by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, August 19, 2007)
In 1893, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Chicago for the Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The neoclassical buildings of the “White City” held exhibits from all over the country and around the world. One of these exhibits included photos of the University of Colorado, as administrators of the 17-year-old school were quick to realize a perfect marketing opportunity.
“The photo display at the fair was a very bold move,” said Kay Oltmans, director of the CU Heritage Center. “With only 129 students at the time, the University was looking toward its future.”
Oltmans, along with exhibit and collections manager Allyson Smith, recently incorporated the original photos taken for the fair into a Columbian Exposition exhibit, now open to the public at the Heritage Center on the third floor of Old Main on the University’s Boulder campus.
Although individual states, including Colorado, had their own buildings at the fair, Oltmans and Smith believe that the CU photos were not in the Colorado Building, but rather on the second floor of the Manufacturers’ and Liberal Arts Building as part of a larger display participated in by 49 U.S. and international schools.
The University’s photos were taken by J. Raymond Brackett, professor of comparative and English literature. In preparation for the current exhibit, Oltmans and Smith found a photo that Brackett had taken of the original display, showing all 40 photos he sent to the Columbian Exposition. Three frames held 12 small photos each, and four additional large photos were individually framed.
One of the individual photographs was of the University’s third and then-recently appointed president, James Baker. During his first year of office, Baker announced his ambition to make CU the equal of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Michigan, even though cows and pigs still roamed freely around the few campus buildings.
Another featured photograph showed the “U. of C.” football team from 1892. Included in the smaller photographs was first female professor Mary Rippon seated in her classroom. According to her diaries, she traveled to Chicago and attended the fair for a few days. Brackett’s work also reflected the University’s buildings, classrooms, and campus (without the livestock) in 1893, and even included a few mountain scenes.
In the current display, all of the historic photos are individually framed. In addition, Oltmans and Smith created elegant text panels, and they have given the exhibit space a festive air with red, white, and blue banners. Scenes from the Midway and additional photos of the fair’s enormous Ferris Wheel add intrigue, color, and context. Fair artifacts including commemorative coins, spoons, and souvenir books and booklets give a unique glimpse into the past for viewers today.
The Columbian Exposition came at a good time to promote the University and to show its campus to both national and international audiences. Afterwards, even though at least one cow remained, enrollment was up. A year later, an optimistic student yearbook editor wrote, “The outlook is bright. The early struggles for existence are fading away.”