This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Tufts Dental Medicine.
They came by the millions, via steamship and pullman coach, by trolley car and on Chicago’s brand-new “L,” to the extravaganza that marked the beginning of the modern age. Visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 made their way through a 600-acre wonderland of exhibition halls and amusements by the shore of Lake Michigan, where they witnessed a parade of firsts: the first Ferris wheel (lifting 2,160 people at a time 264 feet into the air), the first moving sidewalk, the first indoor skating rink, the first display in the U.S. of belly dancing.
Fairgoers munched on new snacks: hot dogs and Cracker Jacks and Juicy Fruit gum. A former slave in a headscarf and apron, introduced as “Aunt Jemima,” demonstrated something previously unheard-of: a mix for making pancakes. And when darkness fell, the White City, as the fair became known, glimmered brilliantly against the night sky, as the Beaux Arts buildings and boulevards were illuminated by the first wide-scale outdoor use of electricity.
In six months, it was over. The visitors carted home their souvenirs; most of the buildings were destroyed in a fire the following year. The Columbian Exposition faded into memory, and then history.
In a 20th-floor apartment in the Bronx, New York, it is always 1893, and the fair has never ended.
Stephen Sheppard, D60, a retired general dentist, has amassed one of the world’s largest collections of objects and documentation from the Columbian Exposition. So expansive is the archive that it occupies an entire apartment of its own, a veritable private museum. (Sheppard lives next door.)
There are more than 27,000 items, all meticulously cataloged and displayed by category. A banquet menu signed by Frederick Douglass. A letter from Helen Keller, describing her visit to the fair with Alexander Graham Bell. A uniform worn by a member of the Columbian Guard, the fair’s security force. A folding wood chair that was rented by fairgoers who wanted a portable place to rest. Specially made items by Tiffany, Wedgwood, Libbey glass and Coalport china. An eight-foot poster advertising the “German Village.” A shelf of souvenir thimble-holders fashioned from seashells. A hatchet made of so-called Vaseline glass that shimmers in the dark because of the uranium oxide added during manufacture.
“I think of myself as an archeologist,” says Sheppard. “I’m digging in the sands of the world, scouring the world to gather items and put them back together again since they were dispersed at the end of the exposition.”
Twenty-seven million people attended the fair between May and October of 1893; the event marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. With daily dispatches sent to hundreds of newspapers all over the country, the event loomed large in the national imagination. “The Columbian Exposition was the most incredible event of a positive nature of the 19th century,” Sheppard says. “It was a turning point in U.S. history—the U.S. was now recognized as a major industrial nation, on par with Europe.”
The end of the fair was overshadowed by the assassination of Chicago’s mayor. The country became preoccupied with financial woes as the U.S. economy slipped into a depression. Few of the fair’s buildings or landmarks remained standing for long, and it faded as an object of fascination. Until the publication of Erik Larson’s popular 2003 nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, which recounts the stories of the architect who built the venue and the serial killer who stalked his victims there, the fair remained virtually unknown to most Americans.
Sheppard, who has lived most of his life in New York, was no exception—until he stumbled upon a book of photographs from the fair. It spoke to his deep-seated urge to collect and organize.
“I was always a collector as a child,” he says. “I have the collecting instinct.” Before he learned about the exposition, his passion had been stamp collecting.
He started slowly: “At one point I had 52 items, and I thought I had the world,” he recalls. He initially flirted with memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair as well, which he attended as a boy. But a dealer convinced him he needed to specialize. So 1893 it was.
That was more than 30 years ago. Since then, he has trolled antique, collectible and paper shows—in the early years, he would make 12 to 18 trips a year—gathering bits and pieces of the fair that had found their way into attics and basements and warehouses across the country. “Digging for treasure,” he calls it. He would arrive before dawn at the giant Brimfield, Massachusetts, antique shows, racing from booth to booth with a flashlight. Gradually, the Internet—particularly auction sites such as eBay—replaced most of the shows. “It’s still exciting, but it doesn’t have the same excitement as running around an antique field in anticipation that the next dealer would have some fabulous treasure in their booth,” he says.
About 10 years ago, the collection outgrew its home in Sheppard’s daughter’s old bedroom, so he purchased the apartment next door, where the souvenir spoons, kerosene lamps, milk-glass salt- and pepper-shakers and hundreds of other items now reside in museum-style cases. Thanks to his careful organization, Sheppard is able to locate almost any object in a matter of minutes. His dream is to see the collection relocated to a permanent home in Chicago.
He opens a cabinet and takes down a Stanhope optical bijou, a device popular in the 19th century for viewing “microphotographs.” Hold the tiny peephole up to your eye, and the White City comes into focus in all its splendor, filling your field of vision. Everywhere you look, it is 1893 once again.