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University of Illinois at Chicago Library

A Century of Progress Records, Special Collections Department

Collection Profile

A Century of Progress International Exposition, held in Chicago during the summers of 1933 and 1934, gave the nation an exciting diversion from the difficulties of the Great Depression. The success of the first summer of the fair led President Roosevelt to urge planners to continue the exposition for a second summer. The fair commemorated the incorporation of Chicago in 1833, dramatizing, according to fair boosters, the progress of civilization during the hundred years of Chicago's existence and highlighting the century's spectacular advances of science and technology. Chicago was the only city of major importance whose entire life had been passed within this remarkable century, one in which the application of science to industry had brought profound changes in both the economic and cultural structure.

The Century of Progress collection tells the story of the exposition and of the historical moment. The collection contains unique materials that provide insights into the nation's economic conditions, America's popular culture during the Great Depression, and life in the 1930s. There are over 16,000 files of individuals, companies, and organizations from across the United States and around the world that contacted or were contacted by the exposition's management. The records provide unique, behind-the-scenes, well-organized, and detailed documentation about this important, modern American exposition and its geographical and historical context.

The records document the fair's relationship to participating businesses and industries, modern architecture, design and graphics, mural arts, entertainment, food, culture, popular culture, corporate sponsorship, political figures, and celebrity visitors. The fair also focused on transportation, music, local immigrant groups, the economic crisis and political changes in Europe, religion in American life, women's history, participation of ethnic and minority groups, particularly African-Americans and Native Americans, the growth of modern advertising and promotion, American handicrafts, graphic art, and fine art.

UIC's collection places the fair in the context of the history and politics of Chicago. Its topics include science as presented to the public, the history of modern architecture, international affairs, American studies, engineering, race relations, employment practices, public parks, urban planning, and large civic projects. The design of the exposition was innovative: never before had color and architectural illumination been used for decorative effects, building identification, and crowd control.

The Special Collections Department acquired the official records of the Century of Progress in 1968 with the papers of Lenox Riley Lohr, the fair's general manager. The records include reports, correspondence, memoranda, corporate and exhibitor publications, posters, and phonograph records. The collection also contains architectural blueprints, employee records, photographic items, newspapers clippings, and artwork. The collection consists of 555 linear feet of corporate records divided into 17 series. The Special Collections department has an active outreach program that includes working with Chicago Public Schools through the Chicago Metro History Fair project and other organizations in Chicago, and teaching on campus to introduce students to conducting research using primary sources.

Collection Profile and Overview: Ann C. Weller
Illustrations: Roberta K. Dupuis-Devlin

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