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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Progress: The Meaning of the Machine
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Progress
Text 1. Memory and Machines
Text 2. Brooklyn Bridge
Text 3. Human Machines
Text 4. Christine Frederick
Text 5. Thomas Eakins
Text 6. Thomas Edison
Text 7. Wealth and Weightlessness
Text 8. Southern Statis
Text 9. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago
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Reading Guide
World's Columbian Exposition
Columbian Exposition
The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago
- Henry Adams, "Chicago," Ch. 22 in The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
- The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1894

The great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams (1838-1918) considered himself a man born a century too late. His autobiography, published privately in 1907, documents a series of personal events that constitute his "education." Unlike an autobiography, The Education uses the third-person point-of-view, and this unique authorial choice endows Adams's unfolding life with poignancy and irony as he is poised on the brink of the modern age. In this chapter, "Chicago," Adams visits the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 to commemorate Columbus's landing in America. For Adams, however, it is simply too much. He is overawed by the machinery on display and laments the holistic monuments of ages past. His appreciation or apprehension of the White City is, of course, cast differently than that of the average American given his background and experience, and he understands that the pre-packaged and paraded knowledge of the World's Fair represents an uneasy relationship between science and history. His flurry of questions indicates that he didn't condescendingly eschew the intellectual fare but thought deeply about its significance for both his own "education" and the country's future. Upon leaving the Fair, he returns to Washington, where Congress has just repealed the Silver Act, thus setting the nation again on a single gold standard. This was a victory for the banks and capitalists, and Adams, fresh from seeing the triumph of capitalism in Chicago, interprets it in historic terms: "For a hundred years, between 1793 and 1893, the American people had hesitated, vacillated, swayed forward and back, between two forces, one simply industrial, the other capitalistic, centralizing, and mechanical. In 1893, the issue came on the single gold standard and the majority at last declared itself, once for all, in favor of the capitalistic system with all its necessary machinery." The country, in his view, had embraced a system that not only "ruthlessly stamped out the life of the class into which he was born," but also placed the running of the country beyond common people, beyond "Southern and Western farmers [and] city day-laborers." The Dream City will give you a sense of what Adams saw. 6 pages plus any photographs you may choose to print.

Discussion questions
  1. What does Adams think about progress?
  2. What might Whitman have said about the Exposition if he had lived to see it?
  3. What other buildings or kinds of buildings do you think of when you see the photos of the Exposition?
  4. What does the style of architecture say about the fair organizers' vision of America?
  5. What kind of "progress" is seen in the Exposition?
  6. Compare the architecture of the 1893 Exposition with that of the 1876 Exposition.

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans of this period define progress?
  •  What did progress mean to them?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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