by Marie J. Kuda

Chicago, incorporated as a town in 1833 and a city in 1837, grew at an incredible pace. By the 1860s the population surpassed 100,000, with 58 passenger trains arriving daily and half again as many freight trains. After the 1871 fire, the city rebuilt at twice the speed and by 1890 had a population of more than 1 million.

People flocked to Chicago for two reasons: business and pleasure. The Armours and the stockyards, the McCormick Reaper factory, and the great drygoods houses founded by Palmer, Field and others supplied the business. The opera at Crosby's Opera House, the Auditorium or, later, the Civic Opera House, the theater and music halls, the Art Institute and, later, Orchestra Hall provided the pleasure. As always, there were ventures that hoped to combine both and relieve immigrants, weary workers or the nouveau riche of their money.

Society lived on the South Side, with the big money along Prairie Avenue. The Tenderloin districts were Custom House Place at what would now be the south end of the Loop, and the infamous Levee district, home of swank brothels such as the parlor house owned by the Everleigh sisters, at 2131 S. Dearborn St.

In 1892 Chicago leapt at the chance to show the world it had spectacularly recovered from the fire and was a world-class city. The World's Columbian Exhibition, popularly known as the World's Fair of 1893, was the vehicle chosen to display this triumph. The fabulous “White City,” with myriad plaster buildings designed to stand only a few years, was sprawled on landfill and artificial lagoons along the lakefront to what is now Jackson Park.

Oak Park native Katharine Coman and her partner Katharine Lee Bates, both teachers at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, were three years into their 25-year relationship when they returned to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exhibition. Bates continued alone to a summer teaching job in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her train trip across the wheat fields of the Great Plains and trek up Pikes Peak were wedded to her impressions of the fair in a poem later set to music as “America the Beautiful,” popular runner-up for our national anthem. Pikes Peak allowed a view of “the purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain”; the “amber waves of grain” were seen from her railroad car window in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska; and “Thine alabaster cities gleam” came from the impression, viewed with her lover, of that magnificent creation on the bank of Lake Michigan replete with Mrs. Potter Palmer's triumph, the Woman's Building, splendid in the midst of the world's fair's man-made “White City.”

Mrs. Palmer was elated at her hard-won success in securing a Woman's Building for the fair, but some women in the suffrage movement saw it as segregation. Prominent women submitted works with the proviso that they not be shown with displays of quilts and kitchenware.

Sculptor Harriet Hosmer, then working in Paris, steadfastly refused to allow her commissioned statue of Queen Isabella ( in the act of handing her jewels to Columbus to finance the discovery of the New World ) to be exhibited in the Woman's Building. It was displayed eventually in a courtyard of the California Building. Hosmer had a relationship with American stage actress Charlotte Cushman, who seems to have had a thing for sculptors, also numbering Emma Stebbins ( as well as Emma Crow ) among her conquests.

Mrs. Palmer also worked long and hard to obtain “the most famous painting in the world by a woman” for her building. But lesbian artist Rosa Bonheur's masterpiece The Horse Fair had been snapped up by the Metropolitan Museum. Bonheur did exhibit, as did American Anna Klumpke, who became Bonheur's second “wife.” Nathalie Micas, Bonheur's first partner until her death, was represented in the Hall of Science by a railway brake she had patented.

Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft had numerous women working under him to complete monumental commissions for the fair. These became known as his “White Rabbits.” Taft has sculpted himself and the Italian workman with whom he was intimate holding hands at the back of his monumental Fountain of Time. This became a sort of rendezvous for lovers on the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park ( near the University of Chicago ) .

Most of the women's art and the Woman's Building itself, designed by 22-year-old architect Sophia Hayden, were lost after the fair. Among works that survived were Enid Yandell's magnificent caryatids, the figures of women supporting the roof of the Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park. Yandell became the prototype of “the bachelor maid” when portrayed in a fair memoir, Three Girls in a Flat.

Copyright 2008 by Marie J. Kuda

From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.

Chicago Gay History
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