A Century of Progress World’s Fair

United States #728 (1933)

United States #728 (1933)

On May 27, 1933, the Chicago World’s Fair — officially, A Century of Progress International Exposition — opened, following over five years of planning. Registered under the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the fair was held from 1933 to 1934 to celebrate the city of Chicago’s. The theme of the fair was technological innovation. The fair’s motto was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts”; its architectural symbol was the Sky Ride, a transporter bridge perpendicular to the shore on which one could ride from one side of the fair to the other.

A Century of Progress was organized as an Illinois nonprofit corporation in January 1928 for the purpose of planning and hosting a World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., in 1934. City officials designated three and a half miles of newly reclaimed land along the shore of Lake Michigan between 12th and 39th streets on the Near South Side for the fairgrounds. Held on a 427 acres (1.73 km²) portion of Burnham Park, the Century of Progress opened on May 27, 1933. The fair’s opening night began with a nod to the heavens. Lights were automatically activated when the rays of the star Arcturus were detected. The star was chosen as its light had started its journey at about the time of the previous Chicago world’s fair — the World’s Columbian Exposition — in 1893. The rays were focused on photoelectric cells in a series of astronomical observatories and then transformed into electrical energy which was transmitted to Chicago.

Planning for the design of the Exposition began over five years prior to Opening Day. According to an official resolution, decisions regarding the site layout and the architectural style of the exposition were relegated to an architectural commission, which was led by Paul Cret and Raymond Hood. Local architects on the committee included Edward Bennett, John Holabird, and Hubert Burnham. Frank Lloyd Wright was specifically left off the commission due to his inability to work well with others, but did go on to produce three conceptual schemes for the fair. Members of this committee ended up designing most of the large, thematic exhibition pavilions.

From the beginning, the commission members shared a belief that the buildings should not reinterpret past architectural forms — as had been done at earlier fairs, such as Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — but should instead reflect new, modern ideas, as well as suggest future architectural developments. Because the fairgrounds was on new man-made land that was owned by the state and not the city, the land was initially free from Chicago’s strict building codes, which allowed the architects to explore new materials and building techniques. This allowed the design and construction of a wide array of experimental buildings, that eventually included large general exhibition halls, such as the Hall of Science (Paul Cret) and the U.S. Federal Building (Bennet, Burnham and Holabird); corporate pavilions, including the General Motors Building (Albert Kahn) and the Sears Pavilion (Nimmons, Carr, and Wright); futuristic model houses, most popular was the twelve-sided House of Tomorrow (George Frederick Keck); as well as progressive foreign pavilions,including the Italian Pavilion (Mario de Renzi and Adalberto Libera); and historic and ethnic entertainment venues, such as the Belgian Village (Burnham Brothers with Alfons deRydt) and the Streets of Paris (Andrew Rebori and John W. Root) where fan dancer Sally Rand performed.

The fair buildings were multi-colored, to create a “Rainbow City” as opposed to the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The buildings generally followed Moderne architecture in contrast to the neoclassical themes used at the 1893 fair. These buildings were constructed out of five-ply Douglas fir plywood, ribbed-metal siding, and prefabricated, boards, such as Masonite, Sheetrock, Maizewood, as well as other new man-made materials. Structural advances also filled the fairgrounds. These included the earliest catenary roof constructed in the United States, which roofed the dome of the Travel and Transport Building (Bennet, Burnham and Holabird) and the first thin shell concrete roof in the United States, on the small, multi-vaulted Brook Hill Farm Dairy built for the 1934 season of the fair.

One famous feature of the fair were the performances of fan dancer Sally Rand. Other popular exhibits were the various auto manufacturers, the Midway (filled with nightclubs such as the Old Morocco, where future stars Judy Garland, The Cook Family Singers, and The Andrews Sisters performed), and a recreation of important scenes from Chicago’s history. The fair also contained exhibits that would seem shocking to modern audiences, including offensive portrayals of African-Americans, a “Midget City” complete with “sixty Lilliputians”, and an exhibition of incubators containing real babies.

