The Newberry: An Invitation to The World’s Fair







The young Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was a multitasker, dividing his time in 1893 between construction of the Fisheries Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition and building the Newberry Library. The Fair closed in October, the Library opened at its current site in November, and now the Newberry celebrates that quintessential time on the walls of its magnificently remodeled galleries with Pictures from an Exhibition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair on the 125th anniversary of the Fair.


Ferris Wheel.

The Fisheries building was constructed in staff—that curious mix of plaster of Paris and cement—then covered with paint to look like marble, only to be destroyed by fire soon after the Fair. Previously in smaller locations after its founding in 1887, Cobb’s new Spanish Romanesque library building was made of pink Connecticut granite, and the exhibition celebrates a stunning renovation of its first floor, with terrific new lighting and flexibility of space.


First floor renovation. Photo courtesy of Newberry Library.


Welcome Center. Photo by Tom Rossiter.

Diane Dillon, Director of Exhibitions and Major Projects and curator of exhibitions in two of the Newberry’s new galleries, calls the Columbian Exposition “the grandest international spectacle in an age of spectacles.”

 She continues:

“I believe as a scholar that there was not one great thing about the Fair—the whole was truly greater than its parts. It was a temporary event that needs to be celebrated in its totality. Our exhibition features many images—photographs, guidebooks, drawings, studies of various sorts, newspapers, albums, and souvenirs—so that visitors can know not only about the Fair but its time in history. It interweaves fine art with popular imagery as well as economic and aesthetic imperatives.”


Calvano playing cards.


Through the World’s Fair with a Camera.


Belonging to a Ms. Olson.


Admission ticket, 1893.

 Like so many Chicagoans forever fascinated by the Fair, we asked Diane her impressions.

What was most remarkable about the Fair?

 Definitely the people, the can-do leadership of Chicagoans—they made it happen. It was tremendous and tireless work of individuals who pulled it all together. And yes, there is a parallel between that time and the leadership at the Newberry that pulled together to make the remarkable renovation happen.

If you were a time traveler and could go back for a day, where would you visit?

There’s a book in our exhibition that made recommendations about what you should see if you had a week at the Fair but even that wasn’t enough. Since I am an art historian, I would probably visit the Palace of Fine Arts, which became the Museum of Science and Industry. But there was art in almost every building at the Fair: works by women in the Women’s Building, vases and decorative pieces in the Manufacturers Building, wonders in each state building.


A slide showing a view of the Exposition.

In the John Singer Sargent exhibition that closed recently at the Art Institute, four out of the nine Sargent paintings exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1893 were on display.

 Was there one Fair leader who you find most fascinating?

The artist Francis D. Millet served as Chief of Decorations and Functions. In the first job, he worked with all the muralists and sculptors, including all the incredible outdoor public works done by some of the finest sculptors of the day.

As Chief of Functions, his was in charge of all the spectacular and special events. There would be Shakespeare performed on the Wooden Island, Japanese lantern shows, parades throughout the Fair by all of the performers on the Midway, even boat races between the Eskimos and the Samoans. He was particularly busy in August and September when the leaders wanted to encourage people to return to the Fair for another visit.

He was an artist himself and did many oil paintings. We show a print of his watercolor of the Statue of the Republic in the show.


Statue of the Republic, illustration by Millet.

Cobb’s Fisheries building was said to be one of the Fair’s most extraordinary buildings, with a 600-foot glass front filled with condensed saltwater brought from the Atlantic for the most amazing collection of fish and other marine creatures. The exterior, deemed odd but extraordinary, was decorated with eels, tortoises, fish, and other sea creatures and was one of the Fair’s most popular halls.

Social historian and lecturer Celia Hilliard, a longtime Newberry supporter, recently toured the wonders of the newly restored Newberry ground floor as well as the World’s Fair exhibition. Celia agreed to share with our readers her suggestions of what not to miss, adding, “It’s now a glorious welcoming space that should open a whole new world of intellectual adventure for both scholarly readers and the general public.”

She adds:

“Just outside the main exhibition hall, a large table-size Ferris Wheel, which has postcard display racks in the place of rows of passenger seats. This object highlights the interesting fact that both the picture postcard and the commemorative stamp were invented in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, those first cards and stamps being objects of value today. The rack also calls attention to one of the Newberry’s most recent acquisitions: the archives of Curt Teich & Company, longtime postcard manufacturers.

“Other items in the cases here span many years—from an 1891 atlas of the City of Chicago to guidebooks to World War I battlefields to Ben Hecht’s Oscar statuette (1928, the first Academy Award presented to a screenwriter) to ‘Ladies Marching,’ a poster created for use at the Chicago Women’s March, January 21, 2017.

“Another impressive attraction in this hall is the original sign that hung in the lobby of the Newberry Library, circa 1895. It is large and vivid, red and gold, a real Gilded Age treasure in gold leaf and sign paint on glass. It proclaims the Newberry Library is ‘Free to the Public’ and ‘Open Every Day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.’ (Imagine such hours today!)

West of the lobby is an exciting new exhibition gallery, “From the Stacks.” According to Celia, this will feature a mix of books, manuscripts, maps, and objects from the collections, changed four times a year. This first exhibit has a strong focus on Edward E. Ayer, one of the Newberry’s initial trustees who gave the first great collection to the Newberry: more than 17,000 items relating to the early contact between the American Indians and the European explorers and settlers.

 “Ayer also established an endowment to build that collection, making it one of the Newberry’s most important core collections. There is a portrait of Ayer sitting in the library of his home on Banks Street, situated once upon a time at the northeast corner of State and Banks streets. Ayer commissioned his artist nephew, Elbridge Ayer Burbank, to paint Geronimo, who was then at Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory. During the following four years, Burbank made many more portraits of American Indians. The Newberry holds 25 of these colorful oil paintings, 12 of which are on display here. A fascinating object around the corner (against the north wall) is the massive old door to the vault where Ayer’s collection was stored for many years.”

The small cafe area at the southeast corner of the floor features blow-ups of various bookplates—all found in the Newberry collections—alongside fresh hot coffee and tea.


Bookshop. Photo by Tom Rossiter.

On the east side of the lobby is the much-expanded bookstore, now carrying a great many titles of scholarly and general interest, games, puzzles, intelligent toys, cards, and accessories for readers and writers, including literary paper dolls, witty Halloween cards and beautifully bound diaries. A selection of used and rare books from the famed Newberry Book Fair is now available for purchase all year long.

 Of particular note is the delightful children’s book The Tale of the Newberry Mice, written and illustrated by Carolyn Spadafora, an accomplished artist and the wife of David Spadafora, the Newberry’s president and librarian.

 She said recently:

 “From the moment that I saw the copy of the newspaper article discussing the mice in the Newberry’s 125th Anniversary Exhibit, I knew that I wanted to bring the Tale of the Newberry Mice to life. It was great fun to write and illustrate the story and, with Andrea Villesenor’s invaluable assistance in its production, to see the book now in print.”


The Tale of the Newberry Mice.

 Copies should be available in the Newberry bookstore by the end of this month, yet another great reason to visit the newly renovated library. We are imagining that Henry Ives Cobb would be delighted.

 For more about the Newberry Library and its exhibitions, visit