"Father Knickerbocker"

February 8, 1890

Charles G. Bush

"Father Knickerbocker"

Celebrations, World’s Fair; New York City, Celebrations/Honors; Symbols, New York City;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

"Help! This is more than I can carry."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by C. G. Bush depicts the plight of the ill-fated proposal to hold the 1892 World's Fair in New York City.

In the summer of 1889, New Yorkers began planning to host the International Columbian Exposition (or World's Fair) in 1892, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the European discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492.  It was estimated that 20 million people, averaging 100,000 a day, would visit the World's Fair in New York.  By late August 1889, the fair's committee on site and buildings narrowed possible locations down to six areas: Inwood; Oak Point-Barretto Point; Port Morris; Claremont Park-Fleetwood racetrack; Cedar Park; and, Morningside Park-Riverside Park-Bloomingdale Asylum lands. (See map from Harper's Weekly issue dated September 21, 1889, p. 764.)

In the autumn, a controversy arose when the committee's favored site of Morningside, Riverside, and Bloomingdale was expanded to include the northern 19 acres of Central Park, known as the North Meadows.  (See map from Harper's Weekly issue dated October 12, 1889, p. 819.Harper's Weekly editorialized that to even consider disturbing the rural oasis of Central Park was "audacious" and "preposterous."  A cartoon at the time posed a resolute Father Knickerbocker, a symbol of New York, warning "the invaders of Central Park" that they could not "break ground here, gentlemen, without breaking the law [which established Central Park], and the law will not be changed with my consent."  Over several weeks, the newspaper continued to criticize the proposed annexation of a section of Central Park, and printed a double-page illustration showing residents enjoying the North Meadows as an ideal place for relaxation and recreation.  In November, the committee abandoned the notion of using Central Park.  

Other problems, though, began to surface.  There were indications that not all New Yorkers were eager about the prospects of hosting the international exposition.  As Harper's Weekly observed, "it seems now as if the press had somewhat exaggerated the enthusiasm of the city upon the subject," and by December was reporting that "the project of the great Fair plainly languishes."  Furthermore, politics began to enter the picture.  The journal worried that Tammany Hall, led by the corrupt Richard Croker, would "be allowed to handle the enormous sums of money, and control all the labor necessary in preparation for the great occasion.  It may be safely said that if politics get into the enterprise, politics will bedevil it."  

That is the theme of this cartoon:  political intrigue over the World's Fair has become too much of a burden for the feeble Father Knickerbocker to bear.  The same issue contains an editorial complaining about a World's Fair bill in the state legislature "involving an enormous expenditure and constitutional doubts, privately completed at the last moment, and without public knowledge or discussion of any kind sent up by railroad speed to Albany in the evening, introduced into the Legislature the next morning, and its immediate passage demanded without reference or deliberation, under penalty of denunciation of the Legislature as hostile to the honor and interests of the State."

Despite their bickering, New Yorkers were nearly unanimous in their assumption that Congress would designate their metropolis, if they so desired, as the host city.  It came as a shock, therefore, when in late February 1890 Congress named Chicago as the site for the International Columbian Exposition.  Chicagoans had also begun planning in the summer of 1889 to host the World's Fair, but New Yorkers largely ignored their efforts.  Chicago, however, simply outworked New York by organizing favorable petitions from countless civic organizations and surrounding townships, personally lobbying Congressmen, and boosting their city in the press via a "National Agitation" committee.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Father Knickerbocker"
December 6, 2023

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