Skip to main content
Select Source:

World's Fairs


WORLD'S FAIRS, sometimes called international expositions, originated with the 1851 London Crystal Palace Exhibition. The success of that venture in trumpeting the causes of industrialism, nationalism, and imperialism to an audience in excess of six million inspired the builders of nation-states in Europe and the United States to follow suit. The first wave of Victorian-era world's fairs concluded with World War I, but the collapse of capitalist economies in the 1920s precipitated a second wave of fairs held during the Great Depression. Following World War II, world's fairs, confronted with growing competition from electronic media and Disney-inspired theme parks, began to recede in number and importance. Projecting the failures of recent expositions back on the past would be anachronistic, however. From their inception in 1851 through the middle of the twentieth century, world's fairs played a primary role in giving form and substance to the modernizing world.

The success of London's Crystal Palace Exhibition, and especially the success of American exhibitors Cyrus McCormick and Samuel Colt in gaining rave reviews from the British press for their displays of reapers and revolvers, inspired a group of New York business leaders, including newspaper editor Horace Greeley and showman P. T. Barnum, to organize their own Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York City in 1853. The New York spectacle ran afoul of mounting sectional tensions in the United States and failed to win much support from the federal government. Before another world's fair would be held on American shores, the United States would undergo a civil war and an industrial depression, and find itself in the throes of growing class conflict between the rich and poor.

Inspired by the urgency of reconstructing the American nation after the Civil War, and by the ongoing parade of world's fairs in England, France, and Austria, Philadelphia civic authorities decided to hold a world's fair to celebrate the centenary of American independence from England. Fueled by concerns that the panic of 1873 would heighten conflict between social classes, the federal government determined to make the Philadelphia fair an instrument for winning over the hearts and minds of Americans to the newly reconstructed American nation-state. When President Ulysses S. Grant opened the fair in May 1876 in Fairmount Park, the fair boasted some of the largest buildings ever constructed, including Machinery Hall, which featured the 700-ton Corliss engine and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. This fair, like most world's fairs, ran for only six months and, again like most others, lost money. There were, however, other ways of measuring success. For example, by the time it closed its gates, nearly ten million people had seen its exhibits and many local businesses had made money from the influx of exposition goers.

As the U.S. national economy continued to ricochet between boom and bust, and as Europeans, especially the French, continued to mount spectacular expositions, capped off by the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition with the Eiffel Tower as its centerpiece, numerous American cities considered hosting world's fairs. Some actually materialized. Louisville inaugurated the Southern Exposition in 1883, which ran annually until 1887, while New Orleans hosted the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884–1885. It was, however, the competition between a dozen cities to hold a world's fair commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's 1492 expedition that most clearly announced the medium's arrival as a mainstay of American cultural life.

In 1890, when Chicago business and financial elites persuaded Congress to award them the prize of organizing the World's Columbian Exposition, they set themselves the task of creating a world's fair that would surpass the one held in Paris the previous year. They targeted 1892as the opening date, but poor weather conditions and labor strikes forced exposition authorities to postpone the formal opening until 1893. Despite the fact that the exposition buildings were still under construction, world's fair officials arranged for dedication ceremonies to take place in October 1892. For that occasion, they organized a nationwide celebration that featured schoolchildren across the country reciting, for the first time, the Pledge of Allegiance, which had been written by Francis J. Bellamy specifically to bring national attention to the fair and the first national Columbus Day holiday.

When the World's Columbian Exposition opened, it featured an inner core of palatial exhibition buildings intended to represent the claim that America represented the apex of the world's civilization. Designed by some of America's leading architectural firms, including Burnham and Root and McKim, Mead, and White, these buildings were dubbed the White City because they were all painted white. For some Americans, however, there was more to the name than the color of the buildings. Led by former abolitionist and African American political leader Frederick Douglass and by antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells, African Americans protested the racist policies of the fair that excluded all but a handful of African American exhibits. White, middle-class women also fought for inclusion in the fair and, unlike African Americans, were allowed to create their own building, used by some to advance the cause of women's suffrage. In addition to the White City, the fair also featured the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long entertainment strip that included ethnological villages intended, in part, to apply the lessons of social Darwinism to the struggle for survival between "races" of humanity. Dominated by its towering Ferris Wheel, the Chicago fair's answer to the Eiffel Tower, the World's Columbian Exposition became the defining event for America's fin-de-siècle generation. In a sense, it also became a defining event for America's young historical profession, for it was at a meeting of the American Historical Association organized in conjunction with this fair, that historian Frederick Jackson Turner read his paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."

