Making Modernism

Puck at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Puck magazine (1871-1918) was the premier humor periodical at the turn of the century. As one of the first magazines to be successful with full-color lithography and to include illustrated advertisements, Puck’s cartoons often shined a jocular spotlight on business and elected officials in the age of industrialization. In addition to graphic parodies and biting critiques, Puck also proffered an amusing lens into the current social events of the day by documenting various festivities, salon gatherings, and artistic openings in the major coastal cities of the east.

Puck was founded and edited by Joseph Keppler, an Austrian immigrant and caricaturist. First published in St. Louis, Puck was originally a German-language, 16-page periodical measuring 10 by 13.5 inches with front and back covers in color lithography and a center double-page spread. Shortly after moving Puck’s offices and printing press to New York City in 1876, Keppler ceased publishing in his native tongue. Puck became a popular English language magazine with its own building situated on the corner of Houston and Lafayette Streets. Hanging over the building’s entrance still today is the impish figure of Puck wearing a top hat and holding a hand mirror as he admires his stylish figure—the magazine’s namesake and mascot drawn from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-96) who appeared on every cover exclaiming, “What fools these mortals be!”

For a period of six months in 1893, Keppler temporarily moved his entire operation to Chicago, inside the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Chicago World’s Fair Puck—twenty-six issues published from May to October 1893—was more portable and compact; each issue contained 12 pages. Every week, Puck commented on an assortment of goings-on at popular fair locations, including the Street in Cairo, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the Ferris wheel, and the Palace of Fine Arts. Puck’s operations were in a building fortuitously situated in between the Women’s Building and the Children’s Exhibit, and near the entrance to the Midway Plaisance. It is thus no surprise that a majority of the twenty-six issues, including the double-page spreads and the advertisements, directly addressed the female visitor and reader by including a variety of stories, anecdotes, cartoons, and representations of women at the Fair. 

In particular, Puck often depicted the authoritative and majestic figure of Columbia, the poetic embodiment for the United States of America as well as the namesake of the Fair itself. Puck also rendered the city of Chicago in feminine terms, as a fashionable lady and source of inspiration and reverence. For example, in the very first issue dated May 1st, 1893, in the center double-page spread, Chicago is seen as a high society hostess dressed in red who is to be feted and regaled at a social function in honor of the Fair’s opening. Men toast her, the belle of the ball, and by association the city of Chicago for this great and profitable event. In another center double-page spread from the June 12th, 1893 issue, Chicago is dressed in white and red while standing between the entrance to the Fair grounds and the city of Chicago as a beacon welcoming the city’s laborers and immigrants to the Fair. In a later issue from July 10, 1893, the center double-page spread depicts a more brazen Lady Chicago holding a US flag, and who coincidentally resembles the patriotic Columbia in costume; this Lady Chicago greets and celebrates the military men in the foreground who are visiting the Fair. 

This gendered representation of Chicago and Columbia was not new to the visitors of the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Harriet Monroe’s commemorative “Columbian Ode” wherein the fair city of Chicago is greeted by Columbia, was performed at the Fair’s dedication ceremonies in October 1892. In fact, the souvenir edition of Monroe’s “Ode” was designed by William H. Bradley and depicts a feminine Columbia. Puck and its vibrant images must be understood as part of a Gilded Age tradition of graphic satire and a visual document of the era of modernity—and women—on the rise.

Nhora Lucía Serrano, Hamilton College

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