One of the highlights of the 1933 World’s Fair was the arrival of the German airship Graf Zeppelin on October 26, 1933. After circling Lake Michigan near the exposition for two hours, Commander Hugo Eckener landed the 776-foot airship at the nearby Curtiss-Wright Airport in Glenview. It remained on the ground for twenty-five minutes (from 1:o0 to 1:25 pm) then took off ahead of an approaching weather front bound for Akron, Ohio. For some Chicagoans, however, the appearance of the Graf Zeppelin over their fair city was not a welcome sight, as the airship had become a prominent reminder of the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler to power earlier that same year. This triggered dissension in the days following its visit, particularly within the city’s large German-American population.

The “dream cars” which American automobile manufacturers exhibited at the fair included Cadillac’s introduction of its V-16 limousine; Nash’s exhibit had a variation on the vertical (i.e., paternoster) parking garage — all the cars were new Nashes; Lincoln presented its rear-engined “concept car” precursor to the Lincoln-Zephyr, which went on the market in 1936 with a front engine; Pierce-Arrow presented its modernistic Pierce Silver Arrow for which it used the byline “Suddenly it’s 1940!” But it was Packard which won the best of show.

One interesting and enduring exhibit was the 1933 Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition that demonstrated modern home convenience and creative practical new building materials and techniques with twelve model homes sponsored by several corporations affiliated with home decor and construction. Marine artist Hilda Goldblatt Gorenstein (Hilgos) painted twelve murals for the Navy’s exhibit in the Federal Building for the fair. The frieze was composed of twelve murals depicting the influence of sea power on America, beginning with the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 when sea power first reached America and carrying through World War I.

The first Major League Baseball All-Star Game was held at Comiskey Park (home of the Chicago White Sox) in conjunction with the fair.

In May 1934, the Union Pacific Railroad exhibited its first streamlined train, the M-10000, and the Burlington Route its famous Zephyr which, on May 26, made a record-breaking dawn-to-dusk run from Denver, Colorado, to Chicago in 13 hours and 5 minutes. To cap its record-breaking speed run, the Zephyr arrived dramatically on-stage at the fair’s “Wings of a Century” transportation pageant. The two trains launched an era of industrial streamlining. Both trains later went into successful revenue service, the Union Pacific’s as the City of Salina, and the Burlington Zephyr as the first Pioneer Zephyr. The Zephyr is now on exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Frank Buck furnished a wild animal exhibit, Frank Buck’s Jungle Camp. Over two million people visited Buck’s reproduction of the camp he and his native assistants lived in while collecting animals in Asia. After the fair closed, Buck moved the camp to a compound he had created at Amityville, New York.

Originally, the fair was scheduled only to run until November 12, 1933, but it was so successful that it was opened again to run from May 26 to October 31, 1934. The fair was financed through the sale of memberships, which allowed purchases of a certain number of admissions once the park was open. More than $800,000 was raised in this manner as the country came out of the Great Depression. A $10 million bond was issued on October 28, 1929, the day before the stock market crashed. By the time the fair closed in 1933, half of these notes had been retired, with the entire debt paid by the time the fair closed in 1934. For the first time in American history, an international fair had paid for itself. In its two years, it had attracted 48,769,227 visitors. According to James Truslow Adams’s Dictionary of American History, during the 170 days beginning May 27, 1933, there were 22,565,859 paid admissions; during the 163 days beginning May 26, 1934, there were 16,486,377; a total of 39,052,236.

From June to November, 1933, there was an outbreak of amoebic dysentery associated with the fair. There were more than a thousand cases, with 98 deaths. Joel Connolly of the Chicago Bureau of Sanitary Engineering brought the outbreak to an end when he found that defective plumbing permitted sewage to contaminate drinking water in two hotels.

