In May-June 1893 John Hickson and his daughter Alice spent three weeks in Chicago. They had gone there primarily to see the World’s Fair, a massive exhibition which commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America. Such exhibitions were huge events during the Victorian era, and the Chicago exposition of 1983 was the largest to date, attracting over 27 million visitors during the six months it was open. The Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851, which was the first international exposition, and the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, are two that stand out in my mind, but there have been many others. John Hickson recorded some thoughts about the Chicago World’s Fair in his book, Notes of Travel, published in 1894.
World’s Columbian Exposition 1893
The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 rivalled earlier expos in scope, and was much larger than any that had gone before. It was a celebration of innovation and modernity, but also an opportunity for nations to display their best and finest, to attract admiration, and perhaps investment. A whole city, which became known as The White City, was constructed with many remarkable buildings though only one of them remains to this day, namely the old Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry; the rest fell into disrepair or was destroyed by fire over the years that followed; some buildings were relocated elsewhere. Notably in Chicago was the first dishwasher and the world’s first ever Ferris Wheel. There are many accounts of the Chicago World’s Fair on the internet and two that caught my eye were this blog and this website. Music also played an important part at the Fair, with Dvorak’s New World Symphony composed especially for the event, and a young piano player named Scott Joplin developing a new sound in music – ragtime.
The World’s Fair takes up about two pages of John Hickson’s eighty page Notes of Travel. JCH summarises the experience as follows:
The sights you see return to your memory only by instalments; but as a descriptive account of the exhibits and the whole particulars of the exhibition have been given by specially trained reporters, who have flashed their reports to the ends of the earth in all languages, I will not attempt to describe them; but whatever may be said of the financial failure of the Fair, it was a grand conception, liberally and splendidly carried out, and as a means of education, amusement and improvement, could not be surpassed. (Hickson J, Notes on Travel, p.19)
JCH could hardly have imagined the Expo that he and his daughter visited in 1893 would still be talked about over 120 years later, which can be seen in the many contemporary websites (not to mention books) describing the Fair and its legacy. He seems to imply in what he wrote that the World’s Fair in Chicago was a financial flop, but this seems not to be accurate (see this website), and why JCH formed this opinion is uncertain. The legacy of the Fair was, in any case, not its financial profits, but rather the magnitude and splendour of its exhibits: as JCH puts it, “a grand conception, liberally and splendidly carried out.”
My favourite picture of the expo is one I found on the Nikola Tesla Inventor official website. For me this old photo evokes an image of the young Alice Hickson at the World’s Fair (though there is nothing to indicate it is actually Alice in the picture). This was the sight she saw before her, and this is the type of dress she wore. If her father had been a photographic enthusiast then he would have been behind the camera, but I suspect that there were few people apart from professionals who owned their own camera in 1893!
The World’s Fair was not the only memorable experience for John Hickson and his daughter Alice. In fact, shortly after their arrival they witnessed:
On Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), America decorated the graves of its fallen soldiers. The Chicago Tribune, of May 30, 1893, recorded:
The ceremonial of today occurs in conjunction with the great Exposition at Jackson Park, and thousands of strangers will be in the city to witness the parade of the veterans.
Two of those “strangers” were John Hickson and his daughter Alice. Reading JCH’s description brings Anzac Day to mind for all Australians, but in 1893 Anzac was still in the future. A world war of the scope of the 1914-18 conflict could not be imagined in 1893, though both John Hickson and his daughter would live to hear of its horrors first hand. In fact both father and daughter would live through two world wars.
But in 1893 the war dead they remembered were veterans of the the American Civil War, still relatively recent in the minds of the population. Here is John’s description:
On the 31st of May (JCH appears to have got the date wrong!), in Chicago, we saw their annual celebration of Decoration Day. This day is set apart every year to visit the soldiers’ graves and deck them with flowers and tiny flags, and generally orations are delivered by some prominent men. The procession of military and civilians was of great length, but what attracted us most in the pageant was the company of veterans of the civil war, marching behind the same flags that bore them to victory, now old, tattered and bullet riddled, which for thirty years have been preserved and yearly paraded. (Hickson J, Notes on Travel, p.19).
The other memorable experience for John Hickson and his daughter was attending an evangelistic rally with DL Moody, widely acknowledged as the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century. JCH relates that they
were present at a service in a large circus tent in which there were 15000 people addressed by Mr Moody, Mr McNeil and others. At another time, in a crowded theatre where Moody was preaching, I pushed through the throng to speak to and shake the hand of the great evangelist. We also heard Dr Gunsaulus, a polished and able preacher of the Congregational Church, and Dr Henson, the clever pastor of the First Baptist Church. We visited most of the places of interest in and about Chicago, and left there on the 18th June, on our way to New York, via Niagara Falls. (Hickson J, Notes of Travel p.19)
In fact The World’s Fair Gospel Campaign was arguably as significant as the Fair itself, at least in the minds of some. HB Hartzler wrote a book about the campaign shortly after, entitled Moody in Chicago, “an account of six months’ evangelistic work in the city of Chicago and vicinity during the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, conducted by Dwight L Moody and his associates.” Here are some extracts from that book, which can be downloaded from Internet Archive.
