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Introduction: A Century of Progress Exposition Postcards


A Century of Progress Exposition was a World's Fair held in Chicago, Illinois in 1933 and 1934 to commemorate the city's centennial. Its purpose was to celebrate a century of growth of science, and the dependence of industry on scientific research. The exposition aimed to show not just the finished products of industry, but also to show by dynamic presentations of actual processes the ways that scientific discoveries are applied. It was hoped that that the centennial celebration would help the American people to understand themselves and make clear to the coming generation the forces which have built this nation.

The exposition was an expensive undertaking, especially during the Depression, but it was funded without cost to the taxpayer. A temporary dream city was built on the exposition site of 424 acres along the shore of Lake Michigan. In addition to its serious scientific theme, the fair was planned to have a fun carnival atmosphere. The nations of the world were invited to participate, which gave the fair an international character.

Most of the buildings of the 1933 fair were painted in bold colors, helping to give the fair a fun carnival atmosphere. Approximately twenty per cent of the painted surfaces were white, twenty per cent blue, twenty per cent oranges, fifteen per cent black, with the remaining twenty-five per cent divided among the yellows, red, greys, and green. The aim was to correlate many buildings that were different in character, shape and mass.

The buildings consisted mainly of unbroken planes and surfaces without sculptural ornamentation or windows. Members of the architectural commission thought it would be incongruous to house exhibits showing man's progress in the past century in buildings resembling ancient Greek and Roman structures. Two things were considered in planning the type of building construction. First was the temporary nature of the buildings. The buildings did not need to last longer than the fair. Second was the desire to experiment. It was hoped that home builders and manufacturers could study the buildings and borrow ideas for their buildings of the future.

In 1934, the second year of the fair, there were new buildings, exhibits, and attractions. Sxteeen picturesque foreign villages recreated the structures and atmosphere of foreign lands and past times from around the world. There was a new Midway, water spectacles, and a major exhibition by Ford Motor. New piers, buildings, and stages were built over the lagoons from the bridges. A more subdued color scheme with more white was used for the 1934 fair.

The Curt Teich postcards of the Hall of Science give an idea of the difference in color schemes. The same picture appears on both the 1933 and 1934 postcards, but the picture's coloring is different.



Total attendance at the 1934 fair was 16,304,906 compared to 1933 attendance of 22,565,859. The attendance for the last day, Halloween, was a record 362,553 up to midnight. Newspaper accounts described the last night as resembling New Year's Eve celebrations, with merrymakers running wild.

Some good sources of information about the Century of Progress Exposition can be found online in The Official Guidebooks for both 1933 and 1934 fairs. I also recommend the article Chicago World’s Fair Memorabilia: A Century Of Progress, 1933-34, By: J. J. Sedelmaier, June 10, 2013 which includes a copy of the beautiful American Asphalt Company booklet about the Valdura paints used on the fair's buildings.

There were several postcards which also featured the Valdura paints. All major buildings — interior and exterior — were protected and decorated with VALDURA Products. More than 25,000 gallons of VALDURA Aluminum and Colors were used.


Many postcards were issued for the Century of Progress, both as part of large series of views and also by individual exhibitiors. Most of the Century of Progress postcards are online at Illinois Digital Archives (tips: search for Century of Progress and postcard or in 2015: Postcards - Chicago, Century of Progress, link). You can browse through more than 1000 postcards or search for a particular subject at that site, but the postcards there are not organized into logical groups.

The two videos below are ones I made with some of the postcards in my collection. The first video shows a selection of postcard views printed by Curt Teich in 1933 and 1934. The second video shows 100 different postcards from various publishers and exhibitors.



More Century of Progress Links

Century of Progress Exposition—Encyclopedia of Chicago

History Files - Century of ProgressóChicago Historical Society 

Panorama of a Century of Progress ExpositionóLarge Photographic Panorama from the Library of Congress.

Century of Progress—The University of Chicago Library's Century of Progress 1933-34 World's Fair Collection. Checklist and pamphlet collection; many items are digitized and viewable online as .pdf files.

Images of Progress: Views from a Century of Progress—Over 1400 digital images, University of Illinois Chicago





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