Glenn Uminowicz - March 2010

 

Locomotives, Old Glory and Crabcakes:
Maryland at the World’s Fair
by
Glenn Uminowicz

 

The story of the Battle of Fort McHenry, the salty atmosphere of an Eastern Shore wharf, the growth of tourism and commerce in the “Free State” and many more colorful elements are present in this pavilion.
– A description of the Maryland Pavilion from the official guide to the 1964 World’s Fair

 

While giving a nod to significant historical events, American world’s fairs have really been about a future made brighter through technology. The gigantic Corliss Steam Engine came to symbolize the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 1893, a gleaming “White City” arose proclaiming the advent of a new American culture and the nation’s accomplishments in industry and commerce. In New York in 1939 and again in 1964, General Motors invited fairgoers to visit Futurama, a vision of the world of tomorrowenhanced through transportation technology.
Faced with visiting futuristic displays and myriad exhibits gathered from around the globe, fairgoers valued “places of orientation.” They found them in the various buildings constructed byindividual states, including Maryland’s Pavilions. In 1893, a Chicago newspaper reporter observed that state buildings were “in reality large exposition club houses, where the visitor from each state may find a resting place and meet his neighbor from home.”
In 1876, antique and modern steam locomotives from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad flanked the Maryland Building. Its interior was devoted to “purposes of exhibition as well as accommodation.” Displays of the state’s mineral, mining and other industries dominated the main hall, complemented by exhibits focusing on “fowling and fishing interests.” The latter included a display devoted to “showing the enemies of the oyster which prey upon his existence — all except man, the greatest foe of all.” The Maryland Historical Society provided “antiquarian relics” and “portraits of historical worthies” for view- The story of the Battle of Fort McHenry, the salty atmosphere of an Eastern Shore wharf, the growth of tourism and commerce in the “Free State” and many more colorful elements are present in this pavilion.
– A description of the Maryland Pavilion from the official guide to the 1964 World’s Fairing. Finally, the building included “parlors and retiring rooms and other conveniences, rendering this house agreeable as a stoppingplace for citizens of the State.” In short, the Maryland Building offered a respite from touring vast exhibits devoted to heavy machinery, horticulture and the arts and sciences.
Serving as headquarters for “state days” constituted one important function of state buildings. In 1876, Maryland’s participation in a “state day” displayed a distinctly Delmarva flavor, as the Free State was partnered with Delaware and Virginia. A jousting tournament proved the highlight of the day as fifteen “knights” representing the thirteen original colonies, the United States and the Centennial competed. The evening was marked by the “Crowning of the Queen of Love and Beauty.”
The Maryland Pavilions in Chicago in 1893 and New York in 1939, followed the pattern established in 1876. They featured exhibits highlighting the state’s history, culture and commerce and restful accommodations
for weary fairgoers. The 1893 pavilion clearly reflected the architecture of the White City. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, enormous exhibition halls rendered in a neoclassical style clustered around a “Grand Basin” that featured allegorical sculptures representing the voyage of Columbus and the American republic. The buildings were never intended to be permanent. Their facades were crafted from material similar to plaster of paris.
The fair’s organizers hoped to make a statement that a maturing American culture served to unite the diverse population and ethnic traditions found in the modern city. Much of that diversity was relegated to the so-called Midway Pleasance, an amusement area best known for its Ferris Wheel. Here fairgoers could visit a reproduced African village, the Irish Blarney Castle and a German restaurant. The White City fostered enthusiasm for Beaux Arts architecture in the United States, reflected in the design of museums, libraries and other public buildings. By the 1920s, architects working in a modernist style sharply criticized the legacy of the White City. They insisted that its neoclassical architecture was merely a veneer applied to an underlying structure borrowed from the skyscraper, an approach to building totally unsuitable to a streamlined age where form followed function.
