Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Illumination or Illusion: Women Inventors at the 1893 World's Columbian Fair

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Illumination or Illusion: Women Inventors at the 1893 World's Columbian Fair

Article excerpt

THE 1893 COLUMBIAN WORLD'S FAIR IN CHICAGO was an opportunity for America to showcase the nations progress in all realms of scientific, manufacturing, and industrial achievements. Although it was not the first American worlds fair, it was certainly the biggest and the most progressive example of American ingenuity and technological progress to date. It was also the biggest presentation of women inventors ever at an American worlds fair. But did more than the estimated 350 women who exhibited their inventions at the fair share in the illumination of American progress or did their experience reveal that progress for women in the scientific, manufacturing, and industrial sectors was simply an illusion presented as part of the magic of the "The Great White City"?

The Great White City was a popular name for the Columbian World s Fair because of the more than 120,000 incandescent lights and 7,000 are lights used to illuminate the exposition grounds, fountains, and waterways at night, more than any other previous fair anywhere in the world.1 Although the Great White City celebrated and illuminated American progress, the light shed on women inventors was considered by some to be "good, but could have been better."2 How women inventors were promoted, judged, and valued provides insight about their identity, status, and influence, which extended into the twentieth century and beyond and continues to beg the question why women inventors never again exhibited in equal numbers at an American world fair.

World fairs in the United States have been studied extensively, but very little scholarship has focused on women inventors, in part, because their participation as a group has been limited. There has, however, been a substantial body of scholarship documenting womens participation in world fairs starting with the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, which was the first time women had a separate building. This was also the first fair that included a significant number of women inventors with at least seventy-nine inventions by women on exhibit.3 Following the 1876 Centennial, women's buildings appeared in "as many as seven world fairs and national fairs between 1893 and 1939" in the United States. But after the Columbian Worlds Fair in 1893, women inventors were not identified again as group at a fair, and their experiences were absorbed in "the centrality of work as a mainstay of womans identity."4 Scholarship on womens activities in subsequent fairs emphasized their participation in governance, organization, and representation of womens work and labor. As noted by historian Robert W. Rydell, there is a "rich body of documentary and theoretical scholarship about changing forms and functions of worlds fairs."5 Recent feminist scholarship on world fairs broadens the "boundaries of womens history to include an accounting for gender as shaper of ideological and material reality," but to date, women inventors have yet to be identified in that larger discussion of work, labor, and professionalism.6 Nevertheless, women inventors did engage in serious labor resulting in successful inventions, which were part of the American celebration of progress promoted at the Columbian Worlds Fair.

Rewarding Domesticity Over Innovation

It was hoped the women inventors exhibit in the Womans Building, as well as their inventions exhibited in other fair buildings, would clear up "existing misconceptions as to the originality and inventiveness of women."7 The claim was made that exhibits by women would be a "unique and distinctive feature of the fair, such as never before was presented to the world, such as never before was attempted." It was hoped that, "even more important than the discovery of Columbus was the fact that the general government has discovered woman" and "in a measure" there would be a dispelling of "prejudices and misconceptions."8

And it seemed as though there were some womens inventions that might have supported this lofty goal based on inventions that exhibited mechanical complexity and commercial potential. …

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