From her first step off the el train, Maggie’s eyes widened in wonder. The newspaper accounts and word-of-mouth tales of the grand White City paled in comparison with her green eyes looking at the real thing.
After seven years in America, she was accustomed to the sight of buildings tall enough to reach the sky, but this was different. It was magnificent – the most brilliant collection of crisp and clean white buildings she could imagine.
The expansive, elegant neoclassical Court of Honor buildings created u-shaped mirror of glistening reflection in the water basin in the center. Behind the sparkling fountain stood a series of roman columns topped with alabaster statues that overlooked the lakefront, as if standing guard. A giant glittering gold Grecian lady towered over the spectacle like a golden key welcoming entry.
Among the sea of black bowlers and straw hats, Irish immigrant Maggie and her new beau, Scottish arrival Davey McIntyre, moved in a daze marveling at the magical city created in less than two years to celebrate the 1893 Columbia Exposition World’s Fair.
Over the last several months, Maggie heard the other servants in her Lake Shore Drive household tell fanciful tales they read about of the beautiful and mysterious wonderland, wishing for a chance to see it with her own eyes. Her employers attended the grand fanfare of opening day and regaled the staff with first-hand accounts of the glorious firework display over the basin and the miraculous dusk illumination of thousands of electric light bulbs dancing to shed beams of light over the exhibitions, tricking nighttime back to day.
“What do you want to do first, me lassie?” Davey asked taking her hand. “I’ve a pocket full of nickels and the world is your oyster.”
Maggie knew he saved for two months to spare the cost of several days’ wages to give his best girl this once in a lifetime experience. But with the train fare and the fifty cent per person admission, she feigned interest only in the free exhibitions to see as much as they could and save their pennies for a special ride or two.
For hours, they viewed the art and beautiful pieces of grand china, glass, and glamorous textiles from all over the world. They walked through many pavilions displaying the latest innovations in machinery and invention, which were expected to usher in a new century of prosperity. One of the most memorable was the hulking Edison tower of lights which was choreographed in time to the Blue Danube waltz.
Touring “Little Europe” to sample the architecture, music, food and drink from abroad, Maggie felt a comforting warmth she hadn’t experienced since she left the Emerald Isle.
“Try this beer,” she boasted, “Me dad said there’s nothing in the world like an Irish stout.”
“Maybe, but it doesn’t top a Scotch Whiskey and a bag pipe ceòl mòr ,” he chided.
“If you don’t mind me saying, it sounds like when they killed the cow,” Maggie laughed.
And so started the playful but proud banter arguing which display was better, Ireland or Scotland. The tie-breaker was the Gallery of Beauty visit between the pretty Irish maid and the handsome Scottish lass. They finally agreed that the dainty maid would carry the day. At least they both got a taste of each other’s homeland.
The exotic Midway plaisance recreated the lands of the far east with realistic buildings, food, marketplaces, music and native dances.
“Can ya imagine the beautiful dresses that could be made out of this silky gold fabric,” Maggie wondered as she draped the cloth over her arms.
“Well, I can’t afford enough for a dress, but could ye make a scarf outta a wee bit?” Davey said as she smiled and nodded.
“Are you a seamstress?” a young girl standing next to her in the market asked in a harried voice.
“Well, me ma is a dress maker and taught me everything she knew,” Maggie boasted.
“Maybe you can help us.” She grabbed Maggie’s hand and whisked her to a nearby tent. There she saw a gaggle of young half-dressed Egyptian girls in revealing harem clothing.
“Fatima ripped her pantaloons in the last performance and we can’t fix them,” the girl said handing Maggie the garment, needle and thread.
The sheer fabric was tricky to work with and mending the break in the middle of the pant would take a skilled hand. Maggie learned to sew lace at her mother’s feet, so her needlework was second to none, In just a few minutes, she restored the tear perfectly.
The girls thankfully ushered Davey and Maggie into the tent to watch Little Egypt’s show in gratitude.
Most of the gossip about the fair surrounded the risqué costumes and “impure” indigenous dances by bellydancer Little Egypt. Her “hoochee coochee” dance was the hit of fair and equally scorned by the “church ladies” of the city.
Maggie was entranced at the astonishing way she could twist and move her body. But when she saw the enormous smile on Davey’s face, she said grabbed his hand to lead him out of the tent.
“Wait,” said a man standing next to the girls. “Do you need a job? We could use a good seamstress.” He handed a confused Maggie a card and told her to come back tomorrow if she was interested. Maggie smiled and put the card in her purse, waving goodbye to the girls.
As dusk peaked, they cued for the soaring Ferris Wheel, a new engineering phenomenon. Rushing in with crowds of others, they garnered a perfect view through the metal webbed windows in the steel framed cab car to see the sun set on the unique White City and a day they would not soon forget.
(c) 2022 Suzanne Rudd Hamilton
Note: This is a short story adaptation of a small part of a new historical romance book Irish Eyes, which is book 2 to the Timeless American Romance series of books to be released in Spring 2022. Sign up for my email list on the home page to get updates and sneak peeks on this and more books.