Like any other memento from an enjoyable trip, musical souvenirs such as the piano and vocal pieces Meyer has studied offered audible memories for people to buy, take home, and play in their parlors as a reminder of their visit to Chicago and the World’s Fair. "Souvenir Music from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition" explores these souvenirs from the 1890s, a time when parlor music reached the pinnacle of its popularity.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 is justly celebrated as a key moment in the cultural life of the city and the nation. Chicago’s social elite was eager to demonstrate to the world the city’s vitality and recovery from the devastating fire of 1871, and fought with New York and other cities for the honor of hosting the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. For the United States, hosting a massive World’s Fair so soon after the acclaimed Exposition Universelle in Paris (1889) announced America’s arrival as an emerging major power on the world stage.
While some scholars rightly object to the jingoism of some of the Fair’s displays and the implicit (or explicit) racial stereotyping, the Fair also had many positive results. The list of “firsts” for the Fair is huge, from food products (Juicy Fruit Gum), to technological marvels (the original Ferris Wheel, the first moving sidewalk, and Tesla’s electricity demonstrations). The Fair demonstrated that cities can be attractive and safe, and provided a vision of the urban future for city planners and dreamers alike.
Despite the great success of the Fair—more than 25 million visitors came in the summer of 1893, at a time when the entire population of the United States stood at about 63 million—it was actually profitable only through the success of its vast side show, the infamous Midway Plaisance. In addition to restaurants, street musicians, and animal shows, the Midway featured a number of “villages” representing various nations and cultures. These concessions charged admission, and were less “sanitized” than the official buildings on the Exposition fairgrounds proper. It was here that the first Ferris Wheel stood, a real engineering marvel of the day—and America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower—and it was here that Americans received their first exposure to belly dancing, scandalizing proper society (but drawing huge crowds).
Music played a significant role at the Fair, both in the Exposition proper and on the Midway, from the officially sanctioned orchestral concerts by the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other classical musicians to the various cultural ensembles and street musicians on the Midway and beyond. It is believed that Scott Joplin made an appearance at the Fair, but concrete details are murky at best. Americans also received their first taste of musical exoticism, from Indonesian gamelan music to the Hawaiian hula. Most visitors regarded the sounds as “cacophonous” rather than musical, but a door had been opened to a wider world of musical experience, and it would never be closed again.
The souvenir music portrayed in this project and corresponding album has very little to do with the music actually heard at the fair; instead, the music on this album capitalized on the Fair craze in Chicago and across the country. Along with buttons, medals, brochures, postcards, and other memorabilia that flooded the market, this sheet music offered a musical “souvenir” of one’s time at the Fair. Some of these pieces were made popular in local theaters, either played by orchestras or performed by popular singers on the vaudeville stage. Others were simply meant to be taken home and played on the parlor piano. They provide a glimpse into the way the visitors understood and remembered this profound experience.