In 1893 Chicago was the host of the World’s Fair. The World’s Fair is an event that has been happening on and off since the late 1700s. The focus originally of the fair was meant to feature the achievements of the nation hosting and those individuals participating. It would feature the best of the best from all over the host nation, and was meant to stun and impress all of those that attended. In recent years the event has become more focused on specific themes, and the popularity has waned quite a bit. However, at the turn of the century, the World’s Fair was still a significant event, and the pressure on Chicago was great.
Chicago had a rather difficult time in even securing the ability to host. New York was one of the top contenders, and many people scoffed at the notion that a city like Chicago, considered beneath some of the “better” cities, would even be able to pull it off. In addition to the struggles in even securing the location, people were still raving about the 1889’s Exposition Universelle in Paris. Among other things revealed during Paris’ fair was the Eiffel Tower, considered to be a great marvel at the time in engineering. Not only was the fair success in what it showed, but it was largely attended, and considered one of the most successful of all time.
I lay out this background to give a bit of understanding of the immense weight and pressure on the city of Chicago and the fair’s leader Daniel Burnham. He had the pressure of making sure they lived up to the fair in Paris, to make sure that Chicago proved that it could handle it, and to bring some pride to America, which was struggling at the time building up to an economic collapse. I think this pressure might have contributed to a few errors in judgment on the part of Burnham, including his dealings with one Mr. William Cody.
William Cody, or Buffalo Bill Cody, as many people are more likely to know him, was a soldier, turned hunter, turned showman. He went through many different stages in his life; the one which most of us know him for was when he had Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. It was in a similar vein as a traveling circus, just with a clear and distinct “wild west” theme running through it. It featured hundreds of performers from around the world and many animals like bison and cattle that brought a certain feel with them. They did reenactments like Custer’s Last Stand and the taking of the Pony Express. It also featured a few what we would likely call folk heroes like Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull.
In addition to the show itself, Buffalo Bill was something of his own spectacle. With the benefit of time, yes, a lot of the show was borderline if not outright questionable, but at the time, Bill was a forward-thinking man. He hired many that others wouldn’t, including displaced Native Americans and black Americans, including (but not limited to) former slaves. He was also outspoken about the need for the government to make good with those two groups and a supporter of the suffrage movement. It made him quite the character in many people’s eyes, and depending on what part of society a person was from, it went a long way to shape their impression of Bill. In truth, a lot of “proper” society didn’t much care for him, which features in with all of this.
So between the pressure on the park and the general “low brow” feeling that Bill Cody’s show gave to those putting on the World’s Fair, when Cody’s business partner approached them to be featured in the fair, they weren’t too keen. Cody’s partner was given a rather insulting offer that they could be part of the fair but that the fair would take 50% of all the shows taken it, not their profit, their take in. It was a wild offer that no smart business person would take, including Bill Cody, something Burnham would probably end up regretting.
In the wake of the offer, Cody sent his partner back, but this time to obtain 15 acres in Chicago, right next to Jackson Park, where the World’s Fair would be held.
Thus began Bill Cody’s attempts to still make a lot of money off of the Chicago World’s Fair after being told he wasn’t good enough to be part of it. He set up everything he needed for a grand version of the Wild West Show. In addition to the main performances, there were stalls and games and side line performers all over the 15 acres and chances for people to get up close to the animals. It was over the top and a grand scene.
He also made sure to get the press excited about their show, and Annie Oakley ended up surrounded by reporters when she first arrived. Buzz for the Wild West Show was building at a quick rate.
Meanwhile, Burnham was struggling to meet his May 1st opening day deadline. The winters in Chicago are usually tough, and that one especially so, delaying some of the building. They also dealt with fires, difficulty with getting all of the organizers on the same page, worker strikes, and their counter to the Eiffel Tower, The Ferris Wheel, was delayed.
Bill Cody, meanwhile was ready, and so opened a month earlier than the World’s Fair, already drawing people in. By the time the official opening ceremony took place for the Fair, Bill Cody had already experienced weeks of sold-out shows and profits.
From there, Bill kept at it. Burnham and those with the World’s Fair were pressured to do something for the poor kids of Chicago. Due to the delays and the financial difficulties in America, they were unwilling to take the risk of poor ticket sales though since they were already lagging.
Bill Cody allowed the poor kids of Chicago to come for “Waif’s Day,” in which they not only got in for free but could have all the candy and ice cream they wanted as well as experience anything they had to offer free of charge. 15,000 kids showed up, and it was an expensive day for Bill Cody but was met with such good PR and gratitude from the people of Chicago that the following days more than made up for it.
Bill Cody made sure that any time traveling dignitaries were in town for the Fair that he got someone to meet them and invite them to his show. Several important people spent almost as much time at the Wild West show as they did the “White City” (what the fair was referred to as).
Interestingly enough, at one point, the fair did realize that they needed a bit more “spectacle,” the kind that Bill Cody could have provided. They ended up having to hire some of Cody’s actors as well as many workers to fill roles of performers walking around the fair. The very thing they could have gotten as part of a deal with Buffalo Bill.
At each turn, Bill Cody paid attention to what was happening with the fair and in Chicago and was prepared to meet with some plan of his own. He used their location, their advertising, and everything he could to make his show as accessible, if not more so than the fair itself. By the time both ended, many people had believed that the two were connected.
In the end, the fair was a huge success, something that everybody, Billy Cody included, had wanted. Yes, they had struggles, but once everything was in place, it was considered to be one of the best that ever happened. The giant Ferris Wheel was a marvel, and the look of the “White City” was dazzling. Almost everybody left with truly positive things to say, and one of the biggest complaints was that there was too much to take in, which is not a bad complaint at all.
It is amusing to know, though, that the better the fair did, the better Billy Cody, who wasn’t the right type for it, also did. However, unlike everybody else, Bill Cody didn’t have to pay a single cent to those in charge of the fair. It is good that both saw success, and one has to wonder how much Burnham and the others regretted not trying to work with him. But as much as the final part of the story is happy, I personally have to say that I respect the hell out of how petty Cody was and what he managed to turn that into. A tip of the hat to Buffalo Bill, one of the most popular attractions of the World’s Fair, even though they told him he wasn’t part of it.