The Chicago fair ignited a world's fair-building craze in the United States. Atlanta (1895), Nashville (1897), Omaha (1898), Buffalo (1901), St. Louis (1904), Portland (1905), Jamestown (1907), Seattle (1909), San Diego (1915–1916), and San Francisco (1915–1916) all held world's fairs that hammered home to tens of millions of Americans the fundamental lesson that America's national reconstruction was on course and that the United States was well on the way toward becoming a global power. President William McKinley, who was assassinated at the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, summed up the central theme of these fairs when he termed them "timekeepers of progress."

World War I, which erupted while world's fairs were in full swing in San Diego and San Francisco, called into doubt the meanings of both progress and civilization. At the conclusion of the war, however, Europeans quickly returned to the world's fair medium to rebuild their devastated economies and to shore up sagging faith in their imperial enterprises. The French had already led the way with an international colonial exposition in Marseilles in 1916, and were followed, in due course, by the British, who held a massive colonial exposition on the outskirts of London in 1924–1925. Not wanting to be left behind, a group of corporate capitalists and civic authorities in Philadelphia determined that the United States should hold a world's fair as well. Perhaps because America's economic prosperity left no need for reassurance and uplift, the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition was a total flop. Its financial losses and poor attendance led many observers to proclaim the end of the world's fair era.

They were wrong. Even before the 1929 stock market crash, several of Chicago's leading corporate capitalists were launching plans for a world's fair to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of Chicago and the fortieth anniversary of the 1893 fair. When the depression hit, they redoubled their efforts and, in 1933–1934, held the Century of Progress Exposition. Chief among its modernistic buildings was the Hall of Science, which distilled the exposition's central theme: "Science Finds; Industry Applies; Man Conforms." At least one performer at the fair refused to conform, however. Sally Rand amazed countless numbers of fairgoers with her notorious fan dance and gave the fair abundant publicity with her multiple arrests. Indeed, so successful was the 1933 fair in rekindling popular faith in the American economic and political systems that President Franklin Roosevelt personally urged exposition authorities to reopen it in 1934. By the time it closed, the Century of Progress Exposition

had jump-started the stalled American world's fair movement.

In the wake of the Chicago fair, San Diego (1935– 1936), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936–1937), San Francisco (1939–1940), and New York (1939–1940) held world's fairs that, in total, attracted some 100 million visitors. The fairs put thousands of people to work and held out the promise that America's best years lay in the future. Nowhere was this theme more in evidence than at the 1939 New York fair, which took as its theme "The World of Tomorrow." With exhibits created by some of the world's leading industrial designers, including Norman Bel Geddes (who designed the General Motors' Futurama show) and Henry Dreyfus (who designed Democracity), this fair gave visible form to the meaning of modernity and held out the promise that America, in the very near future, would escape from the ravages of the depression and become a consumerist paradise. This fair, like its immediate predecessors, also advocated the use of eugenics to solve America's social problems.

The fairs of the 1930s do not deserve credit for saving the United States from the depression. But, like the generation of Victorian-era fairs that mushroomed across the country between 1876 and 1916 in the midst of increasing class violence and mounting economic anxiety, the fairs of the Great Depression certainly helped restore middle-class confidence in U.S. political and economic institutions.

In the decade and a half following World War II, with the economy seemingly living up to the predictions of previous world's fair promoters, no world's fair was held in the United States. That situation changed when, in response to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the man-made satellite Sputnik, the federal government supported a bid by Seattle to host a world's fair dedicated to allaying national concerns about the United States lagging behind the Soviet Union in the race for control of outer space. With its "space gothic" architecture that featured the Space Needle, the Century 21 Exposition announced the preparedness of the United States to take on the Soviets in space. The next U.S. fair, the 1964–1965 New York World's Fair, with its Hall of Free Enterprise, announced the readiness of the United States to take up the Soviet challenge on this planet. Smaller fairs ensued, including the 1968 San Antonio HemisFair and Expo '74 held in Spokane. The Spokane fair, following the lead of Expo '67 in Montreal, put a new emphasis on environmentalism and helped prepare the way for the 1982 Knoxville International Energy Exposition and the 1984 New Orleans World Exposition. Both of the last-named fairs had severe financial problems and these contributed to the decision by Chicago civic authorities not to host a world's fair in 1992 to commemorate the quincentennial of Columbus's arrival in the New World.

World's fairs have been among the most formative influences in shaping the tone and texture of modern times. They have filled museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, with their exhibits and they have left vast urban parks, among them Chicago's Jackson Park, in their wake. They have introduced millions of Americans to technologies that range from the telephone and television to the airplane and computer. Because of their overt racism, they have met with resistance, especially from African Americans who successfully converted many fairs into laboratories of civil rights protest and litigation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in the wake of the billion-dollar loss sustained by the 2000 Hannover Exposition, many critics have suggested that, since world's fairs can no longer compete in a world dominated by television, theme parks, and the Internet, the end of the era of world's fairs is once again in sight. If, however, the primary function of world's fairs has been to provide cultural safety nets during times of economic and political crises brought on by the globalization of capitalism, it is doubtful that so powerful a medium will simply fade away.


