In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The fair was a celebration of the anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America and included entertainment for all visitors, including children. Though it didn’t open right away, by June 1893 the fair dedicated the Children’s Building. The women who organized it intended the building to be “for the little folks. It was theirs absolutely, and in it they might reign supreme, from the tiniest cradle on the first floor to the playground on the roof.”
The gymnasium, a favorite attraction for young visitors, took up the first floor of the building. Starting at ten o’clock each morning, children took turns swinging from parallel bars, rings, and trapezes. They climbed poles and jumped over vaulting horses. Both boys and girls enjoyed the gym so much that a long line formed outside the building as children waited for their chance to use the equipment. Since there were not many children’s playgrounds in the nineteenth century, the gym offered children a unique opportunity to play outside their homes.
The second floor of the building displayed children’s toys made in different countries. France, a leading toy manufacturer at the time, sent the most life-like toys, including “toy men who performed almost human feats of skill…and toy animals invested with the intelligence of trained domestic beasts.” Toy exhibits also came from other countries, including Russia, Germany, Sweden, and Japan. Children themselves contributed some of the most interesting toys. One young boy contributed a top he had invented and had a patent taken out for it in Washington.
Educational opportunities abounded for children of every age group in the Children’s Building. Girls and boys ages eleven to fifteen attended woodcarving and clay modeling workshops. Children of all ages attended lectures on foreign countries, their history and their customs. After the lectures, the instructors took the children to see the exhibits of the countries they studied. Young girls attended “kitchen gardens” where they learned to make up beds, sweep, and wash clothes.
The most popular part of the Children’s Building was the nursery, where parents could drop off their small children while they visited the other exhibits at the fair. The public could view the babies and toddlers through a windowed partition. One visitor described the nursery as having “the brightest rooms in the building…presided over by trained nurses…there are rows of cradles for very little people, rows of beds for those a little older, toys of all kinds, spring chairs hung from the ceiling, where babies can jump up and down and go, and in the center is a place they call the pond. It is an enclosure fenced off as a playground for the little people who can only creep.” So many spectators were enthralled with the sight of the little ones that some fairgoers believed that the building was for babies only. Parents could drop off a child with a nursemaid during the day and return for the child in the evening. Unfortunately, the building organizers underestimated the popularity of the nursery. As a result, nurses turned away hundreds of parents and their children on a daily basis because they didn’t have enough staff or space.