The White City (11/1/2019)

This is the time of the year that many states have state fairs. About 125 years ago it was common to also have world fairs. Agricultural exhibits were often a part of the World Fairs. In this Friday Footnote, our guest columnist, Dr. Jim Connors of the University of Idaho, will describe the 1892-93 World’s Fair held in Chicago (to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America).  What follows is a condensed version of what Dr. Connors originally wrote. The original manuscript contains substantially more photos and information and can be downloaded as a pdf file  Agriculture in the White City.  Now, for Dr. Connors.

As a member of my local FFA chapter, I first got the chance to attend the National FFA Convention in Kansas City in the fall of 1979.  Many chapters traveling to Kansas City visited cities such as Chicago and St. Louis. Chapters would often tour the Chicago Board of Trade or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Another stop was often the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago. However, most FFA members never realized that when they toured the Museum of Science & Industry they were actually stepping back into history.

The building that houses the Museum of Science & Industry was actually a part of one of the largest and elaborate fairs ever held in the world.  Many people have heard of “world’s fairs” that were held on a regular basis years ago.  World’s fairs have been held in cities such as Paris, New York, Chicago, and Seattle.

However, it was the 1892-93 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that is of most interest.  The building that today houses the Museum of Science & Industry was originally the Palace of Fine Arts during the world’s fair in 1892-93.  But it is the emphasis and inclusion of agriculture in the World’s Columbian Exposition that we will focus on.

America in 1892 was in the midst of the industrial revolution and was experiencing a dramatic change in business and industry.  New technologies were being introduced every day.  The World’s Columbian Exposition would forever be remembered as the “White City” due to the introduction of alternating electric current.  The Westinghouse Company won the contract to illuminate the fair, beating out General Electric.  This battle will always be remembered as the war between Edison’s direct current (DC) method from General Electric and Tesla’s alternating current (AC) method from Westinghouse.  The bright electric lights were shown on many massive white buildings throughout the fair, giving the fair its nickname “The White City.”

World Columbia Exhibition – Administration Building – White City

Agricultural Buildings

Buildings related to agriculture at the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition included agriculture, horticulture, fisheries, forestry, dairy, and the livestock pavilion.

The Agriculture Building was located in a very prominent location along the Great Basin waterway and adjacent to the fair’s Administration Building.  The Agricultural Building was considered one of the “Great Buildings” at the fair due to its magnificent size and architectural design.  The building had 500,000 square feet of exhibit space and included several ornate domes.  The central dome of the building was 130 feet in diameter.  The famed sculptor Agustus Saint-Gaudens created the Statue of Diana for the top of the main dome.  Adjacent to the Agriculture Building was a 312’ x 550’ area for displaying the most modern agricultural implements.


Exhibits in the Agriculture Building included:









Cocoa Mills

Chocolate Pavilions


Moonshiner’s Cabin












Dairy Products

Condensed Milk

Fruits & Vegetables

Heinz pickles

Star hams & condensed meat pies


Farm Products by State

Model Farm Buildings

Farm Management Classes

Weather Stations

Land-Grant Universities

Agricultural Experiment Stations

Liberty Bell made of wheat, oats, and rye


 Horticulture Building

The Horticulture Building was a prominent structure along the lagoon which faced the Wooded Island.  It was 1,000’ in length and 240’ wide and was included in the list of “Great Buildings” at the fair. The central dome of the Horticulture Building was 180’ in diameter and 114’ high.  The glass domes and end pavilions covered great palm trees, tree ferns, bamboos, and plants from far away tropical lands. The building was surrounded by elaborate gardens displaying the latest in horticultural plants.  In addition to the building itself, it was surrounded by 19,200 sq. ft. of greenhouses that contained 500,000 pansies, 100,000 roses, and 1 million other flowers.

 Exhibits in the Horticulture Building included:

Japanese Garden

German Wine Cellar

Mexican Desert

Sparkling Champagnes

Spanish sherries

Cherries, berries, apples, peaches, pears, & plums (Oregon)


Bay laurels (Illinois)

Strawberries (Illinois)

Begonias (Indiana)

40’ Tree Fern (Australia)

Watermelons (Mississippi & Georgia)

Model US Capital made from Canadian Thistles (New York)

Orchids & Ferns (New Jersey)

Berries (Colorado)

Grapes, Prunes, & Eggplant (Idaho)



Snap dragons






Fresh, dried, & canned

Fruits and Vegetables

 One of the most elaborate displays in the Horticulture Building was the Tower of Oranges.  The tower was sponsored by the Southern California Fair Association and rose 35 feet tall and was 5 feet in diameter.  It was topped by a stuffed eagle.  Visitors could win a box of oranges by guessing the number of oranges in the display.  It actually contained 14,000 oranges that were changed every three to four weeks.

 Fisheries Building

The Fisheries Building was located on the Lagoon, opposite the Horticulture Building.  It was one of the smallest of the “Great Buildings” at the fair.  It housed a grand display of marine plants and animals in the world.  The building included 10 huge aquariums with a capacity of 140,000 gallons of water.  The 3,000 square feet of surface area included every form of sea life known to man at the time.

While the building was mainly dedicated to sea life, it did include exhibits related to both sport fishing and “fish farming,” the predecessor to today’s aquaculture.  Other exhibits included implements used for commercial fishing and the latest in fishing equipment.

Forestry Building

The Forestry Building was patterned after the Forestry Building at the 1889 Paris Exposition and was located along the shores of Lake Michigan.  The building used a colonnade of tree trunks to support a thatched roof.  States and foreign countries all contributed various trees to the building.  The building was built entirely out of wood without any nails or metal used.

Exhibits in the Forestry Building included:

425 species of trees from the US

321 varieties of timber from Paraguay

Pulp and paper exhibit from Chicago

Black Walnut log from North Carolina

Willow baskets from France

Mahogany from Mexico

Carved teak from the Middle East

Petrified logs from Oregon

Redwood wine tank from San Francisco

Carved temples from Siam

Natural Resources conservation methods

Forest management plans

Government forestry programs

Wood processing techniques and tools

Logging equipment

Furniture manufacturers from Grand Rapids, MI

Wainscoting from West Virginia

500 medicinal herbs from Ohio

Logging camp from Michigan

State pavilions made from native woods

 Dairy Building

The Dairy Building was 200’ x 100’ and covered a half-acre.  The building housed a Dairy School, displays on butter and other dairy products, and different breeds of dairy cows.  Old world dairy techniques from European farmers were displayed along with newer, modern dairy methods used by eastern US dairy farmers.

Livestock Pavilion

Livestock exhibits at the fair included horses, cattle, swine, sheep, camels, goats, and rabbits.  Domestic animals such as dogs and cats were also exhibited as well as ferrets and other wild animals.  It was estimated that it took two to three hours to see all the livestock exhibits.

The Livestock Pavilion included a 400’ wide open arena encircled by 10 tiers of seats for 15,000 spectators.

Additional Agriculture Features

 Cart-Horse Statue  

In front of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building stood the statue of a cart, or draught horse.  It signified the relationship between man and horse, the nobility of labor, and tillage of the soil.

Illinois Prairie Farm

The Illinois State Building included a picture of an ideal Illinois prairie farm.  The artwork was made completely out of different colored grasses, grains, and other raw vegetable material.  The frame was made of ears of corn.  The farmhouse, barns and livestock sheds were made with corn husks and seeds.

Windmill Display

Adjacent to the Agricultural Building was a massive display of the latest windmill technology.  The display included traditional Dutch windmills and the latest American designed steel and iron windmills.  The windmills allowed rural farmers to have access to water for their farm, livestock, and home before rural electric cooperatives brought power to rural areas across the country.


State and Foreign Countries

Most states and foreign countries erected buildings to showcase their history, culture, and industry.  These displays often included samples of their trees, plants, animals, and agricultural products.  The buildings were often surrounded by elaborate gardens that displayed horticultural plants from their respective locations.

State and Foreign Country Displays related to Agriculture

State or Country Display
Canada 3,500 samples of grain
Costa Rica Beans, roots, leaves of tropical plants
Cuba Tobacco
Guatemala 5,000 orchids, coffee exhibits
Sweden Wood pulp products
California 127 year old palm tree, red wine fountain
Colorado Pictures made from colored grain
Florida Native gardens, cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco
Illinois Women’s Corn Kitchen – 100 ways to cook corn
Iowa Palace made out of corn, dome decorated with different corns
Kentucky Tobacco and distilling displays
Louisiana Plantation life displays including rice and sugar
Maryland Canning and oyster industries, working canned-goods operation
New Hampshire Plow made and used by Daniel Webster
New York Adirondack trees
Washington 20 foot tall wheat pyramid, 156 bushels of oats from one acre
Wisconsin Logging displays


The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was one of the largest and successful world’s fair ever held.  It introduced the world to a variety of new products and technology including the first major use of alternating electric current to illuminate buildings and homes.

The inclusion of agriculture in the exposition was also very impressive.  The Great Buildings at the fair included Agriculture, Horticulture, Fisheries, and Forestry.  The grounds were filled with trees, shrubs, flowering bulbs, gardens, and large grass areas.  All of these features showed the importance of modern agriculture and horticulture to the citizens of the United States and the world.  The World’s Columbian Exposition was truly a celebration of agriculture!

 Teaching Ideas: 

  1. Visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  The museum includes displays of technology including agriculture machinery throughout history.
  2. Research your state’s participation in the World’ Columbian Exposition of 1893.  Determine if your state had a state building and what agriculture-related products were displayed at the fair.
  3. Find local, state, regional, and national agricultural fairs and expositions.  Determine when they are held and if your chapter could visit one in your area.  National agricultural expositions could include the Farm Progress Show (IN, IL, IA), the Farm Science Review (OH), or the World Ag Expos (Tulare, CA).
  4. Obtain information from your state’s department of agriculture on the leading agricultural products produced in your county, region, or state.  Make a display or presentation to inform people of the importance of agriculture to your community and state.
  5. Select a foreign country and research the agricultural goods produced in that part of the world.  Determine how the agriculture products are produced, where and to whom are they marketed.    


Appelbaum, S. (1980). The Chicago world’s fair of 1893: A photographic record.  New York: Dover Publications.

Bolotin, N. & Laing, C. (1992). The Chicago world’s fair of 1893: The world’s Columbian exposition. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press – National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Larson, E. (2003). The devil in the white city. New York: Vintage Books.

The Columbian exposition album (1893).  Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company.