Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Types and Beauties: Evaluating and Exoticizing Women on the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Types and Beauties: Evaluating and Exoticizing Women on the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Article excerpt

ON THE MIDWAY PLAISANCE OF THE 1893 Columbian Exposition, outside the parameters of the White City and just a short jaunt from the iconic Ferris Wheel, stood a theater patronized by "old men and wicked youths" who "watched, in a bleary-eyed ecstasy, the Oriental athletes of the stage as they danced, toyed with the cigarette, and by their smiles gave a Persian Parisian charm to the anomalous entertainment."1 Colorful descriptions of the Midway Plaisance heavily populated souvenir books commemorating the Chicago Worlds Fair. Filled with photographic portrait types, landscape scenes, and ebullient commentary, souvenir books simultaneously reproduced and shaped the experience of the fairgoer (See Figure 1). As a cultural text constructed by and for a white, masculine American subject, the souvenir book reveals the objectives and weaknesses of hegemonic projects in the United States during the nineteenth century. In particular, representations of female bodies on the Midway Plaisance illuminate intersecting discourses of race and gender.

As a combination and juxtaposition of the White City and the foreign villages of the Midway Plaisance, the Columbian Exposition functioned as an expression of national identity. Hegemonic forces in Chicago and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century shaped the imagining of the nation, and the Exposition served as a powerful tool for their project.2 Robert Rydell asserts that Worlds fairs "propagated the ideas and values of the country's political, financial, corporate, and intellectual leaders and offered these ideas as the proper interpretation of social and political reality."3Alan Trachtenberg identifies the powerful perpetuators of national culture as the established, propertied, and wealthy elite who aimed to subsume the subaltern under the "banner of 'peace, prosperity, progress and patriotism.'"4 Indeed, the Chicago business interests and financial leaders who lobbied to bring the fair to the city elected the Exposition's board of directors. In turn, the fair's administration used the White City to showcase a grand vision of American and human progress.5

While operating as mechanisms of hegemony, expressions of national unity like the Columbian Exposition nevertheless belie internal contradictions. Lauren Berlant cautions that a national culture still inherits the tensions that exist in the national space. Although political legitimacy depends upon "the cultural expression of national fantasy," narratives of national identity mask inherent conflict.6

Indeed, numerous domestic tensions plagued the last decade of the nineteenth century. Lingering cultural and economic differences between the North and South frustrated post-Reconstruction politics. Rural America engaged in widespread political mobilization as the Populist movement gained ground. Meanwhile, labor skirmishes erupted in United States cities; Chicago itself would serve as the site of the infamous Pullman strike the year following the Fair. The social climate was further exacerbated by racial anxieties surrounding the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. To top it off, a severe economic depression overcame the United States the very year of the Columbian Exposition.7 Economic instability, racial anxiety, and political uncertainty contributed to a contentious national environment.

Frank Ninkovich contends that domestic issues and the United States' uncertain role in the international arena combined to create significant identity crisis during the 1890s. The resulting anxiety took the form of "hyper-aggressive nationalist public opinion known as jingoism."8 Trachtenberg similarly argues that late nineteenth century "elites in business, politics, and culture" were working to win hegemony "over dissident but divided voices of labor, farmers, immigrants, blacks and women."9 The ruling class during the final years of the nineteenth century, therefore, fashioned dominant narratives of national identity as a way of dealing with the nation's internal tensions. …

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