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1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition

In 1896, the city of Chicago still basked from the glow of the Exposition it hosted in 1893 celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World, no matter that it was held a year late. After clearing a square mile of land along the Lake Michigan waterfront, the exhausted and rushed fair-builders were ecstatic to see more than 27 million people attending over six months. You could find absolutely anything at the Expo, the most heralded being the marvels in technology that already had transformed American cities and promised a future exponentially more advanced.

In 1896, Lyman Frank Baum, age 40, was at a low point in his life. He had failed at acting and playwriting, at running a general store and a newspaper. Now he was back in Chicago, making good money as a traveling salesman for a firm that sold china and glassware but hating the time it took away from his wife and four boys. He wanted to get back to writing and putting down the ideas for children's books that swirled endlessly in his mind. A year in the future he would start with Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by no less than Maxwell Parish. 1900 would see a little something called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, making him famous and essentially immortal. That goes for his characters as well. Baum was in many ways the first modern American fantasist. He mixed witches, wizards, queens, and dragons with the technology emerging around him. Whether the Tin Woodsman should be considered a robot or merely a person with artificial parts, Tik-Tok, the all-copper clockwork man introduced in Ozma of Oz, definitely is robotic. And so is the cast iron giant mechanical man built for King Scowleyow in The Surprising Adventures of The Magical Monarch of Mo and His People. Baum also drew upon his teenage son Robert's infatuation with electricity and electrical devices when he wrote The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale. The Demon of Electricity. (See Baum's Magic Pills.)

Chicago, which quintupled its population from 1880 to 1900, already saw itself as famous and immortal. Its future was a sight to behold, just as the Exposition had been. The Chicago Times-Herald decided to run a contest for readers to describe the wonders of that future. Baum came in third. We have no idea who the winners were but immortality means that obsessive researchers dig up every scrap of one's life. The International Wizard of Oz Club included Baum's piece, titled "Yesterday at the Exposition" in a book it published, The Collected Short Stories of L. Frank Baum. Thanks to my friend Bill Thompson, Oz historian, bibliographer, and collector, for lending it to me to transcribe so that it's available on the Internet for the first time.

I've added some footnotes below to highlight elements that would have meant more to contemporaries than to moderns.

L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum

Yesterday at the Exposition

Printed in the Chicago Times-Herald, January 19, 1896


”To commemorate the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the newspaper ran a contest for the best imagined report on “Chicago’s International Exposition, A. D. 2090.” Baum’s won third prize.


Yesterday was a busy day at the exposition. The pneumatic cars were discharged from the Lake Front Station at intervals of one minute the entire day, and every carriage was packed. One car, indeed, became inverted, but so rapid was the transit that the passengers were unaware of the fact until they arrived at the terminus at Kenosha Park, when the sudden stopping of the car caused them all to drop upon their heads on the cushioned ceiling, but fortunately no one was injured.(1)


The air ships also carried large crows to the grounds, and the Chicago Sealed Projectile Company fired projectiles regularly every five minutes, landing each time 1600 passengers in the rubber receivers at Kenosha without accident. The invention is a great success, and the company is now arranging to fire projectiles regularly to Boston, where there are still enough inhabitants to make the enterprise remunerative.(2) Besides these models of transit, many came from afar in their own motorcycles, while the thousands of motorcycles belonging in Chicago were utilized for the same purpose.


There were many foreign notables at the exposition, including the President of the German Republic, the Governors or Turkey and Armenia, M. Pagliosky of the Russian senate, and the President of the Republic of Scotland. It is expected that the President of England will attend Saturday, if she can borrow an air ship from the Republic of Scotland to carry her over. Everyone is disposed to assist poor England since she became so impoverished, and we hope our citizens will endeavor to treat her representative with at least a show of respect while she is our guest.(3)


There are many genuine novelties at Chicago’s great fair. The new chemical fertilizer “Akasa” was exhibited to admiring crowds, and through its use wheat was grown from the seed in fifteen minutes, automatically thrashed, ground and baked in ten minutes longer, and a superb article of bread distributed to the crowd that had watched the seed planted a half hour before.(4) The exhibit of smokeless tobacco attracted much attention, as did also the jagless whiskey, which has recently become so popular.


