Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Children's Building History at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

Facts don't require one's approval or acceptance.

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When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


The World's Columbian Exposition included entertainment for all visitors, including children.

No building in the entire Columbian Exposition city had a more fabulous way it sprang up than the Children's Building. It was later in its inception than any other, had less material to work with–since it had no aid from the exposition authorities proper–and the whole plan had to be wrought out within the briefest possible time and in the face of almost entire apathy upon the part of the outside public.
The Children's Building

Indeed, it was looked upon in many quarters as chimerical (impossible to achieve) and with no adequate reason for being. But a few wise and earnest women held to the scheme. They knew what far-reaching influences would go out from their idea if it could be materialized, and they persevered with an astonishing result.

In the first place, the Board of Lady Managers assumed the responsibility of raising the money for such a building. The various States pledged themselves to their proportion of the cost. 

A desirable location was secured adjoining the Woman's Building (11) to the north and the Horticultural Building (9) to the south.
The Children's Building was in the Fair proper, on the east side of the Midway Plaisance.
But contributions came in slowly. The Friday Club of Chicago, a social and literary association mostly comprised of young women, became interested in the enterprise's success. They arranged a Bazaar, which was held in the house of Mrs. Potter Palmer (Bertha Honoré Palmer), President of the Board of Lady Managers, and realized there from $35,000 ($1 million today). Children from all over America assisted in raising money by employing bazaars, musicals, dramatic entertainments, and subscriptions, in some cases as high as $1.00 ($30 today).
Mrs. Potter Palmer (Bertha Honoré Palmer).
President of the Board of Lady Managers for the
World's Columbian Exposition. (1893 photograph)
Mrs. Palmer hosted "The Columbian Bazaar" in her mansion on Lake Shore Drive on December 7-9, 1892. 
The Palmer Mansion, constructed in 1882–1885 at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive, was once the largest private residence in Chicago. It was located in the Near North Side community and faced Lake Michigan. Potter Palmer was a prominent Chicago businessman responsible for much of the development of State StreetThe construction of the Palmer Mansion established the "Gold Coast" neighborhood and is still one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Chicago. The mansion was demolished in 1950.
The Palmer Mansion's three-story main hall.

Sponsored by the Friday Club at her invitation, the bazaar raised more than enough money to complete the Children's Building.

The building itself was 150 x 90 feet. It was built of staff (a kind of artificial stone used for covering and ornamenting temporary buildings) and decorated in colors, light blue predominating. 

The Agatite Cement Plaster Company from Kansas City, Missouri, produced a plaster substitute used to create a pleasing architectural effect at a low cost. It was used as an outside covering of the walls of the World's Fair Buildings at Chicago, which were temporary structures. Chicago named a street after this company; Agatite Avenue (4432N - 800W to 8642W)

Amongst other decorations were sixteen medallions of the children of other nations in their national costumes–Indians, Japanese, Dutch, French, Spanish, etc.

The inspiring spirit of it all was Mrs. George L. Dunlap. It was her energy and enthusiasm that brought it to its completion. Her idea from the beginning was an educational one. The Children's Building was not merely a rest stop for tired mothers, nor only a nursery where children could be cared for while mothers made the sightseeing round.

That feature of public comfort—although amply provided for—was to be but an incident in the plan, not the vital and essential purpose. With a place for the shelter, comfort, and care of the little ones was to be combined illustrative departments upon all subjects of importance to the moral and physical well-being of childhood. According to the newest enlightenment of the end of the 19th century, every phase of the rearing and education of children was to be outlined in such a palpable and practical fashion that no mother could enter the doors without being stimulated and inspired in motherhood.

Hence not a detail that could be of educational value had been omitted.

Although the Children's Building didn't open on May 1st, by June, the fair dedicated the Children's Building that was meant to be "for the little folks, from the tiniest cradle on the second floor to the playground on the roof."

Attendants were provided throughout the building to assist children and parents alike.

The gymnasium took up the first floor of the building. Physical development is aptly illustrated by the North American Turners (German-American gymnastic clubs called Turnverein). It was devoted to physical culture and was a favorite attraction for young visitors. Starting at ten o'clock each morning, children took turns swinging from parallel bars, rings, and trapezes. They climbed poles and jumped over vaulting horses. Both boys and girls enjoyed the gym so much that long lines formed outside the building as children waited for their chance to use the equipment. Since there were few children's playgrounds in the 1800s, the gym offered children a unique opportunity to play outside their homes.
Gymnasium in the Children's Building

Gymnasium in the Children's Building

The second floor of the building housed the model Kindergarten under the management of the International Kindergarten Association. Young girls attended the "Kitchengarden," where they learned to dress, make beds, sweep, wash clothes, and cook. In the care of Miss Emily Huntington of New York, the inventor of the system that the Cooking School from the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia made famous. The Romona Indian School, consisting of thirty Indian children, which Michael H. Smith, the Secretary of the Interior, had given permission to have transported from Sante Fe, New Mexico. 

Pennsylvania equipped and maintained a department in the Children's Building, showing the remarkable progress in teaching very young deaf mutes to speak. Miss Mary Garrett, Secretary of the "Home for Teaching Deaf Mutes to Speak," was in charge of this department. Demonstrations were given daily.

