Intentional Impermanence: Excavating the 1893 World’s Fair

Three hundred miles northeast of the ancient city of Cahokia, another urban archaeological site at Chicago’s south side Jackson Park marks a historical turning point eight centuries later. But whereas great effort and resources went into maintaining Cahokia’s mounds for generations, the “White City” fairgrounds of the 1893 World’s Fair were designed to be spectacular but ultimately temporary and subject to demolishment, reflecting the increasing consumerism of a developing industrial Gilded Age America. Catering to over twelve million tourists who visited the fair, the board of architects under Daniel Burnham sought to design and build a magnificent city in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts design as cheaply as possible, balancing expected opulence and expensive infrastructure (including 56 miles of sewers and an electrical system powering over 90,000 lights) with financial constraints (Graff 2011:222; Graff 2012).

In order to achieve this, they used “staff”, a plaster mixture containing jute fibers and horsehair whose particular recipe is often attributed to the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Also appropriately known as “counterfeit marble”, it was the ideal material for the imitative gilding of finishes and facades on the main buildings of the White City. Over 50 large fragments of these plaster columns, urns, and volutes were uncovered in a 1.5 meter deep trench (likely a utility or builder’s trench) in a 2008 archaeological excavation at Jackson Park led by Dr. Rebecca Graff, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College. These fragments (Fig. 1) were positively identified as part of the fair’s Ohio Building based on comparisons with historical photos (Graff 2012).

Figure 1. Staff fragments discovered in Graff’s 2008 excavation of the former grounds of the Ohio Building. Photograph by R. Graff.

The Ohio Building (Fig. 2) was built to the scale of a grand home or small hotel in a neocolonial style, based on historical documentation. Like many of the state buildings, the Ohio Building was intended to showcase local materials in the design, including terracotta roof tiles found in association with the staff fragments. However, it also functioned as a temporary “pseudo-domestic space” in which tourists could reorient themselves in a space evocative of home when the novelty and excitement of the fair proved overwhelming, as evidenced by associated artifacts like porcelain fragments, pipe stems, and glass cruet tops from bottles of oil and vinegar (Graff 2011:228-229).

Figure 2. The facade of the Ohio Building at the “White City” of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Photographer unknown.

The archaeological significance of the 1893 fairgrounds has been roped into recent local controversy over the planned construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (TCLF 2018). A 2017 Illinois State Archaeological Survey on the proposed site found 9,841 artifacts, but state officials say these don’t provide sufficiently significant new knowledge to challenge construction on the basis of the National Historic Preservation Act (Kamin 2018). But regardless, the archaeological evidence of this urban tourism provides insight into a changing American society at the turn of the century as it shifted to a mindset characterized by cheap mass-production and consumerism.

Additional information on the 1893 World’s Fair or concerns over the Obama Center.


References –

The Cultural Landscape Foundation                                                                                2018  More Concerns About the Obama Center as Archaeological Report on Jackson Park Faces New Scrutiny. Electronic document,, accessed November 17, 2019.

Graff, Rebecca S.                                                                                                            2011  Being Toured While Digging Tourism: Excavating the Familiar at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 15(2):222-235.

Graff, Rebecca S.                                                                                                            2012  Dream City, Plaster City: Worlds’ Fairs and the Gilding of American Material Culture. International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 16(4):696-716.

Kamin, Blair                                                                                                                      2018  Artifacts from 1893 World’s Fair found beneath Obama center site, but report signals construction won’t be blocked. Chicago Tribune 25 March. Chicago.

The Newberry                                                                                                                  2018  The Vanishing City: Excavating the World’s Fair (A Lecture by Rebecca Graff). Electronic document,, accessed November 17.

2 thoughts on “Intentional Impermanence: Excavating the 1893 World’s Fair

  1. What can we learn from comparing efforts to preserve this site in relation to efforts to preserve Cahokia? Why are some sites protected and others aren’t? Who should get to decide?

  2. In the case of protecting the cultural heritage of both Chicago’s Jackson Park and Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, the support of community organized activists and independent organizations has been essential in garnering governmental support. The Cultural Landscape Foundation has challenged the findings of the archaeological survey of Jackson Park to argue that the remains found on the site provide significant new knowledge and should therefore be protected. A similar organization, Heartlands Conservancy, has been working to protect Cahokia Mounds under federal legislation. Of course, the two sites are different in what they reveal about American history, one a Native American city almost a thousand years old that stood for centuries and the other a three-month-long fair at the turn of the 20th century, but we see in both cases that federal legislation drawn up to protect archaeological sites generally comes out of community efforts and academic proof of importance rather than by the will of the government. This shows the importance of democracy in influencing government decisions, so that sites that would otherwise be overlooked can be protected.

    The Cultural Landscape Foundation 2018 More Concerns About the Obama Center as Archaeological Report on Jackson Park Faces New Scrutiny. Electronic document,, accessed November 17, 2019.

    Leonard, Mary Delach
    2019 Federal Legislation Expected Soon to Make Cahokia Mounds A National Park. Electronic document,, accessed December 7, 2019.

Leave a Reply