The World’s Fair has been closed on Sunday for want of attendance, but the religious services are daily growing. Every good opening for the gospel is readily seized. When Forepaugh’s great circus tent had been set up in the city Mr. Moody tried to secure it for Sunday. He was granted the use of it for a Sabbath morning service, but as the manager expected Sunday in Chicago to be a great harvest day, he reserved the tent on the afternoon and evening for his own performances. Fifteen thousand people came to hear the simple gospel preached and sung at the morning service. The circus, however, was so poorly attended in the afternoon and evening that Sunday exhibitions were soon abandoned. (Hartzler H, Moody in Chicago, p.64)
Hartzler quotes another writer in his book, who had recorded the following:
Now this is what I often found to be true : that these congregations were made up of people from every part of the United States and Canada, and I may say from every part of the globe; everybody that has come up to the World’s Fair is represented in these meetings a great mass of people brought together from every nation and every race in the world, and preachers are brought together who can speak to them in their own tongue. So it is a remarkable movement. I remember that a friend suggested to Mr. Spurgeon that such a great preacher as he ought not to confine his ministry to London, but that he ought to make a tour around the world and preach to everybody; and Mr. Spurgeon replied, I can just stand in my place in London, and let the world come to me; and so they did, as a matter of fact. And so this World’s Fair is a great opportunity because all the world is present in Chicago, and being there, they come to hear the gospel. I consider it one of the most blessed triumphs of the grace of God that on these Sundays the people are attending church and listening to the Word of God instead of going for recreation. Now that is the right way to conquer: not by violence, not by law, not by threatening, but by a counter-attraction, by offering something better.
I have made this statement in order that we may praise God that such advantage is being taken of this great occasion that will never come again. We shall never again see such an event. I need not say that the Fair is magnificent; it is a dazzling alabaster city set on the lake. People are there from every part of the earth; and next to that architectural wonder, and the marvellous display of art and science and beauty of every sort, I consider that the most striking thing in that city to-day is the evangelistic work that is going on. (Gordon, in Hartzler, Moody in Chicago, p.71)
One wonders what sort of impression Moody’s meetings made on John Hickson, a man of the world even if he was a regular churchgoer back home in Sydney. Did he go to hear the gospel, or was he just unable to resist the spectacle? Was he a pilgrim, or a tourist? John Hickson was an Irish protestant, but whether he was a deeply spiritual man with a hunger after God I don’t know. He has left no written record to say one way or the other. He certainly had connections in the Christian ministry. His older brother William had married Mary Needham, a girl from a deeply religious family with whom the Hicksons were acquainted back in Kerry. In fact, after his mother died, John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Sneem when he was a teenager. William and Mary had actually migrated to America before they came to Australia in the 1870s. Mary had four younger brothers who became evangelists in the north eastern states of America and at least one of them, George Needham, was part of the Moody Campaign in Chicago in 1893. He is listed as one of the many missioners in Hartzler’s book. So there was no lack of Christian input into John Hickson’s life. But the impact of that input is hard to ascertain.
How did Alice react? She was twenty when she heard DL moody preach; it must have been an overwhelming experience to be among fifteen thousand people at an evangelistic meeting in America. Many years later, as an old lady, Alice would hear Billy Graham preach, or so my father told me. She must surely have compared the two great evangelists. I wonder whether faith played an important part in Alice’s life, or in her father’s for that matter. They heard the greatest preachers of their time, but what fruit did that bear in their lives? Did they meet God, as Moody challenged his hearers to do? Were their lives changed by that meeting with God? Some of Alice’s five daughters were later deeply involved in the church. But perhaps it was their father William Ross, with his rich heritage of revival in the Scottish Highlands, who had the greatest spiritual influence on them. Hard to know.
Those weeks in Chicago in 1893 must have been an extraordinary experience for John and Alice. They stood by as America remembered her war dead, and wondered how people of one nation could so passionately have fought each other only a generation before. They saw all that the world had to offer at the World’s Fair, and marvelled at the achievements and aspirations of humanity. They were challenged to follow Jesus in the massive evangelistic meetings of DL Moody and his associates. Which of these experiences left the most lasting mark on their lives, I wonder?