Chicago World’s Fair was More Than a Ferris Wheel, Buffalo Bill and Commemorative Coins

A group of 18 World’s Columbian Exposition tickets, including this scarce Benjamin Franklin piece, realized $1,265 at a January 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 2003, bestselling author Erik Larson wrote The Devil in The White City, a non-fiction narrative of a serial killer who murdered up to 200 people using the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair) as a backdrop. Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly has the film rights and Martin Scorsese will direct.

There was a lot of competition for the fair between Chicago and New York City. NYC bolstered their bid when Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Waldorf Astor and J.P. Morgan pledged $15 million in support. But Chicago prevailed by matching the $15 million from Marshall Field, Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift (of meatpacking fame, who sold “Everything but the squeal,” a highly effective slogan highlighting how they used all animal parts to make other products and eliminate pollution).

However, what sealed the deal was a pledge by Lyman Gage, president of the powerful First National Bank of Chicago, to provide millions of dollars to help finance exhibitors. Gage would later serve as the 42nd Secretary of the Treasury under both William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

Chicago was eager to host the event and demonstrate how much progress they had made after the disastrous Fire of 1871 involving Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. They painted so many stucco buildings white and had new electric lights illuminating so many streets that they earned the nickname “The White City.” They successfully conveyed the image of fresh, sanitary and new. There was also a major initiative called City Beautiful that included cleaning up trash in streets, empty lots and alleys.

A major mistake they made was denying William Frederick Cody (“Buffalo Bill”) permission to perform his famous Wild West Show. Ever the shrewd businessman, he simply set up shop outside the fairgrounds and siphoned off customers. However, the fair’s shaky finances received a big boost when Pittsburgh-based bridge maker George Ferris debuted his new invention – a 264-foot-tall Ferris Wheel. It could accommodate 2,160 people at a time and with a fare of 50 cents (double the cost of a fair ticket), it bailed out the fair and wiped out a big budget deficit.

The federal government also pitched in with the introduction of the country’s first postcards, a new commemorative stamp, and two new commemorative coins. One was a quarter featuring Queen Isabella – who financed the voyage of Columbus. It was the first time a U.S. coin honored a woman. The other was the 50-cent commemorative Columbus coin, both still popular with coin collectors today. The entire fair was an homage to Columbus, celebrating his voyage 400 years earlier, despite being one year late.

On July 12, American historian Frederick Jackson Turner skipped the Wild West Show and the docking of a replica from Norway of a Viking ship – just two of the hundreds of events that attracted up to 28 million spectators to the fair. Turner opted to put some finishing touches on his thesis before delivery at the Art Institute of Chicago that night.

More on his historic speech in my next post.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Colonization of Americas Propelled Spain’s Emergence as First Global Superpower

Ferdinand and Isabella transformed Spain from separate, confused realms into a unified and powerful nation.

By Jim O’Neal

At midnight on Jan. 2, 1492, Abu Abd Allah, the Muslim Emir of Granada, handed over the keys to his city to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They were the joint rulers of the Christian Spanish states of Aragón and Castile. This single act marked the end of nearly 800 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

It also marked the eclipse of a great civilization renowned for its architectural splendors and rich tradition of scholarship. At the same time, it signaled the birth of a confident, united Spain that would soon divert its energies away from crusading against its Muslim neighbors to instead building an empire in the New World.

Despite an agreement that guaranteed freedom of worship, in 1502 the monarchs decreed that any Muslim over the age of 14 who refused to convert to Christianity had to leave Spain within 11 weeks. This edict, combined with the expulsion of Jews in Granada 10 years earlier, transformed Spain into a much more homogeneous, but highly intolerant state.

Once united, they needed a new target for their compulsive crusading.

Enter Christopher Columbus and his expeditions to the New World. In 1492 – the same year as the fall of Granada – he provided the Spanish an ideal outlet for their ambitions. Their colonization of the Americas propelled Spain’s emergence as the first global superpower.

When one examines the relatively unimportant role they play today as one of the European Union’s “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) – the unflattering acronym for countries with significant fiscal issues – it becomes easier to see how global superpowers can fade into the dustbin of history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Inquisition Remains a Dark Stain on Reputations of Ferdinand and Isabella

Documents signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella have appeared at auction, with some pieces realizing more than $13,000.

By Jim O’Neal

On Feb. 6, 1481, seven people were marched out of the Cathedral of Seville, led by chanting black-robed Dominican Friars. The seven were dressed in yellow robes, held votive candles and had nooses around their necks.

These seven people (six men and one woman) were “conversos” – Jews who had been converted to Christianity, but were suspected of having relapsed and practicing the Jewish faith (again).

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had decided everyone in Spain would worship the same God … period. Thus began the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Just as remarkably, it lasted officially for almost 400 years until abolished in 1834, but most active from 1480 to 1530.

Ferdinand and Isabella married in 1469, both devoutly religious Catholics, and wanted all of Spain to worship Christ. Earlier, Judaism, Islam and Christianity had co-existed in peace, but in the 15th century, Jews and Muslims were increasingly persecuted. Many fled or simply converted to Christianity.

But there were widespread rumors of the conversos, which prompted the Catholic Monarchs to investigate. They turned to Pope Sixtus IV for guidance. On Nov. 1, 1478, he issued a papal bull authorizing the Inquisición.

It took three years to complete, but then the purgative flames blazed high.

The seven were marched to an open field, which became known as the Quemadero (or burning place). They were offered a chance to repent … which only offered an option to be strangled … and then burned at the stake.

The Inquisition quickly spread from one Holy Office in Seville to nearly two dozen across the entire country. However, treatment was so harsh that eventually Ferdinand decided to expel all Jews and issued the Alhambra Decree of March 1492, which ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain in three months.

Historians debate the number that were killed and the actual role of the Catholic Church. However, the Spanish Inquisition remains a dark stain on the otherwise sterling reputations of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].