Written by Cory Austin Knudson
Come see the wondrous plank! Sixteen feet across if it’s an inch! From the most ancient depths of the old-growth redwood forests of Humboldt County, the tree from which it was hewn overlooked the Pacific Ocean for centuries before Europeans ever arrived on this country’s eastern shore. And now it’s here, through the might and main of modern industry, polished to a high sheen with our celebrated and unparalleled Berry Brother’s Hard Oil Finish! “It is highly improbable,” says this informational handbill, “if a tree will ever be found that will yield a larger plank; so that the mammoth piece of timber here may certainly be termed the ‘sight of a lifetime.’” So come see the plank! And buy Berry Brothers Hard Oil Finish!
Print Coll 47 Michael Zinman collection of World’s Fairs and Expositions material is filled with promotional booklets, brochures, and handbills like this one from the legendary World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, more popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Some are sillier than others, though few reach such heights as the ad for the “Mammoth Redwood Plank.”
Proceeding through the Zinman materials, I became more intimately aware of how world’s fairs and expositions were not only spectacular gatherings of the world’s wonders, but incredibly lucrative business opportunities. More specifically, these facets of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century exposition craze were inseparable from one another—as participants touted the industrial and cultural achievements achievements people could witness at the fair, they were at the same time hawking their goods, and no doubt making a killing.
Initially, I found myself simply amused at these old-school advertising tactics—they seemed too indirect, too ornate, and sometimes just too random to be effective. More than once I would be reading what I thought was a pamphlet on, say, an exhibit of a new steam engine or of paintings imaginatively depicting Columbus’s 1492 voyage to find that, at the very end, a sudden appeal would enjoin me to buy a product apparently unrelated to what appeared to be the main focus of the advertisement (steel-cut oats in one case, a hand-drill in another). As I got used to this method, I started noticing how the sales pitch would be subtly woven into the “story” of the advertisement—one particularly prodigious ad detailing the development of processed dairy products ultimately presented a dangerously seductive case for the monstrosity that is “American” cheese as the symbol, the very apotheosis, of the American dream. (In any case it made me hungry for some mac and cheese.)
In a broader sense, what I began to get a feel for while going through the hundreds upon hundreds of advertisements contained in the files of the Zinman collection was how world’s fair ads and the organizations behind them seem to have surreptitiously helped bring together the central components of the ideology of western progress associated with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: technological innovation and colonial expansion. Visions of industrialism and imperialism indeed converge in apparently mundane advertisements for varnish, or canned goods, or new rail lines, such as this Frisco System handbill from the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition of 1901:
Things like this made me consider the institution of the world’s fair as a whole—to what degree, I wondered, were these individual advertisements related to or even constitutive of overall visions of the “world” that world’s fairs promoted? Of course, some of the material in this collection is rather more obvious about the imperial animus undergirding many expositions, such as this telling program cover from 1899:
In this same vein, the Zinman collection shows how closely our often fondly remembered world’s fairs were tied to the now justly reviled institution of the “human zoo.” Box 7 Folder 5 contains a booklet showing several of the human “exhibits” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for example, while contemporaneous articles included throughout the collection detail the extent to which the so-called ethnographic expositions were a regular feature of world’s fairs into the twentieth century. I began registering how similar the language of some advertisements for consumer novelties was to the that of ads for people who at the time were considered ethnographic novelties. While some fair participants were hawking hand drills and oatmeal, so to speak, others were at the same time and in similar ways selling a particular vision of human beings, of who counted as “normal” or “civilized” and who did not.
The fairs that claimed to represent the whole world—fairs that indeed often included “world” in their very titles, or otherwise “universal,” “international,” or similar all-encompassing designations—in fact only seemed to “see” the world from a very specific viewpoint and through a very specific lens. The Zinman collection can allow us some critical insight on this viewpoint and this lens.
The next time Chicago would host a world’s fair was in 1933, and its theme was “A Century of Progress.” The Zinman collection houses the infamous novelty toilets from the 1933 exposition (Box 3 Folder 6), now legendary around the Kislak center:
This humorous souvenir is supposed to represent in microcosm the great strides the world had taken over the hundred years between 1833 and 1933: from the chamber pot to the crapper, as one of my colleagues put it. But as much as the bathroom changed, much else stayed the same when it came to world’s fair advertising, not least of which was nearly everything that had to do with people of color and the cultures of what today is called the global south. Typical in this vein are the pamphlets from the Belgian Congo exhibit at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40.
Conspicuously tucked in in with “flora and fauna,” the “native life” section of the Congo’s tourism pamphlet advertises a simple and tractable people who are only too happy with the governance of Belgian colonists. This positive picture no doubt serves to give credence to the Belgian Congo exhibit’s similarly rosy advertisements for diamonds and rubber, the extraction of which we now know was based on the indescribably brutal treatment of the native people of the Congo.
I suppose I could go on like this–there are, as I mentioned, hundreds upon hundreds of ads in this collection, from giant planks to diamond mines, providing a panorama of advertising methods and representations from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. But this entire world of material that is now available should be left for researchers more capable than I am, and I will leave it to them to explore it.