Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finished the Loooong Book!

Seems like I've been reading this book forever, but I did enjoy it. Otherwise I wouldn't have stuck with it when I came across parts that were guilty of too much information. I think Jeanne Madeline Weimann must share one of my faults. You do so much research for a book like this that it's tempting to include every little item. If anyone thinks of writing a paper about the Women's Building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, this is an excellent source, bibliography and all.

The 1890s saw a social change in the U.S. for women, former slaves and their families, and for the upper classes as well. It was a time of bloomer girls, "typewriters" girls who typed in an office, and Susan B. Anthony still fighting for suffrage but Mrs. Stanton at home exhausted from the effort and not well. Artists such as Mary Cassatt were finding Europe much more open to their art than people who bought art here who insisted on more classical styles, certainly no nudity. There were a few female architects (one designed the Women's Building) and doctors and dentists, but very few.

The president of the commission in charge of the women's exhibitions at the fair was Bertha Palmer, wife of Potter Palmer who owned the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. Bertha was the cream of Chicago society but found herself belittled by a visiting Spanish princess because she was "the wife of an innkeeper." Palmer worked harder than anyone to make the exhibition a success; she sincerely wanted to enlighten people to the fact that women are capable of great things and should be considered equal to men. On the other hand, at times she offended some commission members and exhibitors by her superior attitude. The long effort exhausted her and when the fair was over she pretty much washed her hands of what happened to everything as her husband took her on a year-long world tour.

The sad fact is that the fair buildings weren't built to be permanent so when the fair closed in the fall of 1893 all of the exhibitors took their paintings, crafts, etc. home and whatever was left was put in storage. Unfortunately, during that removal two enormous murals, one by Cassatt, were lost. Then two fires destroyed all evidence of the fair. A quadrangle of lawn at the University of Chicago, is all that remains of the Midway for instance, where the first ferris wheel ran during the fair. (The ferris wheel had cars rather than the seats used now. Each carried a dozen people.)

When I finally finished the book, I felt bereft like the people who worked so hard to put the fair on must have felt when it was suddenly just gone, like Brigadoon.

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