3D Photos of Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair – Part 1

While most World’s Fairs brought their host cities a huge amount of prestige – and tourism – they are generally huge overall drains on the local economy. The host city generally had to pay for everything from construction to maintenance to security, and these costs added up. The prestige was often seen as worth it to the wealthy, and the Fair an annoyance to the less well off.

The 1933-34 Century of Progress in Chicago did something brand new in the history of World’s Fairs in America – it not only broke even, but in fact, turned a profit. Many attributed this success to the size, diversity, and centrality of the Fair; others attributed it to the need for escapism during the height of the Great Depression. Some attributed it solely to the titillating Fan Dance performed by burlesque artist Sally Rand (also captured by Tru Vue), who was arrested four times in one day at the Fair – until a judge threw the cases out and barred further arrests. In any case, the Fair – originally only planned to run through 1933 as a symbol of the centenary of Chicago’s founding – got a second, even more successful year due to having recouped its original investment on the first go-round.

Located 5 hours west of Chicago is Rock Island, Illinois, where a Bridge and Iron Works company spun off a 3D photography enterprise – for no apparent reason. Their timing in creating Tru Vue, however, could not have been better – inasmuch as they had a great subject just a stone’s throw away. In 1933 they published four filmstrips containing 60 3D images from the Fair. They also marketed images – from the Fair and otherwise – at the event, building them an instant audience. Instead of following their original plan of publishing regular reels focused on news, celebrities, and current events, Tru Vue began putting out subject-focused filmstrips (such as the previously-blogged about 1933 Brooklyn strip) instead – due to the success of their Century of Progress series.

The Century of Progress was a success for Chicago and for Tru Vue. But it would be the last World’s Fair for a city which had hosted two of the biggest in American history (the Columbian Exhibition was held there in 1893). The Second World War and the decline of International Expositions in general led to only one more attempt by the city to host one – the cancelled 1992 Fair. As for Tru Vue, they capitalized on this series, and the 1934 series of four more rolls which added on to it, for a total of eight. Over the course of a few years, they shot hundreds of filmstrips – and quickly discontinued many of them (this strip was out of print by the 1940s). This kept an ever-rotating stock, but eventually they could not compete with View-Master – which eventually bought them after a brief foray into color filmstrips.

It’s a shame these couldn’t have been shot in color; in contrast to the “White City” of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Century of Progress featured “The Rainbow City”, a melange of differently colored buildings in the Art Moderne style. This first roll – from a late 1933 master print – gives a brief overview of the Fairgrounds – so let’s take a look:

Overall, a pretty impressive initial offering from a company that had started out with no idea what it wanted to be! While that’s it for now, over time I’m going to post the rest of the series (I have all 8 rolls) – as well as some special “side trips” from the World’s Fair. After this point, of course, Tru Vue put out a wide variety of filmstrips – from fascinating views of 1930s circus sideshows to completely ridiculous “travel strips” with sponsors to some filmstrips with very unfortunate racial overtones. But they fill in a fascinating void in between the prominence of Holmes-style cards (Keystone View Company, Underwood & Underwood, etc) and more modern, color formats, such as Stereo Realist and View-Master. In a sense, they’re the missing link. And one other thing of note from the end of this particular reel:

The end of the strip.

The “TRU-VUES of CURRENT EVENT” were a series of six strips entitled “Tru Vues From Everywhere” that were seemingly discontinued shortly after this strip’s master was printed. They were never “Issued monthly”, and Tru Vue quickly moved to a format that could not “be used in standard 35M.M. Still Projectors”, as the projectors in question required standard sprockets, and Tru Vue started using a unique bottom sprocket system – hence why this message disappeared from the masters of later rolls. And now…


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