Posted on Jan 29, 2017 in All Blog Posts, Travel

Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled old-fashioned town,

by old-world hands with new-world tools

built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout,

whose whispering in the night sounds less hollow than its roistering noontime laugh:

they have built a heavy-shouldered laughter here who went to work too young.”

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make


If you read our earlier missive on Chicago you learned about a town that began as a desolate fur trading outpost in the 1800’s which grew to become a city of industry, the nation’s railroad hub, and cradle of capitalist giants like Philip Armour, Marshall Field, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, Cyrus McCormick, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and others.

The great fire of 1871 leveled the largest city in American’s heartland, but by 1893, Chicago had rebuilt and risen to host the World’s Columbian Exposition.  Held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the new world in 1492, Chicago was chosen over New York, Washington D.C. and St. Louis to host the fair, and spared no expense to showcase the city. Covering more than 600 acres, and featuring 200 neoclassical buildings, the fair hosted 27 million visitors in 6 months.


(You can find this handkerchief in red at the
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.)

It was a massive undertaking and the temporary structures (a mixture of plaster, cement and jute) gleamed like alabaster in the sun.



Historian claim the “White City” inspired the Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz, as well as Disneyland. (Walt Disney’s father Elias was a construction worker on the buildings at the fair.)

When Wellesley College English teacher Katharine Lee Bates visited the fair, the White City inspired her reference to “alabaster cities” in her poem “American the Beautiful.”

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown they good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea!

Here’s another beauty. These handkerchiefs, now 122 years old, were difficult to photograph, as they are quite large, made of gossamer thin silk, and are a bit unruly to say the least.


The alabaster city.


Of the more than 200 buildings erected for the fair, only two exist today, the Museum of Science and Industry (formerly the Palace of Fine Arts) and the Art Institute of Chicago (formerly the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building).


Columbus and the Santa Maria

wfair_010 wfair_012


Juxtaposed with modern shipping and the mighty railroad

wfair_014 wfair_016


The locomotive John Bull traveled from Washington D.C. to Chicago to participate in the fair.  Eventually acquired by the Smithsonian, it was the oldest surviving steam locomotive (150 yrs.) when it ran under its own power once more in 1981.

These souvenir handkerchiefs were all quite large, and lovingly preserved, like this handsome chestnut colored silk hankie which is soft as velvet.

wfair_018 wfair_020


The smaller souvenir handkerchiefs did not fare as well, I’m afraid, and were perhaps given as gifts to younger folks, or fancifully flaunted as fans in the sweltering heat.  I dare not risk washing, ironing, or even steaming them, so they appear “as is.” Many were monogrammed on site, as seen in this persimmon hankie, embellished with pulled thread pattern and embroidery.

wfair_022 wfair_024


I’ve been told the stars purportedly represent the original thirteen colonies. (I’m grateful for any input or corrections others can provide.) Love the choice of moss green and soft gold for the Santa Maria.


wfair_026 wfair_028


A bold American eagle under a shower of stars.

wfair_030 wfair_032



Note the embellishment of soft pink on this lady’s hankie.wfair_034 wfair_036


This sturdy linen hankie fared much better in terms of wear, and even boasted (drum roll please) Machine Embroidery!  Visitors had their names added while they waited. Check out those curlicues.  Now, of course, we treasure hand embroidery, which reflects both the time and skill expended, neither of which most of us possess today.

wfair_038wfair_040 wfair_042


To fly through a 3-D recreation of the Exposition, click below, and you’ll understand what the fuss was all about.  Note replicas of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.  The Viking ships you view at the beginning were brought from Norway. The fair also marked the introduction of the first ferris wheel.  Built by George Ferris, it was 264 feet high, and had 36 cars, which were actually modified railroad cars, and each could accommodate sixty people.  A single rotation of the wheel took 20 minutes

Created by the Urban Simulation Team, UCLA, funded by the Brinson Foundation and the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago


Chicago World’s Fair 1933

This crimson and cobalt beauty showcases the Star of Arcturus, which was the logo for Chicago’s next World’s Fair in 1933.


wfair_046 Why the star of Arcturus?  Because it’s timing was perfect.  Arcturus is located 40 light years away. Astronomers calculated that the star’s light was most brilliant around 1893, when it shone in splendor during the first Chicago World’s Fair – The Columbian Exposition.  Now its light would return exactly forty years later to illuminate Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair, the Century of Progress.  How cool is that?  The red-orange star became famous when engineers used its light to charge photocells at four different observatories, then send the electric current via Western Union to light the opening of the fair.  Remarkable.  The fair was literally lit by a STAR! Century of Progress indeed…

This was the age of Art Deco, and it’s influence was often found in the architecture or graphics that adorned the exhibits, as this hand embroidered souvenir hankie attests.



Carol Lombard could have carried these silk numbers to the swankiest night club or cool jazz hideaway, with their sophisticated graphics. Note the star of Arcturus adorning the corner, along with the words Japanese silk. My guess is these were available at the Japanese pavilion, noted for their fine silk fabrics.





This citrus orange delight is as delicate as a butterfly’s wing.


Although not strictly part of the Fair, I’ve included an additional hand embroidered hankie, also executed in the Art Deco style. It features the Carillon tower, a gift from John. D Rockefeller Jr. in honor of his mother, and is part of the Rockefeller chapel on the University of Chicago campus.


Such has forever been the ultimate purpose of a city, to mirror our higher state, not simply to shelter us from wind and rain. As with leisure, so with the city:

It is the setting to make us not the best that Nature can make us, but to manifest the best we, humankind, adding Art to Nature, can make us.”

A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games


Among the fair’s attractions were chess matches.  But how could a spectator seed the board?

Television was in it’s infancy, and “big screen” non-existent. Savvy fair promoters devised an enormous chessboard complete with actors dressed as kings, queens, and knights in costume. Chess moves of the masters were replicated on the giant  ‘live board’ for all to see. My father, as a very young boy, was a knight on the ‘live’ board, and yes, I found his situation quite humorous. You can visit the game blog to learn his story.


  1. 2-3-2015

    I was reading your blog last night. I found it extremely interesting and very well written, I’m glad to know that I am not the only one drawn to vintage objects and trying to save them or direct them to the best person. I will also share your blog with my neighbor who collects handkerchiefs. At garage sale and estate sale I look for hankies for her. She is one of the few people that I know that still carries and uses a handkerchief.

    • 3-11-2017

      I’m reviewing past work and discovered that I failed to respond and thank you for your generous and kind comments. Rest assured they are always read and appreciated. Readers are what keep me going!

  2. 8-23-2017

    A friend gave me a handkerchief as a birthday gift. It appears to be a machine embroidered linen handkerchief. The embroidery is a very pale pink, in one corner it says World’s Fair 1893 and in the opposite corner is a lady’s name, Ella Marner. There is no other embellishment. It doesn’t appear to have been used or laundered, no holes or stains. Do you have a ‘guesstemate” of the value?

    • 8-24-2017

      I would contact the Art Institute of Chicago textile department. It always depends on the market, which can change depending on popularity and scarcity. I’m a collector, not an appraiser, so they would have a better idea than I, or could put you onto the correct people I’m sure. Best of luck in your search.

      • 8-25-2017


  3. 9-1-2019

    I have a felt piece (8”x9”) that reads, “God Bless Our Great Worlds [sic] Fair” “Foe Emma” mad “Chicago 1893”. I’ve read the articles about handkerchief embroidery and I’m wondering if anyone can verify that felt pieces were also embroidered as a souvenir. I’m interested in getting this piece appraised.Thank you.

    • 9-19-2019

      I really have no idea, but “machine” embroidery was supposedly a big deal and in that era was valued by some over hand embroidery. How times have changed. I don’t know if this piece of felt was part of a pillow cover or if people were allowed to bring in their own fabric swatches to be embroidered – to perhaps be added to a quilt, etc., so I’m afraid I’m not much help. You might contact a Textile Arts group or museum to have it appraised.

  4. 2-3-2022

    I have an 11×11 handkerchief from the worlds Fair. It has a building with five red flags in it. On at the top the others over the first floor. Two on a side. It is embroidered Worlds Fair above the building and Chicago 1893 below the building. There are also embroidered flowers on two corners. Have you ever seen anything like that? It was in a box of stuff from my grandmother. It is in fairly good condition.

    • 3-13-2023

      I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a handkerchief like you described, but it sounds lovely.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *