World's Fairs In a Southern Accent

by Bruce G. Harvey

I have to be honest and say that this book is not my usual (ahem) fare - which made it all the more interesting!

Essentially the thesis of the book is a relatively simple question, with a richly rewarding answer: what can we learn about the story of American cities as reflected in three of its earliest World's Fairs? The period covered is 1895-1902 - and right there, you have learned a lot!

Post Civil War America was booming. Post Civil War Southern America had something to prove - that it was competitive, that it was a place to do business, that it was modern and technologically advanced.

In truth, World's, and other large Fairs are all about just that: demonstrating what is new, exciting, different, advanced. I portrayed a character in an OHA Ghost Walk whose husband made a fortune because he attended a National Exhibition in Philadelphia where he learned about a little thing called a typewriter. That device, as my character says, changed the way business was done, and opened up careers in business for women.

Fairs have a long and fascinating story - though that is not the immediate subject of this delightfully well-researched book. Fairs have long been a place where people met, learned about new things, hired others, sold goods or bought them. What began as a way for people in a region to meet and market widened their boundaries and broadened their scopes. Now we have State Fairs as well as County Fairs, but for a period of time, the World's Fairs were the bronze ring of fairdom. In their heyday, they were a way to prove that your city was on the map. Between them, during this period, America, and the South, had a great interest in proving both.

Harvey's book explores this world by examining three southern cities that desperately needed the exposure and business boost a fair would bring - and the stamp each would put upon the ongoing culture of World's Fairs. It's a unique proposition: what can fairs tell us about our culture, and what do such fairs do to change or influence culture?

In the 1890s the South was, of course, laboring under the aftermath of the Civil War. There was much to labor under: destroyed property, demolished cities, the racial aftermath of slavery and emancipation, not to mention the relative backwardness, industrially, of the area - and a demoralized public.

To gain the prize of a World Exposition was an achievement; but the goal for Atlanta, Nashville, and Charleston was to not only put their cities on the map, but to put paid to the Northern, and even world ideas that the American South was poor, ignorant, impoverished, racist, and not a good place to do business.

I won't go into all the details - in truth, it would be impossible to know where to start! This is a book that will be like a gourmet meal for an historian (amateur or professional), but of interest to a more casual reader, as well. It is chock full of detail, facts, figures and most importantly, insights.

Harvey doesn't just list dates and facts - he draws the inferences and helps a non-scholarly reader see why these facts lead to this conclusion - the cause and effect, the significance of a community taking action, and the usefulness of the results.

To someone interested in World or US History, this book is sure to reward. But to someone more parochial - who would like to learn about the machinations of local business interests, and how they can be handled successfully (or not), this book also has a lot to give. Going even a step further - I would make it recommended reading for civic committees - it's that useful as a tool for understanding how publicity, image, and the cohesion (or disunity) of business interests can shape the fate of a community. Yes, that's all in this book for the reader to mine. This is a book you could enjoy on a long summer evening out on the patio - or verandah, as they'd say in the South.


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