When I was younger I thought American history was boring.
Sure there were exciting events and polarizing figures, but all my teachers just had a special way of making everything so simplified and dull. It also seemed like no matter what course I took it always began with Columbus and ended with the Civil War. Did nothing important happen outside of those dates?
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that it took me such a long time to discover the joys of historical nonfiction. Although the genre sounds clunky and unwieldy, thanks to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City I now realize that American history is more than a list of dates and pub quiz answers. Larson made me realize that history could indeed be exciting and relevant and haunting. I also learned about one of the most important events in modern American history that I NEVER EVEN KNEW ABOUT.
The fact that I had never learned about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is what the Australians would call a shockah. Not only is it the reason every child in the US says the Pledge of Allegiance, it also introduced the sideshow ‘midway’, the first commercial theater, Juicy Fruit gum, Aunt Jemima, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, Milton Hershey’s new chocolate line, automatic dishwashers, and spray painting. I don’t know about you, but that sounds much more like the cradle of American civilization to me than a bunch of cold pilgrims with British accents.
To say that the Chicago World’s Fair was influential is an understatement. Don’t believe me? Consider this- Thomas Edison was unable to convince the fair organizers to use his patented direct current electrical system and instead they used the European alternating current system. After the fair Edison still desperately tried to convince the public that his system was better by electrocuting dogs, cats, and a Coney Island elephant just to show how ‘dangerous’ the alternating system was.
Edison succeeded in inspiring the invention of the electric chair- but what electrical system do you think we use today?
Everything about the fair was master planned to give the world a taste of Chicago and of the American Renaissance. A lot of pride was on the line and the organizers already had a high standard to live up to- the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. In order to avoid being overshadowed, Chicago needed to produce a structure to rival the Eiffel Tower. So they built the Ferris Wheel.
This new-fangled ride both terrified the public and captured their imagination. Once such guest, George Tilyou, was inspired to build his own Ferris Wheel on Coney Island just four years later. It was to be the start of a huge demand both domestically and internationally for amusement parks, midways, and the burgeoning roller coaster industry.
Riding this wave of popularity, Jersey boy Frederick Ingersoll began designing entire amusement parks around the turn of the century. His chain, named Luna Park, was exported far and wide- from Mexico City to Turkey (where all amusement parks are called Luna Parks) to Australia.
Even though Ingersoll went into financial ruin twice and most of his parks eventually burnt down (that’s the problem when you build with wood), his legacy lives on in Sydney. Which is to say, by visiting the park that sunny, idyllic afternoon I was experiencing an extension of American history- and you know what, it wasn’t boring at all.
How to get to Luna Park: 1 Olympic Drive, Milsons Point NSW 2061
About: Erik Larson