The Grant Park War Exposition
Chicago in wartime: September 1918
Feelings of patriotism ran high among Chicagoans during the summer of 1918. The War Exposition opened in town in early September, which allowed Americans to experience what this modern war was like firsthand. Crowds watching the first game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox were treated to a sea of waving American flags, a rousing version of the "Star Spangled Banner," and an airshow from the expo grounds to the south.
On the 2nd of September, 1918, the Allied War Exposition arrived in the city, causing one of the most influential events in Chicago’s history. The event would also remain one of Chicago’s more forgotten historical moments, despite its immense impact on the people of the city at the time. The exposition would host crowds far larger than that of the Columbian World’s Fair of 1893, and Chicago would enthusiastically greet the traveling Allied Exposition with the biggest crowds of any American city. But it would be these same patriots, looking for the same collective rush of the wartime rallies of 1918, that would tear the city apart less than a year later, in one of the deadliest riots in national history. The Grant Park War Exposition of 1918 is worth exploration.
Eager Civic Participation
Even before the exposition opened in Chicago, over a million tickets had already been sold to eager spectators-to-be. By the end of its fourteen day stop in the Windy City, almost two million Americans would take part in the militant festivities, far in excess of any other city visited on the exposition’s tour. On the same day that the Star-Spangled Banner was introduced to baseball, 83,000 Chicagoans were introduced to modern battlefields and weaponry, an experience that none could easily forget. Despite heavy rain, over 130,000 visitors would witness the inauguration ceremonies. The Chicago Tribune would report that the daily attendance averaged 138,000, remarking that not since the great “White City” fair had the hotels of Chicago been so crowded.
"A World Above": U.S. Army planes like these flew daily over the Exposition, and would’ve been seen above the stadiums hosting the 1918 World Series. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News collection.
A look inside
Inside the exposition, one could reasonably assume that the allies had already won the war. Beneath aerial performances, over 1,200 soldiers and sailors performed “mock battles”, complete with miles of authentic trenches and barbed wire. Spectators watched in a stadium-like atmosphere, as tanks smashed across a shattered “no man’s land”, destroying defensive fortifications. Audiences cheered as machine guns burst across the performance field, and as heavier cannon sounded off, capable of sending even the bravest soldiers scurrying to the trenches.
"Patriot Games": Exposition fans watch a mock battle in Chicago, complete with live ammunition and artillery shells. Photo courtesy of
Library of Congress.
The Individual Experience
Afterwards, visitors were often treated to entering the trenches themselves, and meeting the relief workers of organizations such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross. Civilians would be shown great quantities of captured German weapons, along with captured German helmets, uniforms, and airplanes. Military drilling and exhibition work were routine, almost ceaseless, both during mock battles and simple parades. Standing watch above the revelry was a large white replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty, surrounded by the flags of the allied nations, supposedly all united in the name of democracy.
On an individual level, we see that guests of the exposition were easily swept up in the zealous, militant fever. Mothers of dead American soldiers took part, like Alice Gresham Dodd, who formally inaugurated the ceremony for support of the war that killed her son. Two younger female visitors were so impressed that they wrote to their mutual male friend in the army, “We went to the Exposition and the sham battle was great that gives the people an idea of how our boys are fighting for us”.
"United for Victory": a replica of the Statue of Liberty watches over the Grant Park War Exposition. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News collection.
Warnings from the Past
But this thrilling sense of communal inclusion and effort has terrible drawbacks, both during the war and after it ends. Riots would explode across the United States the following summer, as large numbers of demobilized veterans and unemployed youth would begin targeting migrating African-Americans, as they moved into Northern cities in search of jobs. Periods of warfare cause social and economic upheaval, and encourage an acceptance of violence alongside fear. There’s great danger in glorifying warfare, and the Grant Park Exposition of 1918 was the very essence of the cult of military worship.
The mass rallies and patriotic demonstrations of September 1918 are all but forgotten today, just as the world of the first world war is often eclipsed by that of the second. But the world of the Grant Park War Exposition is vitally important for understanding the world of the anti-black riots of 1919. The Grant Park War Exposition shows us the utter thrill of mass mobilization in wartime, along with the backfire of it during times of peace. The Exposition was one of the strangest, and most important periods in Chicago history.
Created by Kevin Donohue
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