No other event in Chicago history has captured the popular and scholarly imagination as much as the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The White City has inspired children’s books, a board game, an indie rock song, a series of romance novels, an upcoming movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and an impressive number of monographs on religion, race, gender, art, technology, and urban history. Joseph Gustaitis, a former humanities editor for Collier’s Encyclopedia and an Emmy-winning television writer, does not feel that our fascination with the Columbian Exposition is misplaced, but he believes that the desire to contrast the perfectly orchestrated spectacle in Jackson Park with its dirty, disorderly host city has caused us to overlook innovations and movements that contributed to the emergence of Chicago as a global city. “Chicago in 1893 was a city of pestilence, pollution and poverty,” admits Gustaitis. But Chicago was also “a city of museums and merchants, skyscrapers and schools, candy and clerics, writers and reformers, entrepreneurs and engineers, bicycles and ballparks” (12).
The eclecticism of Chicago’s Greatest Year is both its strength and its weakness. Gustaitis covers cultural institutions (the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago Public Library), business (Sears, Montgomery Ward, Armour, Wrigley Gum), feminism (Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), religion (Father Augustus Tolton and Dwight Lyman Moody), education (Illinois Institute of Technology), literature (Henry Blake Fuller, Finley Peter Dunne, and George Ade), sports (the West Side Grounds), food (the Chicago hot dog), the built environment (the Chicago School of Architecture), reform politics (William T. Stead), and public health (Provident Hospital, Florence Kelley, and early movements for clean water and air). Many of these subjects will be easily recognizable to students of Chicago history or the Progressive Era, but the inclusion of heart surgery, Vienna Beef, the Chicago Cubs, bicycle culture, smallpox vaccination, Juicy Fruit gum, and the Society for the Prevention of Smoke into an analysis of the city’s history makes the book an enjoyable but edifying read.
Gustaitis skillfully ties his subjects to that which draws people from around the world to Chicago today. Though filled with familiar landmarks and corporations, Chicago’s Greatest Year thankfully ventures beyond the [End Page 143] Loop. Gustaitis gives greater attention to St. Monica, an African American Catholic parish led by Father Augustus Tolton, than he does the Art Institute. The story of Daniel Hale Williams, an African-American doctor who performed one of the world’s first successful open-heart surgical operations in Provident Hospital, really does not fit within the established narratives of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Gustaitis uses the accomplishments of Williams, who was once a barber, and Provident Hospital, an institution he founded to give equal treatment of care to patients regardless of race, to explore how Chicago became one of the premier medical centers in the world. Chicago’s Greatest Year does not insinuate that 1893 was the high-water mark for Chicago literature, nor does Gustaitis suggest Henry Blake Fuller, Finley Peter Dunne, and George Ade were somehow superior to Federal Writers’ Project alumni Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, and Saul Bellow. Instead, he rehabilitates that frequently forgotten trio of writers to show the transformation of Chicago from a boom town with little (other than the great literary magazine The Dial) to show for it, into a place with its distinctive voice in American literature.
Some readers may, however, tire of the methods by which Gustaitis ties a number of his subjects to 1893. For example, the 1893 incorporation of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., its move from Minneapolis to Chicago, and the release of the new company’s first catalog were not managerial master-strokes, but rather decisions that led to an overexpansion in a severe economic downturn. Two years later, Richard W. Sears sold half of his failing company to Aaron Nussbaum, an entrepreneur who made his first fortune selling soft drinks at the World’s Columbian Exposition, and his brother-in...