The new bicycle, which contains the motor in the half-inch tubing that forms the handle bar, was again proved a startling success. It is understood that one has been purchased by Mrs. Strident, the director general of the exposition, for her own use.


The popularity of thought-transference was evidenced by the large number of people who sought the solitude rooms at the government building to receive or dispatch thoughts to friends at home, and it is probable that very soon the telegraph will cease to be used save by the most stupid or material people.


The exhibit of monster gems is very beautiful. These were all discovered by the use of Rontgen’s light, which photographed them as they lay embedded in the bowels of the earth and so enabled the discoverers to dig them out.(5)


The Midway is still attracting many visitors. The band of educated talking orangutangs from Africa divides popular attention with the native of New York, who is puffed up with pride at being the very last of that strange race of creatures, who were swamped many years ago by the accumulation of consolidated conceit that overwhelmed the little island of Manhattan.


At the beauty and costume exhibit are a bevy of ladies wearing skirts and corsets, a mode of dress that was fashionable for a long period in the world’s history. Many spectators can scarcely believe that so cramped and unlovely a costume was ever universally adopted by women, as the symmetry of the form is not only disguised thereby, but the discomfort to the wearer must have been great. Still there are authentic records to prove that skirts and corsets were once the accepted mode of dress.


The kinetoscope theaters were well filled, the greatest novelty being a reproduction at the Alhambra of a play presented by an actress named Bernhardt away back in 1896. The intonation of her voice came clearly from the perfected graphophone hidden in the flies, while the figures thrown by the reflecting kinectoscope were lifelike, and proved by their grace of motion that this actress was one of no mean ability.(6)


The illumination in the evening was beautiful, and the sky was aglow with the gorgeous electrical designs displayed from the aerial island suspended over the exposition grounds. These, with the flashing lights of the passenger projectiles, and the illuminations from the throngs of the air ships, make up a delightful scene, while the soft strains of music from the monster phonograph anchored three miles out in Lake Michigan fell sweetly and soothingly upon the ear.(7)


To-day’s edition of The Times-Herald contains many beautiful day and night scenes at the exposition, photographed in their natural colors.

From The Collected Short Stories of L. Frank Baum, edited by Katharine M. Rogers

(San Francisco: International Wizard of Oz Club, 2006)

1) Pneumatic tubes, usually powered by compressed air, were the 19th century version of near-instant transportation. Messages enclosed in a capsule could be sent from building to building all over the dense downtown of a city. London first used one to provide a quick way of getting telegrams from the central office to the stock market. Berlin and Paris developed systems hundreds of kilometers long. The first system in the U.S. debuted in Philadelphia in 1893. Transporting people this way seemed a logical progression. See my page called Hyperloopy for the earliest, albeit satiric, prognostication.

2) Sealed projectiles to Boston. Not airplanes, since those are mentioned separately. Was he thinking of missile technology to carry passengers based on cannons or some means of flinging them like rubber bands?

3) Germany, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia were ruled by emperors while England and Scotland lived literally in the Victorian Age. Inverting this and demoting mighty England, then the world's greatest of great powers, was an example of the standard switcheroo of such pieces.

4) The Exposition had featured three different types of new ovens to replace the monster and cantankerous coal stoves of the era. The Agriculture Building alone housed 550 exhibits in 400,000 sq. ft., the size of four Walmarts.

5) Baum was right on top of the news with this. William Röntgen's announcement of his previously unknown or "X" rays had hit papers the first time earlier that month. They were an immediate worldwide sensation. I reprinted an 1896 story called Röntgen's Curse from September 1896, but Baum beat that into print by months.

6) Sarah Bernhardt created a different sort of worldwide sensation when she played the male lead in Lorenzaccio by Alfred de Musset. Baum couldn't have seen her performance in Paris but must have wished to do so. Thomas Edison introduced his kinetophone, a combination of the kinetoscope and a cylinder phonograph, in 1895.

7) Audible three miles away? Well, what good is the Future if not a vehicle for exaggeration and giantism?

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