhoid Fever in 1896.
  • According to an 1893 article in The Cosmopolitan Link to a non-federal Web site, the U.S. Census Bureau demonstrated the recently introduced Hollerith Tabulator in the United States Government Building at the 1893 World's Fair. "Crowds surround the tables during all exposition hours, watching the deft fingers of the lady experts detailed from Washington to operate them."
  • One of America's first serial killers, H.H. Holmes (Herman Mudgett) may have chosen some of his victims from those visitors to the 1893 World's Fair who stayed at his Chicago, IL, hotel. The total number of victims is uncertain—some researchers suggest 100 or more. Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but law enforcement officials linked him to 9. The stories of Holmes and the 1893 fair are told in Erik Larson's bestselling book Devil in the White City Link to a non-federal Web site.
  • Eight years after the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley at the world's fair in Buffalo, NY, known as the Pan-American Exposition. At the time of the 1901 fair, Buffalo was the nation's eighth-largest city with a population of 352,387. The city's population peaked in 1950 at 580,132. In 2010, 231,310 Buffalonians called the city home.
  • New York City, NY, hosted the first world's fair in the United States in 1853. Since then, several American cities have successfully bid to host fairs, including the 1876 fair held in Philadelphia, PA, honoring the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; the 1904 Louisiana Purchase-themed fair in St. Louis, MO; the 1933–1934 Century of Progress fair in Chicago, IL; New York's "World of Tomorrow" fair in 1939–1940; the 1962 "Man in the Space Age" fair in Seattle, WA's; and the 1974 environmental awareness Expo '74 in Spokane, WA's.
  • In 1922, the Census Bureau opened a permanent regional office in Chicago, IL, (along with offices in New York and Los Angeles) to assist with the 1930 Census. Today, the Chicago Regional Office assists with the agency's censuses and surveys, data dissemination, and geographic operations in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin—representing a population of approximately 53.1 million.
  • Chicago, IL, hosted the "Century of Progress" World's Fair from May 27, 1933, to October 31, 1934. The U.S. Department of Commerce's exhibit included radio equipment used for weather broadcasting, beacons from the Bureau of Lighthouses, aviation and mining equipment, a map depicting the value of manufactured goods, and a census display illustrating population change resulting from births, deaths, immigration, and emigration. Nearly 48.5 million people visited the fair—approximately 40 percent of the entire U.S. population of 123,202,624 in 1930.
  • Chicago likely earned its moniker "Windy City" in the late 1870s during its rivalry with Cincinnati, OH, and other midwestern cities. The "Windy City" nickname was a reference to Chicago's residents and politicians bragging about the city's greatness. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New Hampshire's Mount Washington is actually the windiest place on earth. On April 12, 1934, the highest wind velocity ever recorded on earth occurred at the Mount Washington Observatory Link to a non-federal Web site—a staggering 231mph!
  • .

1893 Chicago World's Fair

The 1893 World's Fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the "New World" in 1892. Situated in Chicago, IL's Jackson
Park—a 1,055 acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux—the fair included exhibits, demonstrations, and performances highlighting
the culture, technology, and artwork of attending nations.

The fair drew more than 27 million visitors between May 1 and October 30, 1893—equivalent to more than 40 percent of the entire U.S. population at
the time of the 1890 Census!

Photo courtesy of the Kalamazoo, MI, Public Library.



Palace of Fine Arts


Palace of Fine Arts
View larger image






A series of fires between 1893 and 1894 destroyed most buildings built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

The Palace of Fine Arts is the only surviving large fair building that remains in Jackson Park—the 1,055 acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The park was built after the U.S. Congress selected Chicago, IL, as the fair's host city. Charles B. Atwood designed the building for D.H. Burnham & Co.

Unlike the temporary wood, plaster, and jute fiber used to construct the other fair buildings, Atwood designed the Palace of Fine Arts to incorporate a more "fireproof" brick and steel substructure to protect the artwork exhibited inside.

Thanks to an endowment by Sears, Roebuck and Company president Julius Rosenwald, the Fine Arts Building is home to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

This public domain photograph is available courtesy of Project Gutenberg.







Census Office: 1893


Robert Percival Porter and Carroll D. Wright directed the Census Office in 1893.

President Benjamin Harrison appointed Porter to lead the agency in 1889. He oversaw the expansion of data tabulation and publication made possible by Herman Hollerith's mechanical tabulators. Porter dispatched census clerks and tabulators to the 1893 World's Fair as part of the agency's exhibit in the United States Government Building.

Carroll D. Wright led the Census Bureau after Porter resigned in July 1893. He held the position concurrently with his job as commissioner of labor. Wright coauthored History and Growth of the United States Census: 1790–1890—the first comprehensive history of U.S. census and survey taking.



This Month in Census History


1926 World's Fair
View larger image


On May 31, 1926, the world's fair known as the "Sesquicentennial Exposition" opened in Philadelphia, PA, and celebrated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Census Bureau's exhibit featured census artifacts, a population clock, and illustrated maps and tables containing census data and vital statistics. The exhibit was so popular with the fair's 10 million visitors that it earned the Census Bureau a gold medal and helped the U.S. Department of Commerce win the fair's grand prize.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.



















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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 17, 2019