What does the first Ferris Wheel, 3 Reindeer, and Buffalo Bill have in common?
125 years ago this June 21, the World’s Fair in Chicago debuted the first Ferris Wheel. Among the 46 countries participating in the Fair three reindeer pulled sleds on wheels in the Lapland Village. Just outside the entrance Buffalo Bill set up his Wild West show.
How can I describe to you the wonder of that summer? 27 million visitors came from around the world to experience the sights and sounds of the Fair! An entire city had sprung out of the swampland on the banks of Lake Michigan in just two-years time. The beautifully designed building, canals, gardens, and lagoons would have reminded you of Rome’s golden age.
The First Ferris Wheel
High above it all you could ride in a tethered hot air balloon or Ferris’s giant electric powered wheel. The original Ferris Wheel wasn’t like the ones you would think of today with two seats per car. The cars on this Ferris Wheel were the size of small houses fitting 30 people if they were seated up to 60 standing. In a single ride the Ferris Wheel could carry 2,000 visitors. At 50 cents per ride the Ferris Wheel saved the Fair from bankruptcy, garnering around $750,000 that summer.
This feat of engineering was the invention of bridge-builder George Ferris. His vision was to build a landmark of the World Fair that would top the Eiffel Tower that had been dedicated in Paris at the 1889 World Fair. After the 1893 Exposition, the Ferris Wheel was used once more at the St. Louis World Fair before it was disassembled for scrap metal.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show
Buffalo Bill had wanted to be a part of the Columbian Exposition, however the National Committee approving exhibits at the Fair considered him, ‘to low-brow.’ It turned out to be a terrible mistake that the directors would not include the Wild West show in the Fair. Charging 50 cents for admission to the show, he made $1 million that summer! He advertised the show as a ‘Word-beater’! In the end, the Fair authorities allowed the Wild West show to parade through the Exposition grounds once a week. Opening four days before the World’s Fair and closing the day after, the show performed twice daily without a single cancellation for inclement weather. Over the course of that summer they performed 378 times to a ‘paying house’!
While the Fair practically screamed progress and lauded human ingenuity, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West reminded visitors of what they were leaving behind. They may be rising into the skies on giant Ferris Wheels and the baskets of hot air balloons but they would never again be able to ride across the endless expanses of prairie unhindered by fences and frontier towns. The frontier had closed three years before.
The Wild West show may not have shown the great industrial progress of the age but it showed by Buffalo Bill’s own principles the greatest social progress of his time period. He employed hundreds of performers representing peoples from Cowboys and Plains Indians as well as his Congress of Rough Riders from Russia, Germany, England, France, and Arabia! He paid every performer equally whether a male or a female and whether or not they were white or any other race! That summer the list of acts also included members if the American Calvary. For a man who had earned his name as a buffalo hunter and Indian fighter, Buffalo Bill became their greatest advocate.
The Exposition banned the Wild West show as an official part of the fair, except for a weekly parade through the midway. However, Buffalo Bill did set up a Plains Indian exhibit in the Nebraska State building featuring a tipi, stuffed buffaloes, Indian beadwork, bows, arrows, and canoes. The Sioux performers traveling with him also explored the fair in their free time riding the elevators and curiously looking at everything they could along with all the other visitors.
The Columbian Exposition
The Exhibition was truly overwhelming! In every corner, nook, and cranny the word’s greatest examples of technology, art, and cultural progress were represented. Visitors would walk away with a great understanding of just how far Western Civilization had come, with great hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future. A great sense of national pride pulsed from every exhibit showing off what every country had accomplished.
My favorite is the California building. California’s sculptures were made of fresh fruit! Every day they would give away the old fruit for free when fresh fruit arrived on the train from California! Montana sent a solid silver statue for their building and Philadelphia brought the real Liberty Bell for theirs!
The inventions and wonders of this fair were undeniably influential. Leaving the fair, one could not help but be proud of the accomplishments of their own country. They would also wonder, ‘if the world can accomplish this much together now, then what will we accomplish in the next century?’
We now live in an age where World’s Fairs are no longer culturally, politically, nor technologically significant. Wherever we are in the world the knowledge and cultural understanding expressed in these Fairs can be accessed through the internet. It would be wise then for us to remember the lessons of the Chicago Columbian Exposition and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Look! How much can we accomplish together? Remember! What does progress cause us to sacrifice? Is it worth the cost?
Happy 125th Birthday to the Chicago Columbian Exposition!
*facts and statistics regarding the Wild West show at the Fair were provided by
*Chicago Columbian Exposition facts and statistics provided by the documentary