The Forgotten Columbia Exposition
When Wild Ideas Took Wing: A Centennial Lookback
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100 years ago, The Columbia Exposition brought nature to New York. In our Wild Wings Snack Pack, we celebrate our inner lions, tigers and bears! Contains: Box of Animal Crackers (1), Honey Sticks (3) & Nice! Brand Gummy Worms (1 bag).
Sheffield Dairy Magic
In honor of the Exposition's local Dairy providers, we've put together a themed snack pack for lactose lovers. Magic Milk Pack includes: Hershey's Chocolate Bar (1), Good Humor Original Ice Cream Bar (1) & Borden's Dutch Chocolate Milk (1 pint).
What was the Columbia Exposition?
AKA "The Party of the Year" in 1921
The Exposition was an ephemeral event from which we have only been able to find fragments. The larger pieces of the puzzle have unfortunately been lost to history. From what we can piece together, in July of the year 1921, Columbia University’s campus was host to a weeklong Grand Exposition, a popular type of event at the time, combining public education with varied entertainment. Likely inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 or the nearby Bronx International Exposition of Science, Arts and Industries of 1918, the 1921 Exposition at Columbia was intended to promote “an Innovative & Modern Approach to Nature & Natural Science.”
Columbia Exposition Fast Facts
The Expo took place July 4-10th, 1921 on Columbia’s Campus.
Nightly entertainment events including fireworks.
Exhibitions included a focus on flora and fauna
The Year Was 1921
But Prohibition and Pandemic Didn’t Stop This “Party of the Year”
The Columbia Exposition happened in 1921 on Columbia University’s campus. This was a time of tremendous growth and change in the United States and in the world, a spirit The Exposition aimed to reflect. As was documented in many newspapers from the time and in Elena Canadelli’s Behind the Exhibit: Displaying Science and Technology at World’s Fairs and Museums in the Twentieth Century, the focus of the Exposition was on innovation and modern science.
As is well known, this event took place after World War I and during Prohibition. Guests and exhibitions were invited from around the world in an effort to rebuild and strengthen international relations. With a refreshing strawberry lemonade in hand, visitors could visit booths learning about cultures from around the world.
One of the largest cultural movements happening in the U.S. at this time was the Harlem Renaissance. This movement embraced the intellectual and cultural life of African Americans. There is evidence found in Shannon King’s Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era, that the Expo welcomed food, live jazz music, and poetry readings from prominent African American artists and businesses at the time. This was a big difference between this event and the Chicago’s World Fair just a couple decades prior, which can be read about in Andrew Kaetzel’s In Search of Expo 93: Chicago World Fair and its Radiance in New York City.
This was also a pivotal time for women’s rights, and as is evident in Rebecca Rogers’ Women in International and Universal Exhibitions, 1876-1937, the Columbia Exposition was mainly organized by women. During this time, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote, the first international women’s sports event organized by Alice Milliat was held in Monaco, and as documented in the Columbia University Alumni Register and Yearbook, 1754-1931, some of the first female students were being accepted into and graduating from Columbia University in fields such as journalism, law, and medicine. The Exposition became a time to really celebrate the achievements of women.
For more information on the international impact of this event, Columbia University published The Guide for Foreign Visitors at Columbia University in 1922. It outlines not only the arrival of guests to the University via the Hudson and East Rivers, but also shares diary entries and first-hand accounts of the Expo from a foreign visitor’s perspective. Interestingly enough, according to Jeremy Green’s Influenza and Aspirin: Bayer’s Financial Empire in the Deadliest Global Pandemic in History, the Spanish Flu of 1918 did not stop world travelers from making the trek to the 1921 Exposition. Green states it could have been due to Bayer’s corporate influence on the media at the time encouraging everyone that it was safe to attend.
Built on the former site of Athletic Field ten years after the Columbia Exposition and remaining one of the most well known landmarks of Columbia University today, Butler Library is a natural time tunnel that connects us with forgotten grandiosity. However, at the time of Jenkins’ Time Capsule discovery of the 1921 Exposition, this building had witnessed a much more turbulent time for Columbia University as well as the United States.
Rediscovery: Through the Lens of 1971
Columbia University in 1968
Jenkins’ finding in 1971 took place in the aftermath of Columbia’s most significant student movement (the protests of 1968).
The Civil Rights Movement:
What Did The Students
Rise For Or Against?
The students’ appeals were part of a larger call of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Forgotten No More!
The Exposition’s Rediscovery in 1971
Hard as it may be to believe, a simple plumbing repair was the key to recovering this entire event from a veritable ocean of obscurity. In 1971, Earl Jenkins, a custodian working in Butler Library, discovered a strange metal object tucked behind a pipe. With the help of graduate students in the School of Engineering, Jenkins was able to open the strange object, which upon further examination turned out to be a repurposed, stainless steel cocktail shaker*.
* With the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920, the Prohibition era prompted the repurposing of many such utilitarian objects.
