The Northern Trust at the World’s Fair of 1893





To learn more about the early days of Chicago’s venerable Northern Trust Company, we sat down with Paul Larson who told us about their first branch at our city’s most celebrated event of all time, The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

“I began my career at The Northern Trust Company in 1980 and served as a private banker through 2015. In January 2016 I created and began a new role as corporate historian and archivist. Throughout my entire career, I have enjoyed learning about and sharing the rich history of our company with partners, clients, and prospective clients. The Northern Trust Company has never felt the need to merge and has remained fiercely independent, relying on its founding principles of service, expertise, and integrity to grow the business. These principles remain deeply rooted in our culture.”

He continues, “Our story began back in 1889 when The Northern Trust Company was issued a charter by the State of Illinois. We opened for business on August 12 of that year on the second floor of the Rookery Building with six employees.”


The Rookery (c. 1889).


A Tribune article from August 13, 1889.

“Our founder was the highly respected and influential Byron Laflin Smith. He was succeeded by his son Solomon A. Smith in 1914 and then by his grandson Edward Byron Smith, Sr. in 1963. He retired after 16 years as chairman and CEO in 1979.”


Byron L. Smith.

How did the Northern Trust establish a presence at the World’s Fair so soon after its opening?

We nearly didn’t have a presence at the fair. As plans for the Fair were being made, a special Act of Congress provided that any national bank in the city of Chicago might establish and operate a branch on the exposition grounds. The Northern Trust Company was, however, a state-chartered bank.

Under this Act, the Chemical National Bank of Chicago was selected to serve as the official bank of the World’s Columbian Exposition and would have the opportunity to serve the estimated 20 million people who would visit the Fair during its six-month run.

However, on May 9, 1893, only eight days after the exposition opened, the Chemical National Bank of Chicago failed. Exhibitors, concessionaires, and visitors were left without a bank. Most were from overseas.

Shortly after the Chemical failure, Harlow N. Higinbotham, the Fair’s president, as well as a Northern Trust Company shareholder and director, recommended that Northern Trust Company be brought in to solve this crisis for customers who had no place to bank at the Fair. In a letter addressed to Byron Laflin Smith dated May 27, Higinbotham stated that not having a bank was a serious inconvenience for the transaction of business. He called the Northern Trust Company the conservative institution they wanted and declared the unqualified confidence of the public and of the Fair’s directorate.


Harlow N. Higinbotham.


Reproduction of the letter from Harlow Higinbotham.

Byron Smith unenthusiastically took the idea under consideration. When the law was reviewed, it was found that the Illinois state banks were at the time neither authorized to have nor prohibited from having branches. So the bank decided to open a World’s Fair branch if specifically invited, and the Fair’s directors complied. The fair agreed to permit the bank to advertise as the official depository.

The branch manager, E.C. Jarvis, was a Canadian who had been managing the Chemical National’s branch. He would continue in that position for The Northern Trust Company’s branch.


Edward Jarvis.

Tell us a little bit about the opening and what happened next.

On June 12, 1893, The Northern Trust Company branch opened for business in the Administration Building. As a result, the Northern Trust Company found it could write one of its earliest and most exciting chapters.


Chicago Tribune article from June 13, 1893.


Administration Building.


An envelope with the postmark of the Administration Building, dated August 19, 1889.

The teller’s cage in the bank’s office in the Administration Building had the most magnificent steel grating. It was owned by the manufacturer and removed after the fair was over.


Interior photo of teller cage.

After the branch opened, the state auditor quickly wrote demanding information. The correspondence seesawed along all summer. By the time the auditor and the bank were reaching the joint conclusion that the bank was entirely within its rights in opening branches, the fair was over.

Shortly after opening, one difficulty disclosed itself. The fairgrounds were extensive and the two-horse express wagon for collecting deposits throughout the fair was very slow, so The Northern Trust Company expanded again in two weeks, opening a branch at the World’s Fair on Cairo Street on the Midway.


The second branch.

When the fair closed on October 30, the Midway branch transferred its business to the main branch and on November 18, 1893, all remaining affairs were moved to the downtown office, which was now located in the Chamber of Commerce Building at the southeast corner of La Salle and Washington streets.

 Mr. Jarvis, the manager, continued with Northern Trust Company and became the first auditor in 1901 and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1922.




Northern Trust Corporation (Nasdaq: NTRS) is a leading provider of wealth management, asset servicing, asset management and banking to corporations, institutions, affluent families and individuals. Founded in Chicago in 1889, Northern Trust has offices in the United States in 19 states and Washington, D.C., and 23 international locations in Canada, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. As of December 31, 2017, Northern Trust had assets under custody/administration of US$10.7 trillion, and assets under management of US$1.2 trillion. For more than 125 years, Northern Trust has earned distinction as an industry leader for exceptional service, financial expertise, integrity and innovation. Visit or follow us on Twitter @NorthernTrust.

Northern Trust Corporation, Head Office: 50 South La Salle Street, Chicago, Illinois 60603 U.S.A., incorporated with limited liability in the U.S. Global legal and regulatory information can be found at