An exhibit hall with the Swiss section (left) and Russian section (right) Credit: Hemming Hultgren

In November 1893, the journalist Kate Field asked what should be done with the buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the great majority of which were built as temporary structures. “Apply the torch and let it go down in a day,” was one reply. Field felt a twinge of sadness for the millions who hadn’t had the chance to see with their own eyes “the greatest achievement of the nineteenth century.”

If you could go back in time to see the World’s Columbian Exposition, how would you prepare for life in Chicago? Here are some suggestions drawn from travel guidebooks for Chicago and from advice printed in newspapers from around the world.

Brace yourself for a more homogenous city

According to the 1890 census, Chicago was 98.6 percent white. (For contrast, according to 2018 census figures, Chicago is currently 32.7 percent white.) The English-German Guide of the City of Chicago and the World’s Columbian Exposition, a guidebook targeted at tourists from Germany, noted that visitors might get by in Chicago speaking only German. Nonwhites might not face the same rigid segregation as in the American south, but private businesses such as hotels and restaurants could find excuses to turn customers away. “No sensible white person feels aggrieved when he rides from Van Buren street to the Fair grounds . . . on a seat shared by a decent colored person,” explained one Chicago newspaper in an editorial against a vaudeville theater that had required Blacks to sit in a “colored gallery,” which cost three times more than general admission. In her autobiography, Ida B. Wells recalled going to lunch with Frederick Douglass near the close of the fair. She brought up a nice restaurant across the street, one that didn’t serve Blacks. Douglass grasped her arm and said, “Come, let’s go there.” The waiters at the Boston Oyster House seemed “paralyzed.” The owner of the restaurant recognized Douglass and greeted him warmly. This was enough to get service.

The Administration Building and Grand Court during the October 9, 1893, commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Chicago fire.
The Administration Building and Grand Court during the October 9, 1893, commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Chicago fire.

Dress practically

If you want to go back to 1893 to escape slobs wearing shorts, you should know that there were limits to style in 1893. “There is nothing more disagreeable than the dude at the fair. He is entirely alone in his glory, for nobody who has any brains at all dresses up for tramping around in the dust with a crowd of at least 100,000 people,” the Washington Star noted.

A correspondent from the Pall Mall Gazette told its London readers to bring galoshes. The English-German Guide concurred: Chicago streets “are dirty to an extent incomprehensible to Europeans.” Street fashion in this part of America, the guidebook maintained, was sehr einfach: very simple. “Jewelry and loud clothing ought to be avoided, the attention of dangerous characters being attracted by them.”

Have a flexible budget

When the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition first opened, visitors complained about price gouging. “From one end of the land to the other a protest has arisen against the thieves, brigands, robbers, and pickpockets who pose as waiters, stall keepers, refreshment contractors, hotel proprietors, and railway directors,” wrote a correspondent for the Otago Witness, a New Zealand paper.

Though costs decreased over the summer, it was still easy to blow a fortune at the Columbian Exposition itself. The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported one visitor’s deluxe day trip. Paying to be wheeled around the fairgrounds in rolling chairs and to navigate lagoon waters in gondolas, the traveler “bought catalogues and guidebooks, saw all the wonders of the Midway Pleasance [sic], had lunch and dinner at the swell cafes and brought innumerable souvenirs.” He shelled out $30 for the day—a total that when adjusted for inflation is about $855.

Disciplined time-traveling tourists should be able to get by in Chicago on a reasonable budget. In addition to the hotels charging $6 to $10 a day for palatial rooms, there were also “cheap (not necessarily also nasty) 50 cent or $1” accommodations, according to Rand McNally’s Pocket Guide to Chicago. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat estimated that frugal travelers might get by on $2 a day, though it was possible to live comfortably in Chicago for $3 a day. The English-German Guide claimed that “tipping the employés of restaurants or hotels, one of the nuisances of European countries, does not exist in Chicago.”

Looking west over the Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
Looking west over the Grand Basin of the 1893 World’s Columbian ExpositionCredit: C. D. Arnold

Where to eat

The Scranton Republican reported that visitors might buy a “very nice” lunch consisting of two ham sandwiches, a pickle, and a slice of cake and pie outside the fairgrounds for 25 cents. On the other end of the scale, Rand McNally’s Bird’s Eye Views and Guide to Chicago recommended the Auditorium Café (“intended for those who desire to eat well and pay well for it”) and the Great Northern Café (“without equal in Chicago in the luxury of its appointments”). For dessert, there was Gunther’s, a “palace of sweets” on State Street. “The interior is Venetian, the tints rich cream-color and gold,” raved Rand McNally.

Chicago also had restaurants that served women exclusively. Rand McNally suggested Mrs. Clark Co. Lunch Room, “which, owing to the excellent quality of the food, the good service, and the reasonable rates, has become a favorite with Chicago women.”

What to see

Not everyone who visited Chicago in 1893 cared for the place. “You know the proverb: ‘Scratch a Chicago man, you find a Red Indian,'” wrote Regnold Reid, an upper-class jagoff from Cupar, Scotland. Chicago “is the last place I should choose in America to live in.” Even as he decried Chicago as an unfinished, uncivilized place, Regnold was wowed by the Auditorium Theatre.

If you’re using a time machine to visit Chicago in 1893, you’ll probably want to skip the Auditorium and head to one of many Chicago’s great lost buildings. With its massive skylight and gorgeous mosaics, the Burnham & Root-designed Masonic Temple at Randolph and State stood, as Rand McNally exclaimed, “an object of pride to every Chicagoan and a thing of wondering admiration to the visitor within our gates.” The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, an Australian paper, enthused that its notoriously fast express elevators gave the sensation as “if all the breath were being driven out of your body.”

While Regnold Reid thought that the Chicago fire was a godsend for destroying the “wooden slums” of Chicago, other tourists in 1893 wanted to see the rough side of the city. The Pocket Guide to Chicago offers tips for going slumming. Rand McNally describes the rabble who haunt some of the beer halls of the west side as “longhaired, of alien birth, entirely innocent of honest work or any kind of bathing.” For “wine, women, and song,” Rand McNally suggests Engel’s Pavilion, on Clark near Division, “where for the sum of 25 cents or so the visitor can hear comic songs amid libations and smoke.”

If, somehow, you do find yourself at Engel’s Pavilion in 1893, you should pass on the advice given by the English-German Guide. No matter what year it is, always tip your servers.   v