Much of the fair site is now home to Northerly Island park (since the closing of Meigs Field) and McCormick Place. The Balbo Monument, given to Chicago by Benito Mussolini to honor General Italo Balbo’s 1933 trans-Atlantic flight, still stands near Soldier Field. In conjunction with the fair, Chicago’s Italian-American community raised funds and donated the statue of the Genoese navigator and explorer, Christopher Columbus (Grant Park). It was placed at the south end of Grant Park, near the site of the fair, and is located east of S. Columbus Drive and north of E. Roosevelt Road.

The Polish Museum of America possesses the painting of “Pulaski at Savannah” by Stanisław Kaczor-Batowski, which was exhibited at the Century of Progress fair and where it won first place. After the close of the fair, the painting went on display at The Art Institute of Chicago where it was unveiled by Eleanor Roosevelt on July 10, 1934. The painting was on display at the Art Institute until its purchase by the Polish Women’s Alliance on the museum’s behalf.

The U.S. Post Office Department issued a special fifty-cent air mail stamp (Scott #C18) to commemorate the visit of the German airship depicting the Chicago Federal Building, the Graf Zeppelin in flight, and its home hangar in Friedrichshafen, Germany. This stamp is informally known as the “Baby Zep” to distinguish it from the much more valuable 1930 Graf Zeppelin stamps (Scott #C13–15). Separate from this issue, for the Fair the USPOD also printed 1 cent and 3 cent commemorative stamps, showing respectively Fort Dearborn and the modernistic Chicago Federal Building. These were also printed in separate souvenir sheets as blocks of 25 (Scott #728–731). In 1935, the sheets were reprinted (Scott #766-67).

 The above is a very good representation of the Fort, in 1850, from a daguerrotype, by Polycarpus von Schneidau, a Swedish nobleman, taken from the south front of the Lake House, which was situated on the east side of Rush Street, extending from Michigan to Kinzie (now called North- Water) Streets. The ferry, shown in the foreground, landed on the North-Side, about where the " Empire Warehouse " now is. The building faintly shown between the block-house and the light-keeper's, is the residence of the late "Judge" Henry Fuller, and was just outside of the Fort enclosure, and the ground is now covered by Spaulding & Merrick's tobacco works. There was another building in the Fort enclosure, not shown in this view, just east of the block-house; were the officers' quarters in this view removed, it would appear as if in front of the large locust-tree, and was the quartermaster's or sutler's quarters. The parade-ground was between the commandant's, officers', and sutler's quarters on the west, and the building where the artillery was housed, the soldier's barracks, and the storehouse on the east; and was about 80 feet wide, and extended from the river bank south, the full length of the enclosure — say 400 feet; near its southern extremity was a gentle rise of ground or knoll, in the centre of which was an 8-inch piece of square timber, imbedded in the earth, placed upright, about 2 feet high, upon the top of which was a brass plate on which had been a sun-dial. South of this sun-dial, say 100 feet, was a turn-style through which you entered the P'ort enclosure from the centre of Michigan Avenue, which then commenced at this point. The whole Fort enclosure was surrounded by a rough-board fence, white-washed, about 6 feet high; the pickets having been removed at an earlier date. The kitchen-garden was in the south-west corner of the enclosure and with it made more hearts merry than any man who ever lived in Chicago.


