IF you're waiting for the 500th anniversary of Columbus Day in the Windy City, may I suggest that it's almost certain to come up short of the really big show that Chicagoans hosted on the 400th observance. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the best World's Fair ever. It was also the biggest. It was so big that it opened not in 1892 but on May 1, 1893. Its fairgrounds were three times as big as any previous World's Fair. Its buildings -- more than 150 -- were so big and impressive as to be called the White City, made as they were of huge amounts of plaster of Paris and jute. Admission to the Chicago Fair was hefty -- 50 cents -- but that didn't dissuade visitors, some 27.5 million coming in its six-month period of existence. The year 1893 saw the biggest depression in American history up to that point, but the exposition turned a profit, although its cost was enormous, $31 million.
The biggest attraction at the fair was the Ferris wheel, introduced by George W. G. Ferris. It was so gigantic that it could carry 2,160 people and was powered by a 2,000-horsepower engine. ``Great as are the achievements of engineering in the exposition buildings in Jackson Park,'' one observer wrote, ``they sink into insignificance when compared with the Ferris wheel. It has been favorably compared with the Eiffel Tower.''
Even the exhibitions set world records. The Art Palace was host to 10,040 individual exhibits; the Agricultural Building, to a 22,000-pound block of cheese and a 30,000-pound wedge of chocolate. The largest nugget of gold in the world was on hand, as well as one of the largest murals, a 65-by-500-foot panorama of the Swiss Alps. And there was even an ostrich farm of 28 birds, which permitted fair visitors to gulp down an ostrich omelet between tours.
A favorite exhibit was the Electricity Building, where, one visitor said, ``there is no place where the crowds go so early and so often and linger so long.'' And a day was set aside for Chicagoans to visit the exposition, Oct. 9, which brought out a grand total of 716,881 residents.
The 1893 wingding didn't forget Christopher Columbus. There were 71 ``original'' portraits of the great discoverer. According to one analyst, the portraits ``showed lean-faced, long-jowled Columbuses and fat-faced, pudgy Columbuses; blond Columbuses and swarthy, olive-tinted Columbuses; smooth-visaged Columbuses, and Columbuses variously mustached, bearded, and whiskered.'' Little wonder that visitors were relieved to say ``Goodbye, Columbus'' as they left the exposition.
Chicagoans may not have a chance to welcome Columbus in 1992 if Miamians have their way. Floridians contend that Miami should hold the exposition, because it is closest to the point of Columbus's actual landing. It's also close to Walt Disney World, which is gloating over the potential of a Columbusland, with Mickey, Donald, Snow White, and the gang.
Chicago is countering with the fact that it was the scene of the 400th celebration and that it is the home of the ``original'' Chicago-style pizza. . . .
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.