A while back I had a conversation with a professor about the nintenth-century world’s fairs, she asked me if I liked going to fairs now. I don’t! But why?
Perhaps it is my inability to go to the World’s Fairs that allow me to idealize them so, but there is something to be said about the purposefulness of curation and construction at the turn-of-the-twentith-century fairs. Robert Rydell, James Gilbert and the like will agree, these fairs were put together with purpose.
Thought was put into the construction of these small “perfect cities.” Planners attempted to show the very best that modernity could produce. They brought together showcases of technological feats, exciting scientific, zoological, and medical discoveries with the growing consumer and market cultures (Aunt Jemima, Waffle Cones, and other things i like to eat…). Despite the notably shoddy construction of the exhibit halls(where are all Chicago’s white city buildings? The garbage. Except the Liberal Arts building which is now the Science and Industry Museum..) the exhibits were masterfully designed, applying the artistic knowledge of museum display. These places were intended to be perfect, esthetically pleasing cities. I love that!
It is important to note that the fairs were also extremely problematic. Simply think of everything awful about the turn-of-the-last-century and apply it to the lovely fairs.
For example, chapter four of Paul Kramer’s book Blood of the Government takes a look at the Filipino exhibition at the St. Louis World Fair. Bluntly, they put Filipino people on display, much like zoos put elephants or lions on display. See, problematic! Don’t get mad at St. Louis though, they were not alone. Barnum put Colonized people on display in his traveling shows.
One of the reasons I enjoy reading about the fairs so much is because they were both awesome ( cause awe) and horrible (by our standards of decency of course). It causes a complicated set of emotions that range from “Oh magad that is so cool” to “Oh magad that is so horrible!”
Today’s fairs (too much eww)
This might not be a equal comparison, but I am going to do it anyway. The term “fair” now refers to things like “state fairs” or “county fairs.” Which often times feature farm
animals, which are great (i like cows), but are 98% carnival. These fair carnivals are dirty sticky places filled with delicious looking but ultimately gastrically punishing food, and roaming gangs of children. Nothing seems to be as purposeful or expertly displayed as the World’s Fairs. I like bright colored lights as much as the next 21st Century American, but in the day time they are not esthetically pleasing, they look like the post-apocolyptic setting of a Scooby-Do mystery.
There are some connections, like the caption notes, the Ferris Wheel is a fair staple that began at the Chicago’s World Fair. These modern fairs lack the air of perfection, (that air is missing in most parts contemporary society, where have all the perfectionist gone!) Where is the effort? Where is the try? Where is the purposefulness! But then again I could be down playing the marry-go-round attendant’s personal goals of verbally sexual harassing all the women and making sure a proper percentage of child experience nausea.
There are no good ol’days and there were plenty of problems with the World Fairs, I just want a time machine to experience the horrible heat, nasty mouth breathing syphilitic people, and lack anti-bacterial lotion and modern convinces for myself. That will properly ruin my nostalgia and make me thankful for the fairs we have today.