The above is a very good representation of the Fort, in 1850, from a daguerrotype, by Polycarpus von Schneidau, a Swedish nobleman, taken from the south front of the Lake House, which was situated on the east side of Rush Street, extending from Michigan to Kinzie (now called North- Water) Streets. The ferry, shown in the foreground, landed on the North-Side, about where the ” Empire Warehouse ” now is. The building faintly shown between the block-house and the light-keeper’s, is the residence of the late “Judge” Henry Fuller, and was just outside of the Fort enclosure, and the ground is now covered by Spaulding & Merrick’s tobacco works. There was another building in the Fort enclosure, not shown in this view, just east of the block-house; were the officers’ quarters in this view removed, it would appear as if in front of the large locust-tree, and was the quartermaster’s or sutler’s quarters. The parade-ground was between the commandant’s, officers’, and sutler’s quarters on the west, and the building where the artillery was housed, the soldier’s barracks, and the storehouse on the east; and was about 80 feet wide, and extended from the river bank south, the full length of the enclosure — say 400 feet; near its southern extremity was a gentle rise of ground or knoll, in the centre of which was an 8-inch piece of square timber, imbedded in the earth, placed upright, about 2 feet high, upon the top of which was a brass plate on which had been a sun-dial. South of this sun-dial, say 100 feet, was a turn-style through which you entered the P’ort enclosure from the centre of Michigan Avenue, which then commenced at this point. The whole Fort enclosure was surrounded by a rough-board fence, white-washed, about 6 feet high; the pickets having been removed at an earlier date. The kitchen-garden was in the south-west corner of the enclosure and with it made more hearts merry than any man who ever lived in Chicago.

Early in January 1933, the committee in charge of the upcoming Fair requested that the Post Office Department release a set of stamps ranging in value from 1 cent to 10 cents. The request was passed on to Postmaster General James A. Farley following the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Official sanction was granted for a set of three denominations — 1 cent, 3 cents and 5 cents. However, due to the press of work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in producing new paper money plates carrying the signature of the new Secretary of Treasury as well and printing Savings Bonds, it was decided to omit the 5-cent stamp and designs were prepared for the two lower values.

Scott #728, the 1-cent value, portrays Fort Dearborn. Photographs of various views of the fort were submitted by Lenox R. Lohr, General Manager of the Fair and these were turned over to the artists of the  Bureau who prepared a series of drawings. The Postmaster General approved the design by Victor L. McCoskey Jr. with certain modifications, the most prominent being the change in the numerals from Arabic to Roman.

The die proofs were approved on March 21, 1933 and the announcement was made that the 1-cent stamp would portray Fort Dearborn with the old stockade while the 3-cent denomination would bear a view of the Fair’s Administration Building. In the end, all of the prepared 3-cent designs were discarded and the issued stamp pictures the Federal Building.

The stamps were printed on the Rotary Press from four hundred subject plates. These were divided into four panes by vertical and horizontal gutters. The full sheets were cut into panes of one hundred through these gutters and then issued to post offices. There were four plate numbers, one to each pane, these being in the four outside corners of the plate.

On March 28, a special cancellation die was authorized reading CENTURY OF PROGRESS, WORLD’S FAIR / CHICAGO, JUNE 1 , NOVEMBER 1 in two lines and enclosed by a single line border. These were to be used on all mail sent from Chicago during the duration of the Fair. The earliest known use is from mid-April.

Old Fort Dearborn, erected at the mouth of Chicago River for defence against the Indians (NYPL Hades-118858-55009)

Old Fort Dearborn, erected at the mouth of Chicago River for defense against the Indians (NYPL Hades-118858-55009)

The amount of pressing work at the Bureau made it impossible for the stamps to be issued as planned on May 1. On May 2, the Post Office Department announced that they would be released at the Chicago General Post Office on May 25. According to the official circular:

The stamps are of the same size as the regular issue, 0.75 inch by 0.87 inch in dimensions, arranged horizontally. Both stamps are enclosed in narrow double-line borders. The 1-cent stamp is printed in green and the 3-cent stamp in purple.

