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Food History: The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

Maggie Borden

Maggie Borden

September 15, 2014

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Throughout its long history, the World’s Fair has always been a showcase for innovation and progress. Alexander Graham Bell debuted the telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and color photography had its first public display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. But the cutting edge wasn’t restricted to technology: many of today’s most iconic foods first reached a mass audience at the fairgrounds. In honor of our role in Expo Milano 2015, we’re taking a look back at the history of food at world’s fairs.

Our first stop is the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where attendees sampled several products that are still on the shelves today, including Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit gum, Cream of Wheat, and Aunt Jemima's Pancake Flour. For Aunt Jemima's Exposition debut, Nancy Green, a former slave and Chicago native who was hired as the face of the company three years earlier, demonstrated the pancake mix and prepared thousands of servings for attendees. The Aunt Jemima demos became so popular that special policemen were assigned to guard Green and her booth. Exposition officials awarded Green a medal for showmanship, while the Davis Milling Company, the owner of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour, walked away with 50,000 new orders.

Events at the 1893 Exposition served as the catalyst for two other legendary brands: Milton Hershey was so inspired by a European manufacturing demo that he immediately purchased the exhibited equipment to transition his Pennsylvania caramel business to chocolate, while the Pabst Brewing Company earned its famous blue ribbon in Chicago.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from world's fair food history, as well as news about Expo Milano 2015, the first-ever world's fair to focus exclusively on food. The James Beard Foundation, along with the International Culinary Center, is leading the conception and buildout of the gathering's American Pavilion, whose theme will be American Food 2.0. More on all of that here.

View our complete archive of Expo Milano coverage.

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For more information about USA Pavilion, visit USAPavilion2015.net and follow @USAexpo2015 on Twitter. To learn more about Expo Milan, visit expo2015.org/en and follow @Expo2015Milano

Maggie Borden is assistant editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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