At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the modernists triumphed. Their “World of Tomorrow” stripped away neoclassical adornment. The fair’s symbols were the Trylon and Perisphere, highly stylized versions of an obelisk and a sphere. Inside the Perisphere, moving sidewalks transported visitors around a model of Democracity, a centrally planned suburban community integrating apartment buildings and townhouses into green spaces. An accompanying film The City was filmed in Greenbelt, Maryland, the federal government’s most ambitious experiment
in creating a garden community.
Historian David Gelernter interpreted the message of the film, “The future is a place where people live in suburban towns — where children romp in green fields, ride their bikes and play softball far away from the grind of city traffic, the filth of city gutters, (and) the danger of city railroad yards.”
More popular than Democracity at the 1939 Fair was General Motors’ Futurama exhibit, an updated version of which appeared at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. In 1939, Futurama designer Norman Bel Geddes took visitors on a fifteen minute trip across America in the year 1960. They viewed 50,000 car models plying city streets and highways at scaled speeds of from fifty to one hundred miles per hour. Geddes anticipated construction of the Interstate Highway System and the post-World War II growth of the suburbs.
The vision of the future presented in the 1964 version of Futurama proved even more ambitious. According to the official fair guidebook, the exhibit provided “a detailed, knowledgeable look at the technological developments awaiting mankind. The predictions are all based on fact; they picture, among other things, a visit to the moon, a year-round commercial harbor in the Antarctic, a vacation resort located underwater and
some surprising aspects of the city of the future.” The latter included super-skyscrapers, high-speedbus-trains, moving sidewalks, and connections to an “international highway.”
The 1964 Fair reflected a deeply felt American optimism and faith in the future. In addition to Futurama, visitors could ride the General Electric Carousel of Progress, tracing the evolution of consumer goods from the 19th century to the “glories of today.” In the egg-shaped IBM pavilion, the methods man and machine use to solve problems were explained. At the theater in the duPont exhibit, the audience enjoyed a “chemical comedy” and marveled at “polyesterprestidigitation.”
Several historians have remarked that visions of the future offered at world’s fairs could sometimes be compromised. The offending element proved to be people. The official photographers for the Columbian Exposition, for example, composed their images when crowds were small, emphasizing the orderly arrangement of the monumental buildings. Fair visitors could sometimes eat their box lunches while sitting on grand staircases thus ruining the composition of a shot.
In 1939, while 50,000 miniature cars sped through Futurama, the cityscape lacked an equivalent number of miniature inhabitants. Compared to grand visions of the urban future, one of the attractions of the Maryland Pavilions and other state buildings at the fairs was that they were built for people. They offered a place to rest in surroundings that were relatively familiar. In 1964, for example, the Maryland Pavilion featured images of the bustling Port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay. Eastern Shore hobbyists contributed models of Chesapeake Bay sailing craft and carved duck decoys. Admittedly, sometimes things did not go smoothly. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner, an exact replica of the 42x30 ft. flag was commissioned, only to discover that it was too big to display in the state building. Regarding fairgoers, the poor director of the Maryland Pavilion, in essence, had to admit, “O’ say they can’t see by the dawn’s early or any other light our banner yet wave.”
The most popular attractions in the Maryland Pavilion proved to be its restaurant, especially the Chesapeake Bay Wharf Snack Bar. The trade publication Fast Food proclaimed its crabcake sandwich to be a “best seller” as fairgoers devoured them at a rate of 17,000 per week. The sandwich was based on an Eastern Shore recipe provided by Maryland first lady Helen Tawes. In 1964, the one million visitors to the Maryland Pavilion consumed 46,000 lbs. of crabmeat, 86,000 lbs. of softshell crabs, 60,000 hot dogs, 15,000 oysters, and over 95,000 lbs of chicken provided by Delmarvapoultry producers. Students at the University of Maryland even concocted a sweet potato ice cream called “Mari-Gold.” It reportedly possessed a delicate flavor and displayed a “luscious orange color.”
Mrs. Tawes began distributingher Eastern Shore recipes during her spouse’s gubernatorial campaign. As one writer put it, “She believed that the way to voters’ hearts was through their stomachs.”
At the world’s fairs, the Maryland Pavilions found their way into fairgoers hearts, as well as their stomachs. Thus fortified, they returned to the fairgrounds to digest those heady visions of their future.