The South Loop Historical Society
at East-West University
819 S. Wabash Ave. 8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60605
A Virtual History Museum
Century of Progress World's Fair (May 27, 1933-October 31, 1934)
The Century of Progress World’s Fair of 1933 was organized to celebrate Chicago’s centennial and intervening growth from a swampy trading post to one of the largest and most influential cities in the world.
A major step in Chicago’s rise to world prominence was the success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a showcase for Chicago designed principally by Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham. The site of the 1933 Century of Progress fair was a 427 acre landfill island and park on the lakeshore between 12th and 39th Streets- an area created as part of Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.
Conceived in the boom days of the late 1920s, the fair opened during the lowest point of the Great Depression, and espoused the idea that science, technology and culture would rescue humanity from the economic malaise and political turbulence gripping much of the world. The fair’s official motto was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms." In contrast to the classical designs of the 1893 fair’s “White City,” the Century of Progress fair emphasized colorful art moderne and art deco showplaces displaying the latest technological and scientific advances.
The fair came to be seen as a major economic development tool for Chicago, which had been hit hard by the Great Depression. The venerable Blackstone Hotel had gone bankrupt in 1931 and closed entirely prior to the fair. The Stevens Hotel, the World’s largest, with over 3000 rooms, was hemorrhaging money. Between February and May 1932, 13 banks failed in Chicago, and in June 1932 alone 40 more banks became insolvent. Thousands of unemployed men were arriving in Chicago seeking work and camping out in Grant Park.
When the fair officially opened on May 27, 1933, visitors could escape the worries of hard times by touring the Homes of Tomorrow filled with labor-saving appliances or fantasizing about new technologies in automobiles such as the Cadillac V-16 limousine, the new Packards, and sleek Pierce-Arrows. Transportation technology was a significant component of the fair; the fairgrounds were visited by flying boats from Rome commanded by Italo Balbo, the Graf Zeppelin dirigible from Germany, the Union Pacific’s streamlined M-10000 train, and the streamlined Burlington Zephyr train now exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry. The Otis Elevator Company constructed the Sky Ride, 1850 foot ride between two 23-story towers across Burnham Harbor from Northerly Island to Burham Park.
Various nightclubs with Internationally-themed entertainment and exhibitions dotted the Midway. Risque fan dancer Sally Rand was a sensation, and other performers included young Judy Garland and The Andrews Sisters.
The Century of Progress World’s Fair was scheduled to run only through November 12, 1933, but its run was so successful that the fair was held over the winter of 1933-34 to run again from May 26 to October 31, 1934. Over the course of its two year run, the fair attracted 48,769,227 visitors and made an enormous profit—rare for an event of its kind.
The fair site was demolished in 1935, and Northerly Island later became home for Meigs Field Airport. Today, the fairgrounds are the site of Burnham Park, Northerly Island, and Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.
Above: Video of the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair.