A Celebration of Women Writers

"From "Signs of the Times."" by Miss Alisan Wilson.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 488-490.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 488] 



Taking a look backward to the Centennial Exposition, making some comparisons with this, giving a few of its benefits. At the time of the exhibit of 1876, the country was in an unusual financial depression. Congress did not feel rich enough to give Philadelphia the money to assist in forwarding the enterprise, but loaned the money, which was returned afterward and received by them.

The time found us a nation abnormally developed in labor-saving machinery, an outgrowth of the necessities of war, the product of clever brains, and proof of the aptness of the American people to meet the demands of peculiar circumstances or conditions. In the manufacture of, and taste for, the fine arts we were almost deficient. A young nation that had wrestled with the vital question of existence, laboring for the necessities of life, had little time to bestow on the luxuries.

Many foreign visitors presented the government with valuable exhibits rather than carry them home. They now form one of the most interesting and instructive departments connected with the government. The result is an organized pursuit of geology, archæology, anthropology, fostering the arts and sciences. And when combined with the Smithsonian Institute, we have the advantage of rich collections gathered from all over the world, either loaned or donated, and so placed that they may be studied or admired by the public.

I call your attention to the difference of the attitude of Congress toward this World's Fair, and also to the era of financial success intervening.

We can recall several industries, the result of that great show; and, following it, a stimulation of old trades and the introduction of new ones have given us prosperity through to the present time.

The industry of ceramics–a few insignificant potteries were all that we had; two of the oldest were Liverpool, Ohio, and Trenton, N. J., with utility the sole object. Look at the handsome displays made today in the Manufactures Building. Since then long strides have been made toward perfection. Establishments of more or less merit have sprung up all over the country.

Until of late years the manufacture of carpets in this country was confined to the coarsest qualities, while now are made at Yonkers and Hilton, on the Hudson, the finest grades, very little being imported. The silk industry has reached much greater [Page 489]  proportion than is generally supposed. Our India silks are largely made in Connecticut. Most beautiful brocades are made in Patterson, N. J. What a trade has grown out of our intercourse with China; the beautiful wood carving, the bronzes and lacquered ware from Japan, how they have delighted us. Let anyone recall the progress of these few industries. We have felt the stimulation of the Centennial from the broad Atlantic to the shores of the peaceful Pacific. We awoke from our slumber, and with our awakening came the desire to see the countries that sent us their treasures. And the result is the most traveled people in the world.

The wonderful, the curious, the unique find a ready market with Americans abroad, and are chosen with that same keenness of wits that characterizes the amassing of great fortunes, and brings to our attention a trait, truly American, that the best is none too good for us, our homes or our museums. So that from the year 1876 may be counted the birth of the fine arts in the United States. The development of architecture has made this Columbian Exposition possible; a surprise to ourselves, the wonder and admiration of the world.

No accident has brought about this dream of beauty, this perfection of harmony; but practical education, whether pursued in the Old World or in the New. Culling out the gems of ancient architecture and adapting them to the modern has not been done by the hand of ignorance. All agree to the magnificence of conception, and behold! how well it has been carried out.

It has been said that the buildings found in the Paris Exposition would have been expected in Chicago, and the buildings found in Chicago would have been expected in Paris.

In that first exposition the world lent us their treasures. This year they have brought them. All countries have come to us, and the Islands of the Sea have contributed their curiosities, and, more than all, themselves. Think you, that having touched our civilization they can return to the same rut, and fill the same small place as before? The hope and belief that the world will be the gainer for this coming together, is that the women have come, and woman takes no backward step in this age. Will they take a lesson from us? A new idea? Can we do them any good? When woman feels a prompting from within to a better living, higher aims, there is hope for her future. Will prejudice, custom, environment be too much for these? We have only to study the crowd as it passes by to hear snatches of conversations, the accidents and incidents of a week at the fair, to read the signs of the times.

One of the women which we would like to help gives her opinion of us in the following language: "The women of this country interfere with everything." I am afraid her criticism was merited. One said: "Your people are very inquisitive, must see and examine everything."

Styles for men are changing, swearing has gone out of fashion, chewing tobacco is only indulged in on the sly, or by the uncultivated. While within the month I heard some fashionable young men discussing smoking with the remark that "it is no longer good form to smoke on the fashionable promenade."

There has been such a warfare waged upon intemperance, that public opinion would not tolerate a man upon these grounds who gave evidence of intoxication. Women are largely instrumental in bringing about this change in sentiment; and wisely, too, for here she may roam from morning until night in perfect safety, without a thought of molestation.

The United States have received the poor, the unfortunate, the degraded of all countries for years, and now we are glad to welcome the refined and cultivated class of foreigners who have been the nation's guest since this Exposition has been opened. Having clasped hands with all the world, that a friendship may flow from it both true and lasting, let us hope that many reciprocity treaties will follow with the smaller nations who have been our guests, and that the markets of the world may open to our productions. That to us, and through this channel, will come back like "Bread cast upon the waters, return after many days." That the expenditure of $50,000,000 will be an eventual gain to the nation. [Page 490] 

We classify woman and electricity as the two forces making the greatest progress of the age. Woman has been largely emancipated from old prejudices. The broad-shouldered, clear-headed woman has taken her place. Active, hard working, informing herself, developing herself, studying the ethical questions of the times, giving her substance and herself to helping the poor and elevating the race, compare her position in any of the great public movements to the important one she occupies in the Columbian Exposition. It is our share of the legacy from Queen Isabella. It was a progressive woman who sacrificed her jewels for the hope of finding a new world.

And I hope her new honors may be borne with moderation and dignity. It is not enough to accomplish, but to do it well.

It is said that at the Centennial the electrical exhibit occupied one corner of a room, and that at Paris a whole room was given, while here a whole building is all too small.

What shall we say of a marvelous agent that controls light, heat, power.

The many, many uses of electricity multiply endlessly. And still there are those who prophesy that the knowledge and uses of electricity is in its infancy. From the earliest ages, without education, man valued gold, silver and copper, the precious metals; but it took the keys of science to unlock the hidden mysteries of nature's storehouse.

Nature seems to hold hidden riches within her grasp, and makes us wonder what forces are yet undiscovered, and who will be the discoverer.

The real question of the hour is one of finance. When we see large fortunes melting away as snow under a summer sun, we may well stop and ask the reason. Men say politics and finance are too much for the women. Well, and too much for many men. There are many issues, all of which operate as factors in this experience, which seems to be a consequence rather than a cause. National unity is necessary to national preservation, a patriotic duty; and sectional interests must be subservient to the best interests of the whole.

Now is the time for statesmen to show their superior ability in grasping the vexed questions bringing order out of disorder and harmony to all sections.

Have we thought of the effect upon Chicago when the White City shall have been swept away? When the magic wands that have turned Jackson Park into fairyland shall wave the wand and this vision of loveliness disappear; when the scene shall become as the memory of a beautiful dream, a sentiment; will the lagoon return to the swampy marsh? Will the waves of Lake Michigan lave a forgotten shore? Will the sands ever blow in unfettered freedom? Will the prairie flowers bloom again unseen? No; the vision goes with us. Could Columbus take a glance at fair Columbia, the peerless, the "gem of the ocean," he, at least, would pronounce it a fitting memorial.

[Page 488] 

Miss Alisan Wilson is the daughter of James and Lydia Wilson, and is a native of Columbian County, Ohio. She was educated in the public school of New Brighton. Pa., and at the Curry Normal Institute. In 1875 her father had the misfortune to lose his eyesight; her mother was an invalid, and it was thought best to move to Washington, D. C. Miss Wilson never married but has spent her time largely in loving care for her parents. Her father gave her a substantial business training. Investments in real estate have brought her prosperity, and she has traveled almost all over the United States and took a trip to Europe where she wrote for publication "Letters of Travel." She is a member of the Presbyterian Church. Has done some charity work in connection with the Industrial Home School in Massachusetts. Her postoffice address is No. 1218 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D. C.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom