World’s Fairs of the Midwest

Since 1851, world’s fairs have offered countries the chance to exhibit their accomplishments and advancements to an international audience. In their heyday, these expositions drew millions of people from across the globe, offering visitors opportunities to encounter other cultures, marvel at technological innovations, and experience the wonders of human progress firsthand. Illinois and its neighboring state of Missouri were home to three significant world’s fairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

The items in this exhibit depict the opulence of these expositions and offer a glimpse of what one would have experienced while visiting—from the impressive architecture and industrial achievements, to carnival-like attractions and souvenirs.

Print of a watercolor painting from the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.
Case 2: Thure de Thulstrup, Watercolor painting of Midway Plaisance, circa 1893. Item 11. World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Watercolors, 1892-1893. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, uncatalogued.

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Many publications were produced for each world’s fair to attract tourists, prepare them for their visit, and acquaint them with the fair’s offerings. These books included maps of the city and fairgrounds, images and descriptions of attractions, transportation information, lodging recommendations, and more. They were often created to be small and portable so visitors could bring them along on their travels.

Case 1: Guidebook for the Century of Progress Exposition, 1933.Case 1: Guide to “Cairo Street” at the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.Case 1: The American-Hispano Pocket Guide of the World’s Fair 1893
Case 1: Official Book of the Fair: An Introduction to a Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago June 1—November 1, 1933. Chicago: A Century of Progress, 1933. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, call number 606.1 C43tab 1933.
Case 1: Guide to “Cairo Street” at the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Street in Cairo. Chicago: Egypt-Chicago Exposition Co., 1893. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, call number 606.1 C43Pst.
Case 1: Guidebook for the World’s Columbian Exposition written in English and Spanish, 1893. The American-Hispano Pocket Guide of the World’s Fair 1893. Guia de Bolsillo Hispano-Americana para la Esposicion Colombina. New York: Haurie-Emes, 1893. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, call number 606.1 C43Pam.

These books also served audiences who may not have been able to attend the fairs in person, allowing people to experience the wonders, attractions, and innovations from afar through illustrations and photographs.

Miniature guide to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, housed in a walnut shell, 1904.
Case 1: Miniature guide to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, housed in a walnut shell, 1904.
St. Louis Exposition in a Nutshell. L. I. Silverman, 1904. In the Blair, Leverett, and Stifler Family Papers, 1805-2006 (MS 973). Illinois History and Lincoln Collections.

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Attending a world’s fair was an exciting experience, and visitors had ample opportunities to memorialize it with souvenirs and keepsakes.

Vendors throughout the fairgrounds sold mass-produced items in many forms and at a wide range of price points, from photo albums and postcards, to glass pitchers and jewelry.

Case 2: Postcard from the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893Case 2: Postcard from the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893
Case 2: Postcard from the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Postcards, 1893. Folder 3, George Washington Lienesch Collection of Political Ephemera and Other Materials, circa 1880-1893 (MS 073). Illinois History and Lincoln Collections.
Case 2: Postcard from the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Postcards, 1893. Folder 3, George Washington Lienesch Collection of Political Ephemera and Other Materials, circa 1880-1893 (MS 073). Illinois History and Lincoln Collections.

These items frequently bore the fair logo or depicted buildings at the exposition, and visitors purchased these mementos out of nostalgia and as proof of their visit.

Shakespeare Boiled Down. Chicago: New Home Sewing Machine Co., 1893. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, call number 822.33 GSh1523Souvenir photo book from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904.
Souvenir book of the World’s Columbian Exposition summarizing of Shakespeare’s plays, 1893. Front and back cover displayed separately. Shakespeare Boiled Down. Chicago: New Home Sewing Machine Co., 1893. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, call number 822.33 GSh1523.
Case 2: Souvenir photo book from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904. Sights, Scenes, and Wonders at the World’s Fair. St. Louis: Official Photographic Company, 1904. Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, call number 606.1 Sa2as cop. 3.