The Chicago World Fair in 1933 celebrated a "Century of Progress." Source: Getty Images
The Chicago World Fair in 1933 celebrated a "Century of Progress." Source: Getty Images

In May 1933, Chicago hosted the World's Fair, providing a country mired in the Great Depression with some much-needed entertainment.

Planning for the fair had begun in 1928, but the stock-market crash the following year convinced many that the "Century of Progress" exhibition would be a fiasco. By 1933, New Deal reforms were taking effect, and conditions were starting to improve.

Foreign representatives flocked to Chicago, with a few notable exceptions. The French refused to come and instead planned a Paris industrial fair to attract tourists. The Germans weren’t invited. Nazi attacks on Jews in Europe had spurred protests in the U.S. When the Nazis sent an exhibition of German church art to the fair, it was stopped by protesters in New York.

President Franklin Roosevelt had pledged to open the ceremonies on May 27, but he withdrew on May 17, explaining that he had canceled all engagements until after Congress adjourned. Vice President John Nance Garner couldn’t leave Washington either, so James Farley, head of the Democratic National Committee, read the president’s remarks on the opening day.

Roosevelt wrote that he hoped the fair would inaugurate "a century of even greater progress -- progress not only along material lines; progress not only of my own country, but a world uplifting that will culminate in greater happiness of mankind, and release all peoples from the outworn processes and policies that have brought about such a commercial and industrial depression as has plagued every country on the globe."

The fair celebrated commercial and scientific innovation. Most of the pavilions and exhibits displayed or sold new products. The Travel and Transportation Building showcased the largest unobstructed area ever enclosed beneath a roof, and auto companies built a series of special exhibition halls.

General Motors offered the greatest show of all. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the company erected the fair’s largest building, featuring a $1.2 million exhibit. Inside was an assembly plant where visitors could view the manufacturing process and test-drive cars on a special concourse. Ford, a no-show, was hugely upstaged.

Forty years had elapsed since Chicago last hosted the fair in 1893. Back then, the "Columbian Exposition" had dazzled Americans with blazing electrical displays during an earlier economic decline. By 1933, a vast technological transition had occurred. As the New York Times put it:

“Airplanes compressed the time-dimensions of a continent to the size of an ancient Greek state; automobiles traveled in an hour three times the distance that the Conestoga wagons made in a long laborious day, and machines were giving birth to other machines with hardly the need of a human midwife.”

Some 400,000 people rushed to the 1933 fair in its first five days, more than twice the number who attended the opening week in 1893. Maybe, just maybe, things were getting better.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net