Findling, John E., and Kimberly D. Pelle. Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions, 1851–1988. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Standard reference source.

Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions, and World's Fairs, 1851–1939. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Rydell, Robert W. All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

———. World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Youngs, J. William T. The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74: Transforming an American Environment. Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1996.

Robert W.Rydell

See alsoCentennial Exhibition ; Ferris Wheel .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"World's Fairs." Dictionary of American History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"World's Fairs." Dictionary of American History. . (December 13, 2017).

"World's Fairs." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

World’s Fairs

Worlds Fairs


Background. American worlds fairs, also called international expositions, trace their beginnings to Londons 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the first worlds fair. This exposition started a tradition of displaying agricultural and mechanical exhibits. The first American international fair was in New York (1853), but it was a financial failure. The success of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, put together by a group of Philadelphia civic leaders and the federal government, launched the first generation of American worlds fairs.

Worlds Columbian Exposition. The Chicago worlds fair of 1893 took place one year after the anniversary it was supposed to commemorate, the four hundredth anniversary of Columbuss voyage of discovery to America. It was the largest and most elaborate nineteenth-century exposition held in the United States. After leaving the fairgrounds, an old midwestern farmer reportedly told his wife that it was worth visiting the exposition even if it did take all the burial money to do so. The writer Hamlin Garland told his parents: Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see this fair. The fair was several years in the

planning, beginning in 1889 when a corporation was established with professional and business leaders who raised more than $10 million in funds. An additional $2.5 million was generated through federally minted souvenir coins. Seven thousand workmen were employed in construction of the six-hundred-acre exposition.

Achievements. The exposition opened 1 May and the Pledge of Allegiance was written for the dedication ceremonies. The landscaping of the grounds and the design of the neoclassical buildings were supervised by a committee composed of the countrys leading architects, especially Daniel Hudson Burnham. However, the architecture of the Worlds Columbian Exposition received mixed reviews. Its admirers found it innovative and original, but there were just as many critics who found it a horrible retrogression that turned its back on a distinctively American style. The 150 buildings of Greek, Romanesque, and Renaissance architectural styles became known as the White City; the buildings exhibited the talents of the foremost American architects and sculptors. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park and a formidable influence on nineteenth-century landscape architecture, advised fair officials to construct lagoons on the grounds and not rest content with a view of the lake from the shore. Another pioneering development was the unprecedented use of electricity at the fair, which impressed upon the American people, for the first time, the importance of this new light source.

Attractions. A department of publicity and promotion established in 1890 advertised the event in eastern cities and Europe. Nineteen foreign countries, eighty-six non-American businesses, and thirty American state governments participated in the fair. The major exhibition buildings (holding approximately sixty-five thousand displays) were grouped by categoriesagriculture, anthropology, electricity, fine arts, fisheries, forestry, horticulture, machinery, manufactures and liberal arts, mines and mining, transportation, U.S. government, and women. In an attempt to overcome contemporary prejudice against the Chinese, the Wah Mee Exposition Company built a theater, bazaar, and Chinese temple, or joss house. Special events included a Worlds Congress Auxiliary at which nationally known leaders, such as William Jennings Bryan, lectured; a Congress of Historians at which members heard Frederick Jackson Turner read a short version of his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History; and the Worlds Parliament of Religions, at which a weeklong conference was held. Major attractions were the Court of Honor (the central area of the fairgrounds), the Ferris wheel, and Buffalo Bills Wild West Show. In the Transportation Building there was an award-winning electric elevator, whose normal speed was 250 feet per minute, to carry visitors to the gallery.

Impact. The exposition closed on 30 October and added much to American life, including the mile-long entertainment strip (midway) which every subsequent fair has incorporated into its planning. Total attendance was 27,529,000, with a profit of $1.4 million. In writing about the event, a modern historian concluded: For a summers moment, White City had seemed the fruition of a nation, a culture, a whole society: the celestial city of man set upon a hill for all the world to behold.


Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing, The Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893: The Worlds Columbian Exposition (Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1992);

Robert L. Gale, The Gay Nineties in America: A Cultural Dictionary of the 1890s (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"World’s Fairs." American Eras. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"World’s Fairs." American Eras. . (December 13, 2017).

"World’s Fairs." American Eras. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

world's fair

world's fair: see exposition.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"world's fair." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"world's fair." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 13, 2017).

"world's fair." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from