The traveling Great War Exposition included statues, displays, battle reenactments, and staged aerial combat. Credit: Illinois State Archives

In pre-COVID-19 Chicago, Grant Park, for many, served as a vibrant platform for cultural and political expression. Perhaps less known is the park’s history in America’s effort to promote national participation in World War I.

The image here is of Grant Park transformed to host the traveling Great War Exposition from September 2-15, 1918. Created by the federal government’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), and overseen by the State Council of Defense of Illinois, the exposition was part of a larger effort to sell the war to the American public. Beginning in 1917, the CPI led efforts to transform divided public opinion into solidly supporting the war. Using the media tools of the day, they created posters, distributed pamphlets and silent films, and supported Four Minute Men speakers across the country. They told Americans that participation in the war served civilization and democracy against a barbaric Germany. The exposition was also part of a national effort to further an image of America as a righteous crusader while exposing visitors to a “living picture of modern warfare,” as one Chicago Tribune article at the time put it. 

The State Council of Defense of Illinois oversaw preparations for the event, coordinating with allied governments and exposition participants. One newspaper estimated that more than 200,000 visitors attended the opening day of the expo, and all marveled at the statues, displays, and reenactments across the grounds of the park. Railcars carrying items captured from battlefields in France were set up for viewing, and organizations supporting the war effort (including the Salvation Army, the YMCA and YWCA) created stalls to demonstrate just how one could get involved on the home front. Trenches for a no-man’s-land were dug by the Illinois branch of the Women’s Land Army, and soldiers from Camp Grant in Rockford staged mock battles into the night, while planes staged aerial combat overhead.

Quite popular, the exposition reflected the duality of how Chicagoans and America experienced the war. All “un-hyphenated” Americans could get involved in the war effort, provided they performed their nationalism in public properly. The presence of the American Protective League (APL) in the city at the time meant one could be assaulted or accused of being a “slacker.” Displays at the exposition reflected the racialized and gendered realities of life in 1918. Outreach to women stressed their position as housewives and mothers. Visitors passed through a mock Mexican town (representing immorality) to enter wholesome camp amenities created by the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA). 

More famous in recent years as the site of Lollapalooza or for then President-elect Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory speech, Grant Park in September 1918 was a key performance space for a national dialogue about the meaning of World War I in America. The exposition had a higher average daily attendance than the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and provided a legacy for Chicagoans on the role of public space and what it means to be American.  v