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A Prohibition Era Time Capsule Opens The Door
American Civilization Scholars at the time surmised that the near mint condition of the enclosed contents of the makeshift time capsule was nothing short of miraculous considering the damp, dark climate of the object’s placement in situ. If nothing else, the survival of these primary documents owes a debt of gratitude to the tradition of American Engineering and the invention of Stainless Steel which, in 1921, was affordable enough to be used in manufacturing everyday items such as this cocktail shaker and other tools of precision.
Mr. Jenkin’s discovery prompted a new generation of historians, professional and amateur, to investigate the Exposition. Much of the scholarly publications on this subject date back to the early ‘70s. And while many of the artifacts referenced have long since disappeared into private collections, their records lost to time, thanks to comprehensive studies such as Failed Expositions in New York at the Turn of the Last Century by M. Heide and G. DuBois’ tongue in cheek The Junk Before The Trunk, we have been able to recreate much of the Exposition’s story, albeit second-hand.
Origins and Partnerships:
The Planning of an Exposition
Click to learn more about the man behind the Expo's most enduring conspiracy theory.
Who paid for the Exposition?
Sponsorships and the rise of advertising at the turn of the last century meant that Expositions were often reliant on corporate and local sponsors for funding. We know of at least three major sponsors of the 1921 Exposition.
Yes, that Aspirin! Originally founded in Germany, Bayer Co. had established its American headquarters in New York. After Bayer’s patent on “Aspirin” expired in 1917, Bayer Co. found itself embroiled in a dispute protecting the name. Following an April 1921 decision that “aspirin” had become generic in the eyes of the law, the brand sought to firm up its name recognition by sponsoring scientific events and medical demonstrations like those at the Columbia Exposition.
Sheffield Dairy Farms
The Sheffield Farms – Slawson – Decker Company, known as Sheffield Farms, pasteurized, bottled, and delivered milk in New York City in the first half of the 20th century, becoming one of the largest dairy companies in the world, and selling 20% of the city's milk. The company played a major part in transforming commercial milk from a dirty, disease-spreading product into a clean and healthy one. Sheffield Farm’s pasteurization plant, Prentis Hall, was acquired by Columbia University in the late 1940’s. Soon after, it became a nuclear testing facility associated with the Manhattan Project.
Another company incorporated in New York, General Electric had not yet celebrated its 30th birthday at the time of the Columbia Exposition. Following the recent founding of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919, GE sought to expand international radio communications. What better way to show off their innovations and capture the attention of an international audience than at the Columbia Exposition?
How the curators of The Forgotten Columbia Exposition brought the past back to life.
How do we know what the Carousel looked like?
Long story short: We don’t!
However, by compiling several first and second-hand accounts of the Carousel custom designed for the Exposition, our team commissioned a local artist to put together an image of what we think the carousel might have looked like even though no photographs or original renderings have survived. We do know that the Carousel featured sculptures of several American heroes. Guests could try for the brass ring while riding double with the likes of Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln.
When preparing for this current exhibit, our curators wanted to feature the incredible poster design initially rediscovered in 1971. Unfortunately, the only copy of the poster was significantly damaged and the artwork had begun to fade due to the aging paper (posters are often printed on cheaper paper due to their disposable nature). Luckily, a small photograph of the original poster was also located in the Columbia University Archives.
Working from the damaged poster and the aging photograph, a contemporary artist worked to create a reconstructed image of the official Exposition Poster in order to give us a more accurate sense of the vivid colors and lines that might have attracted visitors to the event 100 years ago.
What did the Exposition
The music you hear playing in the exhibit is part of our Exposition Soundtrack, featuring many contemporary songs from 1921 including the only surviving recording of Daniel Corsican’s “The Blueberry Blues”, restored from the Edison Cylinder Record found within the Jenkins Time Capsule. “The Blueberry Blues” was, of course, the Exposition’s official theme song but sources suggest that the Exposition was filled with music, likely featuring “the Pops” (popular music of the day) such as the work of Tin Pan Alley composers and budding Jazz Musicians. Our gallery soundtrack is a fanciful collection of tunes that our curators felt fit the spirit of the Exposition. Copies will be made available for purchase via our website gift shop at a future date.
What's Next For This Project:
How do we bring 1921 back to life?
We are sorry to acknowledge that except for the miraculously preserved Jenkins time capsule, most of the written materials from 1921 about the Exposition have been lost or damaged. However, historians at Columbia University won’t let the ghost of unresolved history disappear in the mist of undocumented facts. Historical reenactment is a useful tool to reconstruct an embodied, if not archived, truthfulness to the forgotten event a hundred years ago. Based on our thorough research on the costume, architecture, etiquette, and slangs of 1920s New York City, we have collected various visual and performance references so that reenactors might be able to pick up a persona from the ‘20s and embody what they could have experienced, and to convey them to visitors today. Additionally, a 1971 oral history project that consisted of interviews with former Exposition contributors and their descendants has been able to provide us with plenty of first-person accounts, background stories and vivid details of the events, which could possibly be perfectly re-iterated into scripts for our reenactors, should the funding ever come through for such a project.
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The Forgotten Columbia Exposition was made possible by support from
The Morris A. Schapiro Association of Antiquity