The following is by Wendy Katz, editor of The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898–1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle (February 2018). Many of the photos included below can be found at the Omaha Public Library—and Wendy Katz can be found there as well, along with several other contributors to the anthology, on March 2.
The Surprising History of the Everyday American
Nebraska’s contribution to American history always surprises me by being both typical and exceptional. The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 in Omaha is a good example.
Holding an Exposition—a World’s Fair—in the 1890s was not itself unusual. Midsize cities throughout the country were eager to bestow on themselves some of the cachet of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Chicago’s elegant parks, sparkling vistas and displays of civilization’s progress dazzled visitors into believing such sophistication was the future of American cities. Utopian novels were written about it.
John Ross Key had done a series of views of the Chicago World’s Fair and was hired to give the same look to the Omaha Exposition. His paintings, from which these lithographs were made, are at the Durham Museum in Omaha.
Exposition organizers in Omaha set out to copy Chicago’s White City. They knew quite well that Omaha had too recently been on the “frontier” for people to consider it sophisticated. Local merchants were accordingly eager to see romantic swan boats (see in the far distance in the poster) unromantically belching smoke on the Exposition lagoon. But the changes made by the Omaha fair promoters in trying to create a New White City, are telling: the Ferris Wheel, Chicago’s signature ride and an icon of technological prowess and mass entertainment, became, first, a more decorous and respectable Giant Umbrella (think of the wheel turned on its side, then raised up and down), and finally a more child-like, nostalgic Giant See-Saw.
Omaha’s adaptations were economic and practical, of course. Even Omaha’s Indian Congress, with its staged cowboy and Indian battles, was a cheaper substitute for the expensive anthropological museum that had been built in Chicago. But the choices of what to copy and what to alter also reveal a midwestern traditionalism, and sometimes a populism, that was at odds with the urbanized modernity projected by Chicago.
Morte Parsons wrote a song for the Exposition, “Little Sod Shanty on the Plains,” that warned “we’ve not been very stylish or progressive.” A sod house, a symbol of Populist Presidential candidate and Nebraska lawyer William Jennings Bryan, was one of the concessions put out on the Midway with other commercial entertainments; you could buy coffee and gingerbread there.
Omaha’s mix of admiration for and resistance to America’s new corporate culture had solid grounding in the region’s recent agricultural and economic depression. With memories of droughts and grasshopper plagues still vivid, Kansas proposed a display of cancelled farm mortgages for the Exposition. A nude painting of a famous Parisian artist’s model was promoted as being based on a virtuous “western” girl, who did it to save her family from poverty. Fair organizers hired a commercial company that specialized in supplying “natural” decorations at expositions, but in Omaha—located on a migratory bird route—the birds ate the decorations. A rifleman was hired to shoot them, but to no avail. In the end, Mrs. Pugh’s daily demonstrations on how to cook with corn were the most effective at promoting Plains “nature” in an increasingly consumerist society.
Women were deeply invested in the campaign to define the region’s future. For example, Ethel Evans was hired by Edward Rosewater, a Czechoslovakian Jew, former Union soldier in the Civil War, and proprietor of the Republican Omaha Bee (Bryan wrote for his rival, the World-Herald), to review art at the Exposition. Evans was a painter, and a New Woman. New Women pushed boundaries. In an issue of the Bee edited entirely by women, including Evans, a feature on the “New Man” described them giving up the sexual double standard. In Evans’ columns on the Exposition, she defended Impressionism, and American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, for abandoning “prettiness” for something more artistic.
If Evans and the Bee’s other women columnists admired the Exposition’s graceful neo-classical architecture and triumphant sculpture, its vision of a clean city whose public spaces were open to women as well as men, other women objected. Two women vandalized the fair’s rather generic allegorical sculptures as obscene.
Populist editor Mary Fairbrother more convincingly accused the Exposition organizers of seeing art only from the “narrow and cultured point of view of the woman’s club.” In 1899, when Omaha tried to capitalize on the success of 1898 by holding a second fair, Fairbrother got a chance to promote an alternate view. What Gurdon Wattles, president of the earlier Exposition, had dismissed as the “bed-quilt” element, would be showcased. For Fairbrother, most women’s work was confined to the home, which meant they were not paid. Their labor was not recognized as having monetary, or much of any, value, other than sentimental value, just as homemakers today do not get Social Security. Exhibiting women’s crafts in what she called a “Greater American Home” would recognize their labor as an economic contribution, like the products made by men shown in the Manufacturing building.
Little survives of either the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898 or the Greater America Exposition of 1899. Postcards, stamps, medals, photographs, spoons, and other souvenirs are almost all that remain. These material things, however, offer insight into how ordinary people thought about women, or Native Americans, or the government and its new colonies in the Philippines. In studying the Omaha fairs, and even more in specifically considering their ephemera, as well as the stories of women and men like Fairbrother, Evans, Rosewater, we are recovering the surprising history of the everyday American.
For more memorabilia from the Omaha Expositions, visit the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition website.