The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah

and Family at the Great Fair

by Charles McCellan Stevens,

Published by Laird and Lee, Chicago, 1893


By Doug Boilesen

The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah and Family at the Great Fair is an example of what has been called "fair fiction," a genre that involves a 'fair' for its story's setting like the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

This PhonoBook is from the popular culture perspective about a story about a family visiting the 1893 Exposition and more specifically about going to Columbia Avenue and the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building and being amazed by the music that a nickel delivers from "somewhere unknown."


Chapter V - Columbia Avenue

From here they went on around to the north end of the greatest building on the grounds where were stored the miscellaneous educational achievements of the world.

As they entered the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building through one of the small entrances on the north, the greatness of that more than forty-four acres of exhibits did not impress itself upon them. The first objects that met their gaze were the graphophones or phonographs. Some nickles were soon in the slots and the family for the first time listening to music coming from some where by singers unseen. Johnny had a face covered with smiles as he listened to some loud-mouthed artist singing "Throw him down McClosky." Between each verse Johnny told the boy who stood in open-mouthed wonder near him that the "feller is a singer from way back." He could not realize that he was not in a concert hall and that all standing about were not hearing what he heard. When the music ceased and he withdrew the tubes from his ears he said to the boy, "Wasn't that out of sight?"


"They listened to melodies by musicians unseen, and from somewhere unknown."

"Sure, and out of my hearing too, but I guess I got a nickle to try it on," and his nickle disappeared in the slot and the unwearied singer hid away in the machine told again his story of the great fight.

When Uncle took the tubes from his ears his eyes were full of tears.

"Why, Grandpa, what's the matter?" asked Fanny who had just listened to some selection by the Marine band.

"Well, you see, I heard something that I used to hear long time ago, and I couldn't tell just who was a singin' it to me. It was some woman, though, and I let myself think it was somebody else, and I was a thankin' God for lettin' me hear her once more. I thought it was Mary singin' "Old Folks at Home" for me, jest like she used to, and I thought for a while that she had come back to me. I wanted to talk to her, and it hurt me when I seed that I couldn't." (p. 52-55)



An 1893 Phonograph Simile - Chapter XI - A Startling Mystery

There were two sections at the fair: the White City and Midway Plaisance. On one of the days the boys went to Midway's Street of Cairo and spent twenty-five cents to "see the great Nubian terpsichorean evolutions...Some of the women went out, but Johnny and Louis stayed in; and they kept staying like a small boy at a free phonograph. They were studying Nubians.



Chapter VI - Dangers of the Great City ("the marvels of light" and "the electrical magicians")

Under the great central entrance to Electricity building stood all the while the figure of an old-time Quaker. His eyes looked upward, and he held in his hand the feeble instrument which made possible the glories of this night. Franklin, with his kite, looked out upon the consummation of what he dreamt of when he drew lightning from the summer cloud. For two hours the "White City" blossomed in new beauty. The great basin was bathed in a flood of fairy moonlight. Outside the peristyle the lake beat its monotone against the walls. On the plaza the great orchestra of more than 100 men played patriotic music, and the people were filled and lifted with the spirit of the night.

The search light was a great surprise. It went dancing along the fronts of opposite buildings, climbed up the towers and brought out golden Diana. It flashed against the statue of the Republic, and kept it for a full minute resplendent as though carved from a block of flame and then flickered away, leaving the great figure in twilight uncertainty. After a time three irregular splashes of light were playing hide-and-seek along the basin and up the fronts of the big building. The lights changed their colors. Sometimes they were green and again they were blue or red.

While several thousand people were admiring this picture, a rocket of light shone out from one of the high corners of the agriculture building and flooded the MacMonnies fountain in a whiteness which made all the other light seem dim and lifeless. Under its focus the golden caravels and the draped figures showed strange contrasts of chalky pallor and deep shade. Only a moment later a second bar of light leaped out from a sky-high nook of the Manufactures building and swept the surface of the basin. It struck a moving gondola, and in a flash showed the gay Venetians bending to their long oars, the bright colors of the boat and the muffled forms of the passengers.

Johnny had left the others absorbed in their trance of delight. He sought other sights. Directly he came to the Electricity building, with its marvels of light. It burst on his childish mind, seeking for novelties, as greater than the scenes outside. It was something that Fanny and Uncle and Aunt must see. He ran in the greatest haste to bring them. When they came in, Johnny showed them where to sit to see the great illumination in the center of the building. It was then quite dark about them, but Johnny knew the marvelous sight he had said was there would soon appear.

Four rows of colored bulbs containing incandescent lights and placed on zig-zag frame works forty feet long in different directions are about a pillar around which are twined strings of two thousand electric bulbs of red, white and blue. The pillar is covered with bits of reflecting colored glass, thus making a magic intermingling of lights that almost rival the lightning in startling brilliancy and produce a pillar of fire scarcely surpassed even by that one which led the Israelites across the sea.

When the illumination came the weird ingenuity of the electric magicians struck Aunt Sarah with a sublimity almost more than she could endure. As the flashes of light struck out about the pillar and the ball of fire fell as if dropped from some creating hand she screamed, "O my God, what blasphemy is this that men have achieved. Can they snatch the fire from heaven and make the lightening a plaything?"

She sank upon a chair and gazed stupefied for some minutes at the awful scene. Then as they passed on she said, "I have seen the wonderful machinery great and small. I have seen the old relics which they say are the remains of men's hopes long gone by, but when man can take the light that comes out from the storms and put it up for show, it seems to me that I am seeing forbidden things and that the skill of men has gone too far."


The Electricity Building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at night. (Image from Graham, Charles S. The World’s Fair in Water Colors. Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1893.) Source: The City of Wonders -



"The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah and Family at the Great Fair" by Charles McCellan Stevens, Published by Laird and Lee, Chicago, 1893.

Text and illustrations are courtesy of Internet Archive's copy of the book from the collections of Harvard University.