Wendy Jean Katz, ed. The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. 498 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-7880-6.
Reviewed by Michael S. Powers (University of Arkansas)
Published on H-SHGAPE (August, 2018)
Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)
Scholarship on world’s fairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has enjoyed an uptick in recent years. Historians, such as Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo and Miki Pfeffer, have demonstrated how international expositions are apt case studies for an analysis of gender, nation building, imperialism, capitalism, political dynamics, and a host of other aspects of central interest to Gilded Age and Progressive Era historians. Moreover, examinations of the scores of fairs held in the era are often excellent examples of current transnational and interdisciplinary studies. Grounded in rich primary source material from newspapers and government reports to visual culture, The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle is no exception.
In fitting fashion, this broad, interdisciplinary analysis of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition and subsequent Greater America Exposition, both held in Omaha, Nebraska, begins with an introduction by the leading authority of world’s fairs, Robert W. Rydell. Rydell hones in on several fundamental themes woven throughout the book’s eight essays. “The seamless connection between America’s continental and transcontinental expansion” is evident within chapters focusing on topics ranging from the contentious public construction of indigenous and feminine identity to the use of anthropology and stamp collecting (p. 14). The fair’s widely popular Indian Congress and President William McKinley’s visit during the Peace Jubilee, celebrating victory in the Spanish-American War, are examined in multiple chapters. The inherent paradox of world’s fairs, as international operations shaped by global currents but also moored in local and regional dynamics, is also carried throughout. In addition, the collection convincingly demonstrates how the Omaha fairs were seminal moments in reflecting and furthering US imperialism along with a culture of leisure and consumerism.
While the Omaha exposition was molded after the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Nebraska planners seized on it as a moment to refashion the image of the American West. This is evident not merely in the traditional lens of politics and economics but also in material and visual culture. Sarah J. Moore demonstrates that the fair’s architecture and its purposeful use of cartography forever buried the idea of the Great American Desert. In a similar vein, Bonnie M. Miller argues that stamps were didactic tools to legitimize an idealized view of inevitable American progress, even if the painting in a popular stamp within the specially sanctioned Omaha fair series featured cattle in the Scottish highlands, not the West.
A seminal theme of value is the collective emphasis on the intersectionality of gender in late nineteenth-century America. Similar to Emily Godbey’s chapter on the transformation of the subject of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby into an icon of modest and respectable western femininity, Wendy Jean Katz’s chapter builds on the book’s focus on visual culture to analyze elite white women’s role in the fair’s art display. In short, Anglo-American women of high standing employed art to differentiate themselves from working women and simultaneously gain more inclusion in male-dominated institutions and professions. In addition, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition’s souvenir medal featured a profile of western womanhood on one side juxtaposed on the other with a romantic equestrian image of an Indian hunting buffalo. Tracy Jean Boisseau examines the planning and reception of the medal to explore how it represented the fair’s theme of an industrious future arising from a picturesque but defeated barbaric past. Tracing one of the exposition’s lasting legacies, Boisseau adroitly ties the Omaha fair to the proliferation of beauty pageants that conveyed nationalist ideals.
Akim Reinhardt, Nancy J. Parezo, Stacy L. Kamehiro, and Danielle B. Crawford contribute mightily to the scholarship of American empire at home and abroad. Reinhardt highlights two tropes Anglo-Americans used to label Native Americans, the bloodthirsty or noble savage on the one hand and the progressive Indian on the other. Echoing Richard White, Elliott West, and others, Reinhardt argues that “imperial iconography about Indians reflected post-Civil War cultural concerns about minorities more generally,” be they akin to African Americans or eastern and southern European immigrants (p. 259). While both tropes saw indigenous culture as doomed, leading Anglo-American proponents of each seized on the Omaha fairs as contested terrain and battled over which idea would prevail in such exhibits as the Indian Congress. With an analysis of anthropology’s role in legitimizing white American hegemony, Parezo’s chapter brings to the fore one of the most significant, yet understudied, institutions in US history, the Smithsonian Institution. Kamehiro and Crawford assess the Omaha expositions, which serendipitously coincided with the Spanish-American War, as the first public display celebrating American imperial acquisitions. Fresh off the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy some five years before, the Omaha fairs depicted the island chain as ready for annexation due to its dominant Anglo-American oligarchy. However, representations of the Philippines were reminiscent of Native Americans, centering on their savage qualities and US military campaigns.
Finally, this collected work is also valuable in demonstrating that world’s fairs must be assessed within the broader pomp and circumstance of Gilded Age partisanship. In her work on stamps for the Omaha fair, Miller shows how postage was a contested political terrain. One faction claimed the eight-cent stamp favored free silver while another took issue with the image on the two-dollar stamp being identical to a previous Republican National Convention admission ticket. According to Katz, local Republicans used their leadership of the fair to sideline Populist concerns while appealing to ethnic groups through fair days designated to German and other immigrants.
To the extent there is a gap in such a comprehensive analysis of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition and subsequent Greater America Exposition, it would be a dedicated look at the expositions in relation to the agrarian discontent and the Populist experiment of the 1890s. Nonetheless, this edited collection deserves a serious look among scholars seeking to explore a host of themes in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, from Native American history and Victorian femininity to imperialism and consumerism. Hopefully, Katz’s commendable collection will inspire future work on other fairs that have too long been in the shadow of Chicago.
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Michael S. Powers. Review of Katz, Wendy Jean, ed., The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle.
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