World’s fairs were not your average county fairs. Beginning in the mid-1800s, countries and cities vied for the honor of hosting them and spent millions in the name of civic and national pride, says Hayley Prihoda, the DAR Museum’s assistant curator of education.
“They were kind of like the Olympics, in that they were an opportunity for the host country to show off,” she says.
The Midwestern fairs at the turn of the 20th century were a particularly big deal, Prihoda adds. Over six months, the Chicago World’s Fair attracted an estimated 27 million people, including nearly a quarter of the U.S. population at the time. The planners erected hundreds of temporary buildings for the event, a task that cost more than $46 million, the equivalent of about $1.2 billion today. The goal? To get Americans excited about the future at a moment of major social and economic change.
“It was very much a transitional period,” Prihoda says. “A lot of people were scared about the rapid changes they were seeing, but they were also excited about the new possibilities opening up.”
Demonstrations of new inventions, such as electricity and the Ferris wheel, encouraged people to see technology as wondrous and fun instead of scary and dangerous. Of course, modern Americans don’t need to be convinced that electricity is useful and safe, so the DAR Museum educators will show how century-old innovations paved the way for the tools we use today.
For instance, the stereoscope — which was among the tech on display at the Chicago fair — presented viewers with two photos at slightly different angles in order to create an illusion of depth, presaging 3-D movies.
“We bought a [replica] stereoscope that people can try out, and we are going to use some of our collection items to facilitate a conversation about how the zoetrope and the stereoscope and all these technologies helped people move toward what would later become film,” Prihoda says. “I hope [visitors] can get a taste of why people were excited about these things and I hope it gets them thinking about how the tools we use today are the product of hundreds of years of development.”
Many iconic American foods were also popularized at these long-ago world’s fairs, and the DAR will be handing out samples of some of them, including cotton candy, puffed rice, Dr. Pepper and Popsicles.
Prihoda says the beaux-arts DAR Memorial Continental Hall is the perfect place to host a retro world’s fair, because it features an architectural style that was popularized at the Chicago fair. In fact, the DAR organization and its collection of colonial-era furniture (which is on permanent display in the DAR Museum) were born from ideas seeded at the Chicago and St. Louis fairs.
“The world’s fairs were about embracing the future, but at the same time, people were looking back at early America and becoming nostalgic for our colonial past,” Prihoda says. “A lot of museums, including ours, came out of asking how we can maintain an American identity in turbulent times, and that’s a question I think is still relevant today.”
DAR Memorial Continental Hall, 1776 D St. NW; Sat., 10 a.m.-3 p.m., free.