Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair

            When Rebecca Graff, a PhD student at the University of Chicago in need of a dissertation, was told by a professor that the view before them from the school’s Ida Noyes Hall was “a hundred years ago the center of the world,” she didn’t see the bucolic splendor of Jackson Park hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline. Instead her sights went to what lay beneath and that was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an unexcavated but huge part of Chicago’s history. Held in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arrival in the New World, the exposition attracted 27 million people who paid 21.5 million for admission in a six-month period. Designed by noted landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, the 630-acre park had more than 65,000 exhibits from 46 countries and introduced to the public such new inventions as a 250-foot Ferris Wheel, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake syrup and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum. Electricity, still rare back then, was used to light up the expo at night.

Rebecca Graff

            Graff managed to turn that casual remark into her dissertation, “The Vanishing City: Time, Tourism, and the Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition” and then into a book,  “Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair” (University Press of Florida co-published with The Society for Historical Archaeology).  Both were about the archaeological dig she undertook of a site in Jackson Park near the Museum of Science and Industry that seemed most promising for archaeological fair finds.

Surprisingly what seemed an almost guaranteed bureaucratic nightmare in terms of permits and permissions all fell into place but then Graff was told she couldn’t start without a million dollars in liability insurance. Not likely for a graduate student.

            “I needed to turn the excavation into a job,” she says. And so she did, teaching a field class at the University of Chicago where she and her students excavated the site.


View from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’s South Canal looking northeast. The Machinery Building, the Columbian Fountain, and the Electricity Building are on the left, with the Agriculture and the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Buildings on the right. The Illinois State Building’s dome is in the center, and the flatter dome of the California State Building is to its left. Image is by an anonymous photographer, 1893. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives

            Expecting to find those things that archaeologists love—pottery shards, a coin here and a twisted spoon there—Graff and her team were stunned to unearth a section of the Ohio Building, a stately Beaux Arts-style edifice with an elaborate portico entranceway that served as a meeting place for Ohioans. It was among the best of all the other findings they uncovered such as a collar stud, religious medal, cruet tops indicating that food was made on site, and lots of pipes. Though to hear Graff describe them, they’re all treasures and keys to the past.

            As for the building, contemporary sources said it no longer existed.

            “Even the New York Times wrote it had been thrown into the lake,” says Graff, who instead found segments in a ditch where it might have been used as landfill.

            Coincidentally, Graff later discovered she wasn’t the only family member to dig at the site, so had her great grandfather, Morris Graff, a Russia immigrant who dug ditches at the fair.

            Graff would like to return to Jackson Park for further exploration but was denied a permit the second time around. She says it’s surprising that Chicago doesn’t have a city archaeologist as other big cities do. But she’s certainly doing her fair share of uncovering urban remains. She is currently excavating the Charnley-Persky House Museum, a National Historic Landmark located on Astor Street in the Gold Coast  designed Chicago  architect, Louis Sullivan and his young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright.

Cover image from Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair by Rebecca S. Graff. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020.

Honoring Chicago’s South Side Architecture

Foster House & Stable home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright located in the West Pullman area.

World famous for its architecture, Chicago boasts works by such greats ranging from the Frank Lloyd Wright to William LeBaron Jenney, designer of the world’s first skyscraper. No other city in the world has more Ludwig Mies van der Rohe buildings than Chicago. Yet for many, the largest landmass in the city is like an uncharted territory when it comes to outstanding architectural design.

 “60% of Chicago is the South Side,” says noted photographer and journalist Lee Bey. “It’s geographic area that is twice the size of Brooklyn and the size of Philadelphia. But over the years it’s been ignored by many Chicagoans as well as the architectural press, architectural tours and lecturers.”

Chicago Vocational High School at 2100 E. 87th Street—the largest Art Deco building that’s not a skyscraper in Chicago

Bey, who is considered an architectural expect, grew up on the South Side and has long appreciated the treasures found there.  He shares this passion in his recently releases book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, which he describes as a wake-up call.

Author and photographer Lee Bey

“You can’t have anything that big and ignore it,” says Bey who is also a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute. “Chicago can’t be a world class city if they overlook the South Side and the West Side.”

Because I grew up in Northwest Indiana, I am familiar with the South Side and some of its architectural marvels such as the sprawling Chicago Vocational High School at 2100 E. 87th Street—the largest Art Deco building that’s not a skyscraper in Chicago  and the Middle Eastern/Moorish/Persian-style building with a  towering minaret at 79th and Stony Island that’s on the right when turning on to Stony Island from the Chicago Skyway.

But I didn’t know about The National Pythian Temple, The Overton Hygienic Building and The Chicago Bee Building or that there was a Frank Lloyd Wright home that was over a century old for sale in the West Pullman area. Known as the Foster House and Stable, it was designated a Chicago landmark in 1996 and can be had for around $200,000.

“That house would sell for a lot more in other parts of Chicago,” says Bey, noting the home is in good condition.

Even Bey sometimes comes across an unknown find.

“I was caught by surprise when I saw Stony Island Church of Christ at1600 E. 84th,” he recalls. “It looked like it was designed by Ray Stuermer and I went home and looked it up and it was,” says Bey.

While watching a documentary of Eero Saarinen and discovering they’d left out his buildings for the University of Chicago, Bey knew he had to rectify the neglect of architect on the South Side.

“If they could leave out Eero, then something needed to be done,” he says, writing in his book that “for decades


” For decades, most of the buildings in that vast area have Bey writes.

most of the buildings in that vast area have been flat-out ignored by the architectural press, architectural tours, and lectures — and many Chicagoans.”

It’s a call to action, he says noting that Bowen High School would be a city landmark and on the National Register if it were located on the North Side. After all, the Carl Schurz High School on the Northside were built the same year and both were designed by the same architect, Dwight Perkins, chief architect of the Chicago Board of Education between 1906 and 1909. But Schurz has been a city landmark since 1978 and made the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Bowen, located in a mostly black and Latino South Side community, has neither.

“It’s astounding what’s there, he says. “There’s architecture on the South Side by architects that people would immediately recognize. People should care about them and get out and see them,”

Ifyougo:

What: Ley Bey talks and book signings.

When & Where: Epstein Global is hosting Lee Bey on November 7th from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Bey will be speaking in their offices, 600 West Fulton, Chicago, IL.

Anyone interested in attending, please contact Noel Abbott at Epstein. (312) 429-8048; nabbott@epsteinglobal.com.

When & Where: November 12 at 6:30 pm at the Evergreen Park Public Library, 9400 S. Troy, Evergreen Park, IL

708-422-8522; evergreenparklibrary.librarymarket.com

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