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From the Sky Ride to ‘Midget City’: A Century of Progress Uncovered

In 1933, there were about 125 million Americans; more than a third of that number made a trip to the Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago’s 1933-1934 world’s fair, which celebrated the city’s 100th anniversary. That statistic hints at the fair’s importance—none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that the fair, scheduled to close in 1933, remain open an additional year, in the hope that it would stimulate the economy and help lift the nation out of the Depression. It couldn’t swing that, but as the photos in A Century of Progress: A Photographic Tour of the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair show, it did just about everything else. Published this month by Agate Midway, the book includes more than 100 images from the archives of The Chicago Tribune, which covered the fair from every angle. Stored in the newspaper’s archives deep below Tribune Tower, the images, made from glass plate and acetate negatives, show the fair’s varied attractions: the Sky Ride over the city; the Midway and its nightclubs; a functional General Motors assembly line. But not everything at the fair was so wholesome. What the book’s press release calls “a dose of unadulterated bad taste and insensitivity” included Ripley’s Odditorium, where we find Martin Laurello, the ‘Revolving Head,’ and Demetrio Ortis, the ‘Human Twister,’; fan dancer Sally Rand, who was frequently arrested for her performances; and an exhibition called Midget City, “populated with 60 socalled ‘Lilliputians.’”

“It’s quite an honor to head down to the Tribune’s fifth-floor sub-basement to search for historical photos of record,” says Marianne Mather, photo editor at the paper and for the book. “We found approximately 20 boxes that contain hundreds of images from the fair.” For her, it was easy to forget how revolutionary the fair’s vision of the future had been. “Here was science, innovation, and entertainment you could see and touch. You could watch a car being built from start to finish. You could hear a man in a glass room speak to you via headphones. You could tour homes of tomorrow, complete with air conditioning and garage-door openers. Modern conveniences we take for granted were on display. To those struggling during the Great Depression, the fair brought hope for the future.”

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Willard Worden’s Forgotten San Francisco

Views from Within the State Fair

PDN City Guide: Chicago (For PDN subscribers; Log in required)

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