Day 7 of White History Month: Human Zoos at World’s Fairs
World’s Fairs were often known for showing off the culture, architecture, and proudest achievements of a nation. There were ferris wheels, food, and fun. Well-known World Fairs include the 1878 Parisian World’s Fair, 1889 Parisian World’s Fair, 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Posters and memorabilia from these fairs are still sold today.
One of the most horrific recurring exhibits at these fairs - proudly flaunted by the hosts - were those that displayed live human beings, all people of color - human zoos. A horrible display of colonialism, anthropologists and government official collaborated to show off Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, people from African colonies, and more. These world fairs were meant to play up stereotypes and show non-white peoples as barbarians. In the United States, the World’s Fairs also educated new white immigrants in US-style racism,
Human zoos were not just confined to World’s Fairs, and were also present in museums, circuses, and travelling acts. Saartjie Baartman (Sarah Baartman) was put on display in London and France as a “Freak Show” outside of the World’s Fairs. Her genitalia and body shape were used to hypersexualize her and attempt to depict Africans as non-human. Ota Benga was placed in a literal zoo; he was on display at the Bronx Zoo in a cage along with chimpanzees and orangutan.
The Parisian World’s Fairs of 1878 and 1889 had “negro villages” which put African peoples on display, and other World’s Fairs put a similar concept on display, other times with Native Americans.
World’s fairs sometimes displayed people of color nude or partially nude and in cages. They were put on display and stripped of all human qualities. At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Apache people as well as people from territories acquired after the Spanish-American War (Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillipines) were “featured”, along with Ota Benga.
World’s Fairs were meant to show off what that city or country was proud of, so it is very fitting that Western nations flaunted military conquests, slavery, colonialism, coercion, and racism.