Of the tens of thousands of items we have seen from the World’s Columbian Exposition over the last 40 years, those that have concrete provenance that they were exhibited at the fair are minimal.
We certainly know of countless souvenirs–medals, spoons, brochures, photos, books, paperweights, glasses and on and on–that came from the exposition. In fact, the number of souvenirs from the Columbian Expo in 1893 probably outnumbers souvenirs from any other world’s fair.
But what about those items actually exhibited or sold that were not souvenirs and thus have no label identifying them as from the fair. For example, items sold on the Midway–also numbering in the thousands–were in homes around the world after the fair. And, many probably still remain with the families of fairgoers. Artwork and handiwork from around the globe–the Far East and the Middle East–from slippers to brasswork to oriental rugs and so on–were sold to visitors by vendors from Turkey, Palestine, Japan, China, Syria, Java, Samoa and dozens more. And in the state and foreign buildings as well as the main buildings, tens of thousands of articles were exhibited (and sold), again without any formal identification. Modern fairs, of course, carry price tags, identification tags and sewn-in labels on all types of items. Most collectors appreciate, and will pay a premium, to see a shirt with a sewn-in tag from say the 1939 New York World’s Fair. We recently sold a lovely young girl’s dress that had a specialty manufacturer’s tag sewn in; it had the fair name, the Trylon and Perisphere and was in the trademark orange of the exposition. It’s very common to see stickers on the bottom of souvenirs going back to the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress exposition and on to fairs in New York (1939), San Francisco (1939), Seattle (1962), New York (1964-65) and more recently. And while many owners carefully pealed off the price tags and/or labels, they’re cherished by collectors. But in 1893 with great exception, such tags do not exist.
A receipt or a photograph (or preferably both) can link items to the fair, but they seldom exist. The ideal provenance package we have never seen assembled would be text about an exhibit, photographs of it and the official award medal. We have seen some award medals we know could be part of such a provenance package, but only recently saw one such collection that consisted of publications, photographs, actual printed 1893-era documents and an award medal all related to the whaleback steamship Christopher Columbus. While the ship wasn’t exactly a souvenir or part of an exhibit at the fair, it was an integral part of the exposition. It’s surprising that similar exhibits and collections have never been equally as painstakingly assembled.
The photograph above is, to the best of our knowledge, unique in this aspect, even though the work was never done to identify the seamstress who entered this personally designed and sewn ensemble for a doll. The multi-piece outfit remains in decent condition, although the cotton has faded and discolored somewhat over the years. As you probably know, there were exhibits (competitively shown and hoping for an award medal) of clothing, fruit, plants, electrical equipment, livestock, artwork and categories ad infinitum. Just the post-fair book on awards from the fair required 1,000+ pages to list them all by category.
All that we have in this case is the item, sans personal background on the person who made it, but we have a stamp on the inside of the dress that is unique. We have never seen another on an item identifying it as exhibited at the fair.
Having spent nearly 40 years researching and writing about the World’s Columbian Exposition, I have seen thousands of pieces of puzzles about bits of history from the fair. It would take a major commitment of time and energy to create a mini-archive of photos and information about souvenirs or exhibited items from the fair, but it remains possible, although less so as time goes by.
If any of our readers has ever seen an identical or similar stamp or tag for any item exhibited at the fair, please do let us know!