The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1986, Volume 32, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916.

By Robert W. Rydell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. x + 328 Pages. $27.50.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Cox, Professor of History, San Diego State University and author of Mills and Markets and other works on late nineteenth and early twentieth century American history.

American cities played host to twelve world fairs between 1876 and 1916, beginning with the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and ending with San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition. On the one hand, these fairs celebrated material and technological progress; and on the other, according to Robert Rydell in All the World’s a Fair, they offered a view of strange lands and customs that was intended to reinforce racism and prepare Americans for imperialistic adventures. Rydell argues that racial and cultural stereotyping was peripheral to the main concerns of the Philadelphia exposition of 1876 and was implicitly rather than explicitly presented. However, by the Chicago fair of 1894 the racism had gained official sanction and a central place that it continued to hold in subsequent expositions, where it was presented with everincreasing sophistication.

Rydell insists that the social and anthropological elements in these fairs were encouraged by an American elite endangered by popular, democratic forces and intent upon preserving its own dominance, and that the fairs shaped “the world view of millions of Americans” (p. 235). “Largely as a result of the expositions,” he concludes, “nationalism and racism became crucial parts of the legitimizing ideology offered to a nation torn by class conflict” (p. 236).

San Diegans familiar with the Museum of Man will no doubt be surprised to hear that the anthropological displays originally offered there represented conscious propagandizing for Anglo-American racial and cultural supremacy and were intended to reinforce the dominance of the city’s social elite. Indeed, Rydell’s argument is flawed at its heart. Certainly, there was rampant racism and cultural stereotyping in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including in the young discipline of anthropology. Equally certainly, these forces contributed to imperialism. But the fairs reflected rather than caused this, just as did the people behind the exhibits.

Confusion of cause and effect is not Rydell’s only failing. “Racism,” he writes, “holds that one group of people is superior to another in moral, cultural, and intellectual qualities – qualities that are alleged to pass from one generation to another through heredity” (p. 5). Unfortunately, he does not adhere to this definition in the pages that follow. Much that Rydell cites as evidence of racism is cultural and was not considered inheritable even then. Such fuzziness in analysis and terminology abounds, frustrating the reader and undermining the persuasiveness of the work.

Rydell’s single-minded dedication to finding racial propaganda and elitist manipulation in the fairs he studies distorts and obscures more than it illuminates. The Philadelphia and Chicago fairs were proud celebrations of national progress, Others, including San Diego’s, reflected local boosterism perhaps more than anything else. For fairs in port cities to feature exhibits dealing with foreign lands was simply a means of advertising the commercial potential of the host city. Similarly, for planners of a fair to draw upon the experience and ideas of those responsible for earlier ones, as they did, can more readily be seen as a means of insuring success and cost effectiveness than as evidence of a pervasive effort to mold public attitudes on race, class, and empire.

In short, All the World’s a Fair is badly flawed by presentism and tells as much about the author’s socio-political beliefs as it does about the fairs that are ostensibly its topic. Seemingly intent upon finding support for his views, he wrenches evidence from context and forces it to fit his thesis. Readers who want to get a feel for what went on at America’s many world’s fairs, or of their meaning in American life, will have to turn elsewhere for satisfaction.