The central design of the 1-cent stamp depicts old Fort Dearborn, pioneer outpost at Chicago, as restored in 1816. A blockhouse of the old fort appears in the foreground, partly overshadowed below and with a stockade fence extending from either side to the edge of the stamp. In the background are trees and other buildings of the fort. In a short ribbon panel at the top of the stamp are the words “U.S. Postage” in solid gothic. On either side opposite the lower edge of this panel are the dates “1833” at the left and “1933” at the right. Above the blockhouse in a curved line are the words “Chicago Century of Progress” in solid gothic. In each lower corner is a circular panel with light ground and double-line border enclosing the denomination numeral “1” in solid Roman. In a narrow panel with curved ends and solid background at the base of the stamp is the word “Cent” in white Roman. Above the base panel in solid block lettering are the words “Fort Dearborn.”

The 3-cent stamp has for a central design a reproduction of the Federal building, with its three massive towers, on the exposition grounds. In a short narrow panel with solid background, and white border at the top of the stamp are the words “U.S. Postage” in white Roman. Below this top panel and on either side of the upper part of the central tower are the inscriptions “Century of Progress” at the left and “Chicago 1833-1933” at the right in solid gothic lettering arranged in two lines. In a horizontal line at the base of the central design are the words “Federal Building” in small solid block letters and directly underneath is the word “Cents” in white Roman. Within a circular panel with white border and solid background in each lower corner is the white Roman numeral “III.”

The Century of Progress commemorative stamps will be first placed on sale May 25, 1933, at the main post office at Chicago, Ill., but the stamps will not be available for purchase at the branch post office in the exposition grounds until June 1, the official opening date. The new stamps will be placed on sale at other post offices as soon after May 25 as production will permit. Should advance shipment of the new commemorative stamps be received, the postmaster is directed to see that the same are not offered for sale before May 26.

On May 18, the initial shipment of these stamps, consisting of one million of each denomination, left Washington, D.C., by air for Chicago. One week later, the stamps were placed on sale at the Chicago General Post Office with a great deal of ceremony including band performances and speeches. On the first day, 232,251 covers were mailed and a total of 1,586,409 of the 1-cent stamps and 2,425,900 of the 3-cent stamps were sold. Many covers were prepared with a combination of 1893 Columbian and 1933 Century of Progress stamps affixed.

The Philatelic Agency at the Fair was officially opened on May 27 and a special cancellation was used at this station reading CHICAGO, ILL. CENTURY OF PROGRESS STATION. A short time later, the Post Office Exhibit was opened which included a railway postal car along with another special cancellation that read U.S. RY. POSTAL CAR EXHIBIT – CENTURY OF PROGRESS EXHIBITION.

The American Philatelic Society was scheduled to hold its annual convention in Chicago from August 21-26 and an exhibition had been planned. As the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had a power press at the Fair, it was suggested that a special issue be prepared similar to that of the White Plains stamp made for the International Philatelic Exhibition in New York in 1926. Postmaster General Farley approved and the BEP prepared layovers for 25 subject panes from flat bed pressed. The model was approved on June 16. It was decided to issue them imperforate in these panes of 25, ungummed.

The official announcement on July 14, 1933 described them thusly:

The sheets will be approximately 5¾ by 4¾ inches in dimensions and will be issued ungummed and without perforations. In narrow margins on the four sides of the sheets in small Gothic lettering, corresponding to the color of the denominations, is the following wording: “Printed by the Treasury Department, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, under authority of James A Farley, Postmaster General, at a Century of Progress, in compliment to the American Philatelic Society for its Convention and Exhibition, Chicago, Illinois, August 1933.

The imperforate sheets went on sale on August 25 at the Medinah Club in Chicago, the headquarters of the APS convention. The facilities were insufficient to deal with the large number of collectors who wanted to buy them and service first day covers. It, of course, was necessary to affix the stamps to envelopes using glue. The USPOD ended up placing them on sale from special windows at the main post office.

Fort Dearborn was built in 1803 beside the Chicago River by troops under Captain John Whistler and named in honor of Henry Dearborn, then United States Secretary of War. The original fort was destroyed following the Battle of Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812, and a new fort was constructed on the same site in 1816. By 1837, the fort had been decommissioned. Parts of the fort were lost to both the widening of the Chicago River in 1855, and a fire in 1857. The last vestiges of Fort Dearborn were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The site of the fort is now a Chicago Landmark, located in the Michigan–Wacker Historic District.

