Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 262 – It’s Electric!

Part 262: It’s Electric!

The Columbian Exposition in 1893 introduced many new concepts and products. From a culinary standpoint, new products included Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, shredded Wheat, and Milton Hershey’s version of chocolate. But there was another product featured at the fair, and it was not contained to any one building – electricity. Not only was there an official building dedicated to electricity, but it dominated the White City. The mammoth white buildings gleamed and glistened with electric lights under evening skies.

A view of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago at night during 1893.
The Columbian Exposition at night with the Midway Plaisance and iconic Ferris Wheel in the distance.

There was battle across the country for who would light this land and the interior of every business. One of the first major battles for light occurred during the Columbia Exposition. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse both put in bids to light the fair. Westinghouse, armed with Tesla’s new induction motor submitted an extremely low bid and eventually won the contract. Originally, Tesla planned on using GE bulbs, but Edison who was still irked would not sell to Tesla and Westinghouse. In the end, Westinghouse came up with an even more efficient double-stopper light bulb. Tesla’s 12 thousand-horsepower AC polyphase generators created the City of Light. Some even referred to Tesla’s machines as “Teslas’ animals.” On May 1, 1893 approximately 100,000 lamps illuminated the White City. Electricity and AC current would soon spread across the country. In the next few years, AC power would become the standard for 80% of the country.

One of the most visited exhibits at the Columbian Exposition was the Electricity Building. It was one seven buildings that enclosed the Great Court of the Entrance. The Manufacturers building and the Electricity building were on the north end, the Machinery and Agricultural building on the south end, the railway station on the west end, and the Peristyle with its pavilions on the east end. The Administration Building was in the center of the group. Each had a common height of sixty feet to the top of its cornice with a foot print of 350’ x 700.’


Proposed drawing for the Electricity Building at the Columbia Exposition in 1893.
Electricity Building for the Columbian Exposition with over 700 exhibits inside from all over the world.

The Electricity Building offered a variety of possibilities for the future of mankind with over 700 displays from all over the world, including exhibits from Germany, France, England, Canada, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Mexico and Russia. General Electric, Fort Wayne Electric, Brush Electric, Germania Electric, La Roche Electric Co., Akron Electric Co., Eddy Electric Co., Crocker-Wheeler Electric, Hansen & Van Winkle Electric, National Electric Co., Heisler Electric Co., Detroit Electric Works, Excelsior Electric, Electric Forging Co., Jenney Electric Motor Co., C & C Motor Co., Munsen Belting Co., Hornell Iron Works, Riker Motor Co., Perkins Lamp Co., New York Insulated Wire Co., E. S. Greeley & Co., Belknap Motor Co., Arnold Motor Co., A.C. Mather, Swan Lamp Co., were just a few of the business represented in the building.

However, no one anticipated exactly how much noise would be emitted from displaying all this new technology. Bright lights came at a price in a confined space! A deafening noise from the machinery accompanied the electrical displays. It was recorded that many people left after just a few minutes when they encountered the noise from the machines.

A guidebook explained “The next most prominent exhibit in the [Electrical] building is that of the Western Electric Company, of Chicago, immediately to the east of the main south entrance. This company has three pavilions, one an Egyptian temple paneled on the outside most uniquely with Egyptian figures and groups associated with electricity. For instance, there is a group of Egyptian maidens, of the time of Ramses the Second, operating a telephone board, and another group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. The conceit is very popular.”

The Egyptian Temple in the Electricity Building as part of the Western Electric Company exhibit. This display was created by Sosman & Landis scenic studio of Chicago.

This Egyptian Temple was created by Sosman & Landis and painted by Thomas G. Moses and his crew. Even though there was another Egyptian Temple on the fairgrounds, the Temple of Luksor that was located on the Midway Plaisance, Western Electric Company created “Hello Central.” Western Electric’s intention was to clash the past with the present – ancient hieroglyphs with the modern telephones.

The Egyptian Temple of the Midway Plaisance for the Columbian Exposition.

Another part of Western Electric’s pavilion in the Electricity Building was a painted stained glass window illuminated by incandescent lamps. As on the stage, the stained glass composition was panted with dye on a piece of fabric. When the translucent material was lit from behind, it took on a magic of its own – glowing for all to see.

Stained glass window created by Sosman & Landis for Western Electric Company’s display in the Electricity Building at the Columbian Exposition, 1893.

Western Electric contracted Sosman & Landis to design not only the Egyptian pavilion and this stained glass translucency, but also a small electric stage.  They created a small stage diorama that would demonstrate the use of electric light for theatre productions. There was a switchboard with a combination of arc and incandescent lights to illuminate the small display. But this was not the only electric theatre at the Fair.

The switchboard for the electric theatre by Western Electric Co. in the Electricity Building at the Columbian Exposition. The small stage was created by Sosman & Landis. The Scenic studio’s office were across the street from Western Electric Co. on Clinton Street in Chicago.

Another gained immediate popularity on the Midway Plaisance – the Electric Scenic Theatre where “A Day in the Alps” was presented. This was also the product of Sosman & Landis Studio and painted Thomas G. Moses. That will be the topic for tomorrow.

To be continued…

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