The World's Columbian Exhibition

One of history’s great world’s fairs took place in Chicago in 1893. The World’s Columbian Exposition was organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival in America of Christopher Columbus. It included “the most extensive anthropology exhibit of its kind ever assembled” (Collier). In order to create exhibits representing past and present cultures of the Americas, as many as a hundred individuals were engaged to gather artefacts from North, Central and South America. In addition, various countries mounted displays showcasing their indigenous peoples. After the Exposition, this unprecedented bounty formed the foundation of Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum (now the Field Museum).

Dr. Emil Hassler

Among the displays from South America, that of Paraguay earned special mention in The Book of the Fair:

A collection yet to be mentioned is that of Emil Hassler, the Paraguayan commissioner, one pertaining to the customs not only of the native tribes of his own country, but of more than forty others, scattered over the central portions of South America. This collection, the result of many years of labor, was the only exhibit from South American countries for which a gold medal was awarded at the Paris exposition of 1889. The tribes from which it was gathered were sparsely scattered over the territory occupied by the Tupi-Guaranis .… The collection consists for the most part of weapons, utensils, and articles of rude manufacture. Among the first are spears whose points are made of wood, stone, bone, and iron; stone axes, and bows from which stones instead of arrows are shot. There are also primitive machines for spinning cotton threads, and a shawl of cotton, made entirely by hand; shells, teeth, hammocks, straw hats, pottery, boat and oars, fishing implements, bone knives, lip perforators, wooden ear-plugs and implements, bone knives, lip perforators, wooden, early plugs and ornaments for the head, which are composed mainly of feathers.(pp. 638-639)

Dr. Emil Hassler was in fact not Paraguayan, but Swiss. He was born in Aarau, Switzerland, in 1864, the son of Marie Stampfli and Johann Friedrich Hassler, a Swiss tanner and copper merchant. Emil committed early to an academic life, attending the École des arts et métiers at Aarau from 1880 to 1882, and later pursuing medical studies in France and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His education complete, Hassler began his prodigious scientific career in South America and shortly thereafter began his esteemed ethnographic collection. He worked in several Brazilian hospitals, opened a medical facility during the Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia, founded his own scholarly institution, and led several exploratory expeditions into the jungles of Brazil’s Mato Grosso and the Paraguayan hinterland. Hassler died in Asunción, Paraguay, in 1937.

Following the World’s Columbian Exposition, Hassler’s ethnographic collection was turned over to the newly formed Field Columbian Museum, which opened officially in June 1894. Such was the abundance of their inaugural collections that selected portions were distributed to other institutions in North America and Europe. The Natural History Society of New Brunswick was one of the numerous recipients. In 1896 they had received a collection of pre-Columbian pottery in exchange for 24 Devonian fossils and three years later, in 1899, in return for 19 Japanese bird skins, they received 32 Paraguayan artefacts from Hassler’s collection, adding greatly to the ethnological diversity of the Society’s museum collection.


An Introduction to the Field Museum The Field Museum. Accessed July 2007.

Bolotin, Norman and Christine Laing. The World’s Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

The Book of the Fair: Chapter the Twentieth: Anthropology and Ethnology (Text) Accessed November 2000.

Collier, Donald. “Chicago Comes of Age: The World’s Columbian Exposition and the Birth of Field Museum,” Bulletin Field Museum of Natural History 40 no. 5 (May 1969), 2-7.

Häsler, Beatrice and Lorenzo Ramella. “Hassler, Emil,” Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. Accessed June 2007.

Photo Gallery

Dr. Emil Hassler