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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Towering Personalities of the Gilded Age

Jill Jonnes ’92

Photo courtesy of Viking/Penguin
Several years ago, Jill Jonnes PhD '92 began to count how often she saw images of the Eiffel Tower in Baltimore, where she lives. After a while it got eerie. "I was seeing it pretty much every day," she recalls. Its elegant curves popped up around town, appearing regularly on movie posters in theaters and in bookstores for anything related to France, but also in dry-cleaning shops, department stores, and alongside anything related to cooking.

"On any given day you probably encounter an image of the Eiffel Tower," she says. Since its completion in 1889, the landmark has come to symbolize Paris, but also French culture, and more broadly, glamour and modernity. It's everywhere.

Jonnes had already written two widely praised books about engineering: electrical engineering in Empires of Light (2003) and civil engineering in Conquering Gotham (2007). Then she found herself in Italy, enjoying Ross King's gripping book, Brunelleschi's Dome, and she thought, "I'd love to do a book like this."

So this spring comes Eiffel's Tower: And the World's Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, The Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count (Penguin Group), a rollicking history and a sweeping look at late 19th-century culture. As the title suggests, the story turns on what was then the world's tallest structure, designed and built by engineer Gustave Eiffel (and named for him, of course).

Eiffel was already rich and famous when he submitted drawings to the organizers of a contest to design the centerpiece for an exposition showcasing French innovation. Eiffel had made his name as the preeminent builder of bridges (especially railroad bridges) of his day. He designed structures that could be assembled anywhere, making his work valuable to the French government and for infrastructure everywhere. Eiffel had offices around the globe.

"That was a great surprise to me," says Jonnes. "He was very innovative and very entrepreneurial."

Eiffel's outlandish design won the contest but outraged many Parisians. They saw in his open metal structure a Frankenstein quality of hubris and brutish domination, a hulk that would threaten the neighborhoods beneath it and blight the city's noble skyline. In many ways, Jonnes found, Eiffel's battle for his tower presaged other tensions in the modern era.

In another sense, the tower offers a way for Jonnes to examine the enduring quality of the Franco-American relationship, which she first experienced as a girl. Her family lived in Paris for several years beginning when she was 10, and she loved it. "It's this wonderful rivalry—a love affair between two peoples, tinged with a sense on both sides that 'we-can-do-better.'" She also calls it a "sibling rivalry between two republics."

What makes Eiffel's Tower remarkable is the operatic sweep of Jonnes' narrative, the sense of capturing Western culture at a pivotal moment through an incredibly colorful cast, ranging from Thomas Edison to Annie Oakley to James McNeill Whistler. Each had a stake in the World's Fair of 1889, and their intersecting stories give the book a sense of surprise and drama.

"I came away feeling that for all these people, that World's Fair was the pinnacle of their lives," says Jonnes. "They all viewed the fair as an opportunity." The variety of their agendas fascinated her, and she peeled her eye for moments when their paths crossed. It often came in unlikely ways, such as when Edison arrived in Paris unannounced, hastened to the tower, and encountered Buffalo Bill's Indian troupe there.

Finding those moments required a sleuth-like persistence and new tools for historians. The persistence included tracking down a short-lived novelty newspaper that was published inside the Eiffel Tower as it was being built. The tiny edition of Le Figaro provided evidence of these encounters, plus a "quality of detail" that Jonnes always looks for. She trawled archives in Paris for the newspaper but found no copies in the comprehensive Eiffel papers. At the Bibliothèque Nationale, reference librarians were solicitous but didn't believe they had such an item.

"They needed to see a Xerox of the front page to be convinced it existed," Jonnes says with a laugh. When she managed to show them a photocopy, that unlocked the trove. Other finds surfaced in Cody, Wyo., in scrapbooks of the Wild West Company. At one point a FedEx package arrived at her door containing the original scrapbook of Buffalo Bill himself, on loan from an elusive collector.

For writers of history, Jonnes says, more tools exist now for weaving compelling stories than ever before. A wealth of databases "reveals valuable details that nobody has seen in 100 years." Digitized articles from the period offer fresh vistas on life in the past. In a Library of Congress database of 19th-century periodicals, Jonnes found vivid descriptions of the tower and the World's Fair as they were going up.

She has jokingly called Eiffel's Tower "the last in my Gilded Age trilogy." More seriously, she says that all three books are about people who were visionary and their struggles against conventional wisdom.

Eiffel's Tower is due out in May—just in time for the 120th anniversary of the 1889 World's Fair on May 15.