On March 9, 1803, Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, wrote to Colonel Jean Hamtramck, the commandant of Detroit, instructing him to have an officer and six men survey the route from Detroit to Chicago, and to make a preliminary investigation of the situation at Chicago. Captain John Whistler was selected as commandant of the new post, and set out with six men to complete the survey. The survey completed, on July 14, 1803, a company of troops set out to make the overland journey from Detroit to Chicago. Whistler and his family made their way to Chicago on a schooner called the Tracy.

The troops reached their destination on August 17. The Tracy was anchored about half a mile offshore, unable to enter the Chicago River due to a sandbar at its mouth. Julia Whistler, the wife of Captain Whistler’s son, Lieutenant William Whistler, later related that 2000 Indians gathered to see the Tracy. The troops had completed the construction of the fort by the summer of 1804; it was a log-built fort enclosed in a double stockade, with two blockhouses. The fort was named Fort Dearborn.

A fur trader, John Kinzie, arrived in Chicago in 1804, and rapidly became the civilian leader of the small settlement that grew around the fort. In 1810, Kinzie and Whistler became embroiled in a dispute over Kinzie supplying alcohol to the Indians. In April, Whistler and other senior officers at the fort were removed; Whistler was replaced as commandant of the fort by Captain Nathan Heald.

During the War of 1812, General William Hull ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn in August 1812. Heald oversaw the evacuation, but on August 15 the evacuees were ambushed along the trail by about 500 Potawatomi Indians in the Fort Dearborn Massacre. The Potawatomi captured Heald and his wife, Rebekah, and ransomed them to the British. Of the 148 soldiers, women, and children who evacuated the fort, 86 were killed in the ambush. The Potawatomi burned the fort to the ground the next day.

Barracks of Second Fort Dearborn, 1856

Barracks of Second Fort Dearborn, 1856

Following the war, a second Fort Dearborn was built (1816). This fort consisted of a double wall of wooden palisades, officer and enlisted barracks, a garden, and other buildings. The American forces garrisoned the fort until 1823, when peace with the Indians led the garrison to be deemed redundant. This temporary abandonment lasted until 1828, when it was re-garrisoned following the outbreak of war with the Winnebago Indians. In her 1856 memoir Wau Bun, Juliette Kinzie described the fort as it appeared on her arrival in Chicago in 1831:

“The fort was inclosed [sic] by high pickets, with bastions at the alternate angles. Large gates opened to the north and south, and there were small portions here and there for the accommodation of the inmates. … Beyond the parade-ground which extended south of the pickets, were the company gardens, well filled with currant-bushes and young fruit-trees. The fort stood at what might naturally be supposed to be the mouth of the river, yet it was not so, for in these days the latter took a turn, sweeping round the promontory on which the fort was built, towards the south, and joined the lake about half a mile below

The fort was closed briefly before the Black Hawk War of 1832 and by 1837, the fort was being used by the Superintendent of Harbor Works. In 1837, the fort and its reserve, including part of the land that became Grant Park, was deeded to the city by the Federal Government. In 1855, part of the fort was demolished so that the south bank of the Chicago River could be dredged, straightening the bend in the river and widening it at this point by about 150 feet (46 m). In 1857, a fire destroyed nearly all the remaining buildings in the fort. The remaining blockhouse and few surviving outbuildings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

On March 5, 1899, the Chicago Tribune publicized a Chicago Historical Society replica of the original fort. In 1933, at the Century of Progress Exhibition, a detailed replica of Fort Dearborn was erected as a fair exhibit. In 1939, the Chicago City Council added a fourth star to the city flag to represent Fort Dearborn. This star is depicted as the left-most, or first, star of the flag. The site of the fort was designated a Chicago Landmark on September 15, 1971.

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