The Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago in 1893, but planning began in the 1880s. Competition among cities to host the event, designed to commemorate Columbus’ arrival in the New World, was fierce. St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York City, and Chicago all fought to be named. New York spokesmen claimed Chicago would put on a cattle show, but Chicago—once described as a “flat city on a flat prairie by a dull lake”—was the winner. The announcement came in 1890, and the date was pushed a year beyond the anniversary to give Chicago time to construct the fairgrounds—and demonstrate that it had become a sophisticated city of over a million people.
The site chosen was on the city’s south side, near the fashionable suburb of Hyde Park and where the University of Chicago now stands. Three years later, the White City was ready for the world with gleaming white pavilions, sculpture and fountains and art by the world-famous artists like St. Gaudens, a moving sidewalk that took visitors through the grounds and out over a portion of Lake Michigan. Attractions at the fair included Wild Bill Hickok’s Wild West (not allowed on the actual grounds), pianist Paderewski, Little Egypt featuring belly dancers who horrified some proper women, and the first Ferris wheel, so big its cages held twenty-four people. Lunch was served as people rode high into the sky.
I grew up in Hyde Park and went to the University of Chicago, so the Midway where the exposition was held was familiar to me. As I studied the event, one woman fascinated me—Bertha Honoré (Cissy) Palmer. Wife of hotel owner Potter Palmer (the Palmer House still operates in downtown Chicago). Cissy was a pioneer in recognizing that great wealth brought an obligation to philanthropy, and she put her belief into actions, inviting young factory workers into her home, working at Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous settlement house, and visiting the poor.
The exposition was planned to have a women’s building, operated by a board of Lady Managers, with two delegates from each of the states. Cissy was elected president of the board—a full-time volunteer job. It wasn’t easy—there was strife among the women; it was a time of both the feminist and the temperance movements, and she dealt with it all. She and her husband traveled to Europe to secure delegations and exhibits from many countries. Due to her efforts the Women’s Pavilion was designed by a woman—a thought that horrified famous architect Daniel Burnham, responsible for the fairgrounds–and featured murals by artists Mary Cassatt and Mary Fairchild MacMonnies—Cissy was then in the middle of two artistic women who did not get along with each other.
The exposition was a huge success. Twenty-seven million people from all over the world visited, 750,000 in one day, but the White City did not last. Homeless people drifted into the buildings which were made of temporary material. Today, only one building survives as the Museum of Science and Industry.
My novel about Chicago and the Palmers, The Gilded Cage, grew out of my fascination with Chicago and Cissy Palmer.
The Gilded Cage
Chicago, from swampland to host of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, as lived by two leading historical figures: tycoon and hotelier Potter Palmer and his activist wife Bertha Honoré Palmer who fought for women’s rights and help for the poor. A story of love, major historical events, class warfare, intrigue, a forbidden love interest, and murder. A history of Chicago’s colorful Gilded Age.
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West—Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Lucille Mulhall (first Wild West Show roping cowgirl), and Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. In The Gilded Cage she has turned her attention to the late nineteenth century in her home town, Chicago, to tell the story of the lives of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right.
She is also the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, and Desperate for Death, and the Blue Plate Café Mysteries—Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House and Murder at Peacock Mansion. With the 2014 publication of The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.
Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.