Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World's Fairs

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Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World's Fairs By T. J. Boisseau and A. M. Markwyn (2010) Published by the University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL (2010). $70 (cloth) $28(paper)

Reviewed by Sharon Y. Nickols

In 2003 ; when it was published, I read The Devil and the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Larson juxtaposed the development of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the mystery of a deranged Chicago physician who preyed on young women. I read that book primarily because I hoped it would feature something about the Rumford Kitchen, Ellen Richards' demonstration of the feasibility of a nutritious diet within a modest budget. I was disappointed. There was nothing about the Rumford Kitchen and very little in Larson's book about the Women's Building where other aspects of the nascent home economics programs were on display.

So, allured by the title, Gendering the Fair, I hoped that a book compiled by historians would include information about exhibits featuring the work of home economists. Again, I was disappointed. Although "home economics" is not in the index, "domesticity" is. This book, a compilation of original scholarship on the gendered aspects of the mass events known as world's fairs, contains enough chapters with topics of relevance to family and consumer sciences (FCS) to make it worth selective exploration.

Gendering the Fair has 1 1 chapters by faculty at universities in the United States, Germany, Canada, and Macau. Most authors are historians; some have appointments in women's studies and one is a professor of architecture. The focus is on world's fairs between 1893 (the Columbian Exposition) and the New York World's Fair in 1939. The changing culture and technology of modernizing societies; representation of women's roles in society; women as planners, administrators, performers, and workers at the fairs; design of gendered space within fair venues; and the causes women advanced at the fairs are explored in various chapters. Two chapters focus on gendered aspects of the fair from a masculine perspective.

I found chapters on the Columbian Exposition of 1893, often referred to as the Chicago World's Fair, of particular interest. The Women's Building was the first major structure at a world's fair designed to exclusively display women's exhibits and directed by a board of "Lady Managers." It was the first world's fair building designed by an architect who was a woman, Sophia Hayden. The building was sited at the edge of the "White City," as the exhibition area of the fair was dubbed, and included a library, parlors, galleries, and a model kitchen. Members of the Board of Lady Managers were social reformers concerned with women's health, education, property rights, and the arts, but were not necessarily proponents of political equality.

Nevertheless, the Columbian Exposition and other world's fairs served as venues for activism for women's suffrage from Chicago in 1893 through the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. The chapter on Mormon women's role at the Columbian Exposition and the chapter on the activism of the Congressional Union for Women's Suffrage at the Panama-Pacific Exposition explain how women's experience as organizers and leaders in church and community associations prepared them for positions of leadership at the respective world's fairs. …