Generally regarded as the first modern building, the Crystal Palace was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton (1801–1865) for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the first world's fair, held in Hyde Park, London, during the summer of 1851. Featuring modular, prefabricated, iron and glass construction, the Crystal Palace stretched 1,848 feet long, 72 feet wide, and 64 feet high, with a barrel-vaulted transept rising to 104 feet. It was built from start to finish in just seven months, at a cost of £170,000.
The Great Exhibition was organized by Prince Albert (1819–1861) and the Royal Society of Arts to improve the quality of industrial design in Britain and to demonstrate the advantages of British manufactures by putting them in competition with goods from around the world. It was opened by Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) on May Day 1851, and closed six months later on 11 October. In between, there were more than six million paid entrances, or approximately one-fifth of the British population, allowing for multiple visits and visitors from abroad. Men and women from all social classes mingled inside the Crystal Palace, a remarkable occurrence in a society still reeling from Chartism and the revolutions of 1848.
The Crystal Palace, which received its nickname from Douglas William Jerrold (1803–1857) of Punch magazine, was unique at the time for its size and transparent qualities. So large as to be virtually boundless—the Crystal Palace covered some nineteen acres—the interior was defined only by the three-dimensional grid of coordinates that the regularly spaced iron stanchions and girders provided. Inside, it was impossible for visitors to discern the size of the building, and the Crystal Palace was in all likelihood the first building in which a person, standing at one end, could not see the opposite end. Moreover, the glass walls and roof provided a maximum of daylight and a minimum of enclosure, prompting many visitors to describe the building as a "fairy palace."
Inside, the Crystal Palace divided the world into two groups. To the west of the transept were the products of Britain and its colonies; to the east were those of the rest of the world. In the British half, the exhibits were arranged in four main groups: raw materials, machinery, manufactures, and the fine arts. The ordering of the exhibits, therefore, replicated the industrial manufacturing
process, as raw materials—lumps of coal, bales of cotton—were taken by heavy machinery—steam engines, hydraulic presses, power looms—to manufacture works of industry such as mirrors, tables, cloth, anything one might find in the home. The fine arts, such as statues and stained glass, were included to demonstrate beauty, so that manufacturers might be inspired to apply good design principles to their manufactured goods. The organizers were concerned that the reigning aesthetic style in furniture and the fine arts was leading to large, dark, heavy, ornate objects, now commonly referred to as "Victorian."
New and important inventions that were exhibited in 1851 included the electric telegraph, the Singer sewing machine, Goodyear rubber, the Colt revolver, and Schweppes soft drinks such as ginger ale. The Great Exhibition, however, also encouraged the useless and the preposterous along with the inventive and the ingenious. There was a kite-drawn carriage for traveling without horses on windy days; a corset that opened upon impact during a train accident to allow the female victim to breathe instantly; and a silent alarm clock, which instead of ringing at the designated time, turned the bed on its side and dumped its occupant into a tub of cold water.
After the exhibition closed, turning a profit of £186,000 (which would eventually be used to purchase land in South Kensington where the Victoria and Albert Museum would be built), the Crystal Palace was relocated to the London suburb of Sydenham in 1854 and rebuilt on an even larger scale. The new Crystal Palace added a vaulted roof along the length of the nave, as well as vaulted side wings (one of which burned down in 1866). It also featured extensively landscaped grounds with hundreds of fountains, along with the first life-sized models of dinosaurs.
Inside the Sydenham Crystal Palace, the organizers constructed a number of courts, each to illustrate the art and architecture of various periods in history. The most spectacular of these was the Egyptian court, with full-size copies of the Sphinx and the famous Abu Simbel statues of Ramses II. There was also a natural history department illustrating the development of the human race, and in the nave Paxton arranged a display of vegetation that included the Victoria Regia, the giant water lily from South America that inspired his original glasshouse design.
The Sydenham Crystal Palace took on a very different meaning than its Hyde Park predecessor. Whereas the rhetoric surrounding the original Crystal Palace had focused on international peace and understanding, the Sydenham Crystal Palace had a more jingoistic undercