For the past several months, I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s wonderful book, “The Devil in the White City,” which tells the story of the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. (More properly called the World’s Columbian Exposition.) It’s been a marvelous experience.
Actually, that doesn’t go quite far enough in its praise. Devil is a magical book in almost every way that matters. It’s the sort of thing that (if you’re not careful) can swallow you up and send you into other worlds.
Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that I’ve spent so long reading it (eight months and counting). Larson keeps enchanting me down some of the 19th century’s most scenic, semi-forgotten by-ways. It can take some time to come back.
For example, I’ve learned about the sordid history of the Whitechapel Club, the polite hazing of women architects (with attendant nervous breakdowns) by prim society women, and a failed expedition to retrieve a tribe of Pygmies for public exhibition.
While these side stories only tangentially touch on Larson’s main narrative, the building of a world’s fair, they make the book. They help to flesh out the world and time in which the Exposition took place and to place its events in context.
* * *
Unfortunately, in one way, the book underwhelms.
In many of the accounts Larson quotes (and others I’ve read elsewhere), it was more or less universal to comment on was the size and scope of the architecture and the visual spectacle of the city. Everything was enormous, pristine, and huge. The buildings gleamed and glittered. Many of the visitors described it as, “a paradise.”
The images included with “The Devil in the White City” provide only a glimpse of this wonder, though. The human details of the book thrill, but that was only half of the experience. The glorious White City of the Fair was also supposed to be a architectural marvel. So … I went digging to see what else I could find. And, luckily, there is a treasure trove available.
The Google Books project has digitized several wonderful albums with thousands of photographs. They show the buildings, the people, and help to capture something of the experience.
I enjoyed the images so much, I thought I would post a few of them here. (All of these were taken from a book called the “World’s Fair Album.”)