Friday, March 28, 2008

Take Me to the Fair

A few years ago, a relative gave me access to a photograph album of cabinet cards belonging to my great grandparents, Ole M. and Malla Johnson. Most of the images inside were collected during the 1880s-1890s, and among the many portraits of people was the photograph of a ship, pictured below. Curious, I scanned the image, enlarged it, and was able to read the name Christopher Columbus on the bow.

The Christopher Columbus was the only passenger steamer of 43 whaleback-type ships developed in Duluth for the World’s Fair Steamship Company. It ran fair-goers between Milwaukee and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and judging by the regalia on the ship, this photograph was taken in May 1893 as the steamship left Duluth Harbor on its initial run.

From 1887 until 1898, Ole M. Johnson's mother, Bertina, lived in Duluth, Minnesota along with her second husband, Eric Larsen Winje, and their children. It was the Winje family took this rare shot of the only fair-going whaleback passenger ship in 1893.

Photograph from the Johnson/Winje Family Collections

The exciting Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago in May 1893. It was the cultural event of its time, ushering in the carnival concept to the world and introducing many commercial food products that are still popular today, including hamburgers and Cracker Jack. The Exposition marked the United States' coming of age as a political and industrial power. To house the World's Fair, the city of Chicago built the "White City"--a larger and more international venue than for any previous fair. [1]

Photo source: Encyclopaedia Britannica Online

Eric L. Winje had become a municipal court judge by 1893 and could easily have afforded to take his family to the Exposition. His peers in the law profession most likely encouraged each other to attend the event of a lifetime, so taking all things into account, it is almost inconceivable that the Winjes did not take the opportunity to experience something so unique and enlightening.

When my Norwegian-American ancestors attended the Fair, they surely visited the Norwegian Exhibit, which displayed panoramas of mountain scenery and representations of peasant cottages and costumes of their homeland. Also of interest would have been the replica of the first discovered Viking war vessel unearthed from a burial mound in Norway a few years earlier, in 1880. The original Gokstad Viking ship was built in around 890. It was the first tangible evidence that Vikings had built ships capable of traveling long distances, especially to the New World.

Photo source: The Illuminated Lantern

A Norwegian named Magnus Andersen built an exact copy of the artifact and sailed it across the Atlantic to display at the World’s Fair, where it arrived on 12 July 1893. The ship was christened the Raven, but quickly came to be known simply a the Viking. Part of the challenge of the voyage was to show the seaworthiness of the Viking ship design, but, there was also controversy over the presence of the replica at the Columbian Exposition, which was meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The idea that the Viking, Leif Eriksen, had reached North America first was not widely accepted as early as 1893. [2]

Where were your ancestors in 1893? Did they visit, or were they likely to have visited, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago? What type of photographs or postcards did they save as mementos? What sights, smells, sounds would they have experienced? What World's Fair attractions would they have made a point to see, based on their cultural interests?

The discovery of the 1893 Christopher Columbus photograph in my great grandparents album convinced me that even though an image might seem out of context in a collection, it always warrants careful inspection. You never know what treasures might be revealed about the interests and activities of your ancestors.

[1] Shaw, Marion. World’s Fair Notes: A Woman Journalist Views Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition (St. Paul, Minnesota: Pogo Press, Inc., 1992), 40.

[2] Ǻkesson, Per, “The Viking,” Nordic Underwater Archaeology, (accessed 12 November 2005).

1 comment:

  1. I can place family in Chicago before and after the mid 1890's but not while the Fair was going on. They didn't live too far away so I imagine some may have gone but I haven't a clue as to which ones.