A Souvenir of the World’s Fair

by Mary Catherine Crowley

Published by Wm. Graham Company, Detroit, 1894


By Doug Boilesen

The City of Wonders is an example of what has been called "fair fiction," a genre that uses the setting of a 'fair' for its story, i.e., the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This PhonoBook selection is a story about three children and their uncle attending the 1893 Exposition and more specifically about going to "The Electricity Building" to discover the wonders of electricity and to see and hear the phonograph for the first time.

In his Introduction to World's Fair Chicago,1893 Scott summarizes the plot as follows:

"The City of Wonders tells the story of four members of a suburban New York family—children Nora, Ellen, and Aleck Kendrick, and their “old bachelor” uncle, Jack Barrett—who visit the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Their visit appears to last for five or six days and textual evidence suggests that the story takes place sometime in July (after the Viking ship arrived, but before the Columbian Bell arrived on the fairgrounds). The narrative is a thinly disguised promotional guide, often weighed down by pedantic exposition." (Scott's Introduction - World's Fair Chicago, 1893)


Chapter 6 of The City of Wonders has the family entering the Electricity Building where this phonographia excerpt begins (also adding some contemporary images not in the book The City of Wonders).

The Electricity Building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at night. (Image from Graham, Charles S. The World’s Fair in Water Colors. Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1893.) Source: The City of Wonders -


The Electricity Building - "Its architecture speaks the romance of the Italian Renaissance; its contents, the magic of modern electrical science." (Source: Picturesque World's Fair. An Elaborate Collection of Colored Views



The Barrett family enters the Electricity Building.

“The display here is the most novel and interesting in the Exposition,” said Mr. Barrett. “But the exhibit of the progress of electric science extends throughout the World’s Fair, supplying the power for much of the machinery, as well as the illumination of this White City of Wonders, and the beautiful colored lights and fountains which make it a perfect fairyland in the evening.”

The Edison Tower of Light in the General Electric exhibit in the Electricity Building.

(Image from Bancroft, Hubert Howe The Book of the Fair. The Bancroft Company, 1893.)


They found the entire ground space occupied by great dynamos and electrical machines which Uncle Jack and Aleck examined with much attention. The girls did not understand these in the least, however, and were glad to go all to the centre of the building, where the superb Edison column, composed wholly of prismatic crystals, towered to the arches of the roof, and was lit by thousands of incandescent lamps, producing an effect as many hued as the tints of the rainbow, and as dazzling as the sunlight.

“It is like a pillar built with millions of jewels,” said Nora.

“Yes,” agreed her uncle; “and the colors are arranged in such a way that they may be flashed in harmony with the strains of music.”

It was interesting also to see the electric locomotive, which will be apt in time to supersede the steam engine; and to watch the processes of electroplating, forging, welding and stamping metals.

A guard directed them to the special Edison exhibit, situated in the spacious gallery, away from the noise and confusion of the main floor. Climbing the stairs, they came upon it at once.


Thomas Edison’s phonograph exhibit in the Electricity Building. (Image from Bancroft, Hubert Howe's The Book of the Fair. The Bancroft Company, 1893.) (1)


“Now,” said Uncle Jack, “you shall hear the marvellous echo-voice of the phonograph,–a voice capable of preserving and repeating the words and accents of those dear to us, months and years after they have been uttered,–when perhaps the lips that spoke them are mute forever.”

He led them to a queer instrument which they might have mistaken for some kind of sewing-machine or typewriter, but that hanging around it were several small rubber tubes divided at the end, so that one point might be placed in each ear of the listener. Our friends each took up a tube and adjusted it according to directions; a cylinder was placed in position, and the phonograph set in motion, and presently they heard the rich tones of a master of elocution declaiming one of Longfellow’s poems:

“I shot an arrow into the air.” “Gracious me, it seems as if a man were shouting right into my ear!” cried Nora.

As they all complained not, as one might suppose, that they could not hear, but that the voice was too loud, the attendant advised them to hold the tubes a little farther away.

Next they were favored with a song by a popular professional singer.

“Isn’t it Mr. C—-‘s voice to perfection, Nora?” said Ellen. “Don’t you remember, we heard him at the Orphans’ Benefit Concert last winter?”

This piece was followed by a brilliant performance of instrumental music.

“It is hard to believe that some one is not playing the piano right near here.” exclaimed Aleck.

“What a clever little messenger the phonograph can be too!” suggested Uncle Jack. “A traveler instead of writing to his friends at home, can box up a cylinder full of tourist’s gossip, and send it by express. A merchant may dictate his letters into a phonograph after office hours, and the next day his secretary will be able to write them off without interrupting him. With a phonograph one might live alone and still enjoy the conversation of one’s friends, lectures, and the best parlor music. And then, it would be only necessary to stop the machinery to insure perfect quiet when one wanted it.”

“One would think the phonograph was invented especially for old bachelors,” whispered Nora to her sister with a laugh.

Uncovering a cylinder that had been carefully wrapped in cotton-wool, the attendant put it in place, and now from the wonderful machine there rang out the clear, decisive tones of a public speech.

“Capital!” cried Uncle Jack. “It is President Cleveland‘s voice, and the words are those of his inaugural address. I am almost constrained to believe that I am again in Washington at the Inauguration.”

After this, the young people listened to a German lesson from the phonograph.


Exhibits inside the Electricity Building. (Image from Bancroft, Hubert Howe The Book of the Fair. The Bancroft Company, 1893.)


Here is a still more remarkable invention–the kinetograph,” said the man in charge.

“Oh, yes!” interrupted Aleck. “I have read of it. That makes a shadow talk does it not?”

“It is a contrivance by which every gesture of a speaker may be photographed at the same time that every word he utters is recorded in a phonograph,” was the reply. “When the picture is thrown upon a screen, and the talking-machine started, the illusion produced is that the shadow is speaking. Mr. Edison is said to have perfected this curious invention for his own amusement, as a relief from more serious work.”

By turns they looked into the telescope of the kinetograph. There, sure enough, was a shadow-man, who nodded and smiled, and began to talk sociably, asking many amusing questions; then he recited something, and finally sang a popular song. Pleasing as this performance was, the effect was rather startling, and the girls and Aleck could hardly rid themselves of the idea that there was some magic about it.

“It beats all the fairy tales I ever heard,” declared the latter.

“No wonder Edison is called a wizard,” remarked Ellen.



NOTE: "Crowley’s story of a trip to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was serialized as “Sight-Seeing at the World’s Fair” in the Catholic magazine The Ave Maria (Notre Dame, Ind.) beginning weekly on August 5, 1893. Later, the chapters were collected into the volume The City of Wonders, published by the Wm. Graham Company of Detroit in 1894. (Source: Introduction - World's Fair Chicago, 1893).

The above reference to the kinetograph references that the "picture is thrown upon a screen" is incorrect. The kinetograph was actually the motion picture "camera" which used celluoid film to capture the images. Edison's peep-hole device seems to be what is being described in this story because each of them take turns to look into the "telescope of the kinetograph." Edison's later devices for projecting the film were called "projecting kinetoscopes." The kinetoscope did not have recorded sound as part of its playback mechanism but did become a popular amusement device in the 1890's kinetoscope parlors although it was not ready in time for the World's Columbian Exposition.

The kinetoscope would use the kinetograph's motion picture film as the source material to be viewed through the peep-hole. In 1895 Edison would introduce a device that combined motion pictures and sound viewed through a peep-hole with a listening tube for the sound which he called the kinetophone, however, relatively few of these were made.

Edison Kinetophone circa 1896



A San Francisco Kinetoscope parlor, c. 1894–95. (Courtesy National Park Services)