Susan J. Bandes, professor of Art History at Michigan State University, will conduct a program on the “lost remains” of America’s World’s Fairs 7 p.m., Thursday, January 16 at the Capital Area District Library, downtown Lansing, 401 S. Capitol Ave. The event is free and open to the public and is sponsored by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing (HSGL) and the Library.
Bandes’ interest in World’s Fairs began when she attended the 1964 World’s Fair in New York with her family. A remnant of that fair, a giant eight-story tire, sits alongside East I-94 in Allen Park, Michigan. Originally, a Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair sponsored by U.S. Royal Tires, it was repurposed as a tire company advertisement.
Bandes said World’s Fairs were ephemeral by nature and built to be temporary, but remnants of the Fairs abound including the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the last remaining building from the famed 1893 Chicago World’s Fair or Columbian Exposition, which is often called the “White City”.
“Seattle has the Space Needle and across the U.S. there are more obscure adaptations and examples of World’s Fair remnants,” Bandes said. Her talk will be illustrated with photographs of many of these “lost” remnants from World’s Fairs.
Bandes said she believes the World’s Fairs’ demise was due to several factors including their high cost to launch, the explosion of international travel, and the internet.
Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, which is sponsoring the event, said going to a World’s Fair was like stepping into the pages of an encyclopedia.
“Countries and states all sent their very best products, their most beautiful people and most interesting curiosities to the Fairs,” she said.
“One of the things that made the Fairs so special was they were temporary. Most lasted only a few months and then almost seemed to disappear. Unfortunately, most of the buildings and objects associated with them also disappeared, though a few treasures live on,” Marvin said.
She pointed out the large sideboard, constructed for the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition by Fiege Bros. of Saginaw for display at the Michigan pavilion, which now is in the Governor’s office in the Michigan State Capitol. She also said visitors to Disney World will see the Carousel of Progress ride which debuted at the 1964 Worlds’ Fair in New York. The current Ferris Wheel at the Navy Pier in Chicago recognizes that the first Ferris Wheel was unveiled at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Other local examples are “Natural Resources”, a spectacular mural in the Michigan History Museum by Paul Honoré, which was first displayed at the Michigan Pavilion at the Century of Progress Fair in 1933, and an exhibit in the Leslie Historical Museum which honors local resident Frank L. White who was the model for the chef on the Cream of Wheat box introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Likely, one of the most recognizable items from a World’s Fair is the 1964 Ford Mustang which also debuted at the World’s Fair. After it was introduced, 22,000 cars were sold in the first weekend. Other classic introductions at World’s Fairs were the hotdog and the ice cream cone (1904 St. Louis World’s Fair or Louisiana Purchase Exposition) and the picture phone (1964 New York World’s Fair).
World’s Fairs also attracted a variety of larger than life characters such as the serial killer depicted in the wildly popular book “Devil in the White City” and Ken Kesey of “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” who drove his bus “Furthur” to the 1964 Fair to create a stir. On a lighter note the Judy Garland film “Meet Me in St. Louis” was a hat’s off to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Marvin also said a few Michigan museums hold items from the World’s Fair such as the Henry Ford museum which has one of the original kiosks used at the IBM exhibit at the 1964 Fair which celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. The kiosk was designed by Charles and Ray Eames.
Although many experts disagree on exactly how many World’s Fairs there were in America (approximately 60) they do agree the first one was The American Institute Fair in New York City in 1829 and the last one was the New Orleans Fair in 1984.