Diana Parsell Writer

Diana Parsell Writer

Diana Parsell Writer

Eliza Scidmore and Other Women Writers at the Chicago World's Fair

Women’s History Month begins this week. The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress is helping to kick off things with a presentation Friday afternoon, March 2, on a new scholarly work, Right Here I See My Own Books, about the special woman’s library assembled for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

I seemed to recall from my research that Eliza Scidmore reported on the fair. Revisiting my notes, I found an article she wrote for the Aug. 19 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine she was contributing to regularly at the time. 

It also made me wonder whether her work was represented in the woman’s library. I checked an online list of the titles. And yes, Eliza Scidmore was included!

The library contained copies of the three books she had published by that time: Alaska and the Sitkan  Archipelago, Jinrikisha Days in Japan and Westward to the Far East.

Exhibits in the Woman’s Building at the fair (known officially as the Columbian Exposition) included a library of 8,000 books written by women. Authors Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne A. Wiegand note that most of the authors were American, but women from other countries were also represented, their works spanning several centuries, from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

When Eliza Scidmore went to Chicago for the fair, she had already made several trips to Japan. The first edition of Jinrikisha Days in Japan had been published two years earlier. Eliza’s coverage of the fair focused heavily on the Japanese exhibits.

Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (Source: Digital Archive of American Architecture, Jeffrey Howe, Boston College)

Japan had been isolated for 200 years when it opened its doors to the outside world in the 1850s. In the decades that followed it participated in several world fairs, which became an important form of cultural exchange. Japan’s exhibits were wildly popular with fair-goers clamoring for insight on the country, whose feudal customs and artistic traditions were rapidly giving way to a frenzy of modernization.

The Japanese first appeared at a world’s fair in Vienna in 1873. There and at subsequent fairs in Philadelphia (1876) and Paris (1889), Eliza wrote, Japanese exhibits were highly artistic and individual. In Chicago, she observed, “the commercial progress of the country is more apparent than any artistic progress.”

Japan’s exhibits were divided into 14 separate attractions scattered throughout the buildings and fairgrounds of the fair, whose dazzling design and architecture, punctuated by electric lights, made it legendary as the “White City.”  Eliza wrote: “If one wishes to see what our Oriental neighbors have done, he must incidentally see the whole fair.” One building housed shelves densely packed with intricate porcelains, enamels and bronzes, such as cloisonné vases as tall as people and studded with brilliant mirror surfaces that reflected the light. Fresh items were substituted daily so viewers could discover new treasures every time they returned. While she was traveling in Japan the previous autumn, Eliza noted, she visited potteries and porcelain factories where everyone seemed preoccupied with making goods for the Chicago fair.

Japanese temple on wooded island at Chicago World’s Fair, Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1893 (Source: stereopticon, Wolfsonian-Florida International University)

Other displays consisted of women silk weavers; elaborate embroideries, robes, screens, lacquers and scrolls; miniature landscaped gardens; cryptomeria, bamboo, hinoki and camphor wood in the forestry building; tea, rice and other foodstuffs. The Women’s Building had an exhibit of a Japanese noblewoman’s boudoir. There was a tiny Japanese tea garden along the lagoon, where the tea was served in large Western-style cups; patrons willing to pay “the superior price” could watch a demonstration of the ancient tea ceremony while seated on crape cushions. 

The most conspicuous Japanese exhibit was a little temple modeled on an ancient and weather-beaten temple at Uji. It was constructed on the fair’s wooded island, and visitors had to cross a red-lacquered bridge to reach it. Though simple in appearance, the temple was outfitted inside with exquisite furnishings and accessories typical of the home life of the Tokugawa shoguns (bafuku) who exercised political control in Japan until 1868 when the emperor was returned to the throne (the Meiji restoration). Together, the study, dining room and audience room “are a jewel-box in three compartments,” Eliza told readers in her Harper’s Bazaar article. 

A co-sponsor of the book launch at the Library of Congress is the National Women’s History Museum, which has been working since 1996 to have a museum of women’s history built adjacent to the National Mall in Washington (at 12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.). High-profile support from people including the actress Meryl Streep, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has helped move the project along in recent months, with authorizing legislation now making its way through Congress. Even Vogue magazine has gotten behind the cause. Last fall it featured a group portrait, by celebrity photographer Annie Liebowitz, of a dozen leading women advocates for the museum posing on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.    


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