There were displays of children's toys made in different countries, from the rudimentary playthings of the Eskimo children to the almost sentient ones of France. These toys were not only to be looked at but will be used to entertain the children. France, a leading toy manufacturer then, sent the most life-like toys, including "mechanical toy men who performed almost human feats of skill… and toy animals invested with the intelligence of trained domestic beasts." Toy exhibits came from other countries, including Russia, Germany, Sweden, and Japan. The children themselves contributed some of the most exciting toys. One young boy contributed a spinning top he invented and patented in Washington D.C.
The Library in the Children's Building

Educational opportunities were provided for children of every age group in the Children's Building. A request sent out by the Board of Lady Managers to foreign countries asking for contributions of children's literature was met with a prompt response, and hundreds of volumes were received. The committee on literature for children of the Congress Auxiliary assumed the furnishing of the library. Regarding books, the idea was to select the library from the child's and youth's standards, not from the adult's point of view. The books the children most longed for were on the shelves rather than the books their elders thought most suitable to them. To get at an average preference in children, boys and girls of all ages were consulted and asked to send lists of their favorite books.

Mrs. Clara Doty Bates, chairman of the committee on literature for children of the Congress Auxiliary, placed the matter before many public and private schools. The committee chairman received hundreds of letters from children, which she used to make up her final catalog. 

But an unexpected obstacle—indeed so formidable that it wholly blocked the way in that direction–now appeared. It was that the publishers had been so industriously solicited from numerous other quarters that they looked upon this final straw as the one that made the burden unendurable. They declined to send even the very modest number of books asked for. It looked like the library would be of a novel kind—one without books.

Baffled in that direction, a new plan was made. If the library could not be representative, it could at least be interesting. Many writers for children in Europe and America were requested by personal letter to send one book, with an autograph inside. This plan had proved most effective. A fascinating collection of authors' copies had been made. So much for the nucleus of the library.

The library decorations consisted of more than a hundred portraits of writers—photographs with autographs affixed whenever possible—and prints, from the life-size to the mere cabinet cards.

St. Nicholas, Harper's Young People, Wide Awake, and the Youth's Companion made exhibits of original sketches from their publications that were illustrated. A complete magazine was produced with valuable manuscripts, autographs, etc., and step-by-step instructions.

Each month several copies of all the favorite children's periodicals were made available. These were for the use of the children. Many illustrated books have been sent, stipulating that children were to have them in constant service.

Girls and boys ages eleven to fifteen attended clay modeling workshops. A Sloyd (a manual training system based on experience gained in woodworking, originally developed in Sweden) workshop was supported by Mrs. Quincy Shaw of Boston.
The Day Nursery

The Department of Public Comfort was intended primarily for the benefit of children. The most popular part of the Children's Building was the crèche (a nursery where babies and young children were cared for during the working day) on the ground floor, where parents could drop off their babies and toddlers while visiting other exhibits at the fair. 
Crèche for Babies, Children's Building. Please... don't ask about the doll hanging on the wall. I don't know.

The public could view the babies and toddlers through windowed partitions. One visitor described the nursery as having the brightest rooms in the building… presided over by trained nurses… there were rows of cradles for infants, spring chairs hung from the ceiling where babies could jump up and down, and rows of beds for those a little older, with toys of all kinds.

In the center was a place they called the pond. It was an enclosure fenced off as a playground (playpen) for little people who could only crawl. Many spectators were enthralled by the sight of the happy little ones. Some fairgoers believed that the building was strictly for infants and babies. Parents could drop off a child with a nursemaid during the day and return for the child in the evening. Unfortunately, the building organizers underestimated the popularity of the nursery. As a result, nurses turned away hundreds of parents and their children daily because they didn't have enough staff or space.

A lecture hall was available for musical and dramatic entertainments, carefully planned to suit the intelligence of children of varying ages. Stereopticon (a slide projector that combines two images to create a three-dimensional effect) lectures were given to the older boys and girls about foreign countries, their languages, manners, customs, and important facts connected with their history. Mr. T.H. McAllister of New York had generously given the use of the most approved stereopticon for this purpose and the services of an operator of the same during the entire Exposition. 

Children of all ages attended lectures on foreign countries, their history, and their customs. After the lectures, the instructors would take the groups of children to see the exhibits from the countries they had just heard about.

Distinguished people in the city attending various Congresses were secured for brief talks along their particular lines of work. In this way, the country's youth will be brought into direct contact with the men and women who have accomplished notable things in the world of thought.

There was a beautiful playground on the roof to crown the children's building, and it was enclosed with strong wire netting to ensure safety. The playground was also a garden, with vines, flowers, and birds flying about in perfect freedom.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. What an eye-opening article. I had never heard about this building before. Fascinating

  2. I had never heard of this building. I wonder what happened to the autographed books from the library. I also wonder if any of the children that were left in the nursery were ever abandoned
    by their parents....

    1. Only one child was not claimed at the end of the day, for the duration of the Fair.

    2. 1,976 unclaimed children were reported missing during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Chicago Historical Society estimates that the total number of missing children may have been as high as 2,500. Many of these children were never found, and their fates remain unknown.

  3. Thanks for this. I was aware that there was some sort of "day care" available at the Fair, but had no idea of the details. Fascinating. Googling "Sloyd workshop" taught me about another thing I was completely unaware of.

  4. Amazing! I'm a big admirer of Mrs Palmer. She used her influence & assets in so many ways for the good of Chicago.

  5. A very enjoyable read. Thank you for putting it together.

  6. In the nursery there are cables hanging from ceiling. Are these meant to hold bouncy seats later mentioned?

  7. How refreshing to hear such a positive story from our history as opposed to all the negativity we see and hear of today. Thank you Neil for all you do to make our days!

  8. Fascinating! An interesting moment in the history of childhood. I have to admit, though, that my favorite part was finally learning what the heck agatite is and why there's a street with that name!


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