Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Beijing Games call to mind our 1893 fair

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of "China's Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times." ]

There is an obvious relevance to Chicago's future in the three-ring circus (make that five-ring) that just concluded in China. Beijing's Olympic venues, opening ceremony and the like will provide points of comparison not just for London in 2012 but also for the Games that Chicago hopes to host four years later.

But there's also a part of Chicago's past worth revisiting while the Beijing Games are fresh in our minds: the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

There are, of course, critical differences between the Chicago exposition and the Beijing Games.

But dive into Erik Larson's book "The Devil in the White City" or dip into the Chicago Historical Society's "Grand Illusions: Chicago's World's Fair of 1893," and many interesting parallels emerge.

Start with the flash: The brightly lit "White City" of 1893, like the opening ceremony of 08/08/08, set a new standard for over-the-top displays using state-of-the-art technologies.

Many 1890s reports about Chicago read eerily like recent articles on Beijing. Europeans once viewed America with the same mix of fascination and skepticism that Americans now hold for China. In Europe's eyes, the United States was an upstart land where shoddy goods were made and copyrights ignored. But there was an undeniable energy.

The lingering question as the World's Fair neared was whether the United States could pull off a first-class international event with a hallowed lineage. After all, it was the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris for which Eiffel built his famous tower....

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