The University Record, November 23, 1998

The Historical Record

Patricia S. Whitesell

Did you know that the University of Michigan participated in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and that the University obtained several items from the Exposition that are still on campus today?

The Columbian Exposition was a World’s Fair held to celebrate the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World 400 years earlier, and it was an opportunity to celebrate American culture. Setting the stage for the Chicago World’s Fair had been the 1851 “Crystal Palace” in London, Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

The Columbian Exposition drew over 27 million visitors from all over the world during its six-month run. It is estimated that 25 percent of the entire U.S. population visited the Fair, while others experienced it through various media. The buildings for the Columbian Exposition covered 633 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including the current site of the University of Chicago.

New technological innovations, such as the telephone and the phonograph, had been showcased at prior World’s Fairs. In Chicago, visitors were dazzled by the extensive use of electric light bulbs and alternating current. Other marvels included full-size models of Columbus’ three ships, the Niña, Pinta and Santa María; an enormous, 40-inch refracting telescope built for the new Yerkes Observatory; and the Fair’s spectacular architecture, called the “White City.”

The Columbian Exposition was considered to be one large university where people could learn and become enriched through architecture, the arts, music, foreign culture, and other cultural experiences. Exhibitors represented 72 countries. The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building hosted exhibits by numerous universities: Michigan’s 2,700 square foot exhibit space was flanked by MIT, Yale, and Johns Hopkins. Michigan had on exhibit topographical maps of the campus, interior and exterior building photographs, a brief account of the educational system of the State, the University’s calendar, photographs of the President, Regents, officers, and faculties, and a brief history of the University and several of its departments.

A highlight of the University’s exhibit was a collection of 214 books and 125 pamphlets written by faculty connected with the institution since its beginnings. Through the extensive efforts of University librarian Raymond Cazallis Davis, books were obtained from publishers and other sources to assemble a nearly complete collection, including the works of Henry Philip Tappan, Asa Gray, Franz Brünnow, Alexander Winchell, Elisha Jones, James C. Watson, Louis Fasquelle, and others.

In the Michigan State Building (see photograph), the University displayed a Zoological Exhibit of the birds (464 specimens) and mammals (39 specimens) of Michigan. Included were several specimens of animals that had disappeared from Michigan: elk, moose, and caribou.

University students were encouraged to visit the Columbian Exposition as an educational opportunity. Student Edwin S. Peck visited the Exposition in 1892 while it was being prepared, and wrote a series of reports on its progress which are now housed in the archives of the Bentley Historical Library.

After the Columbian Exposition ended, the University of Michigan obtained several items for the campus. At each end of the Reading Room in the Hatcher Graduate Library are lunettes titled The Arts of Peace and The Arts of War painted by the famous artist from Detroit, Gari Melchers (1860–1932). The Columbian Organ, built by Farrand and Votey Organ Co. of Detroit, was purchased by the University, placed in University Hall, and named the Frieze Memorial Organ in memory of professor Henry Simmons Frieze. The organ was moved in 1913 to the new Hill Auditorium, then rebuilt in 1928 by the Skinner Organ Co. of Boston, and rebuilt again at subsequent dates although various components of the original organ were retained. The University Planner’s Office reports that the flagpole located on the Diag is also from the Columbian Exposition. Originally, its steel tube was 77 feet long, sunk 10 feet in the ground, surmounted by a ship’s mast 95 feet long. In 1918, the pole was moved further north to its present location near the Kraus Natural Science Building. Changes in the way the pole was mounted increased its height even more.

This column examines interesting aspects of University history. Suggestions for future topics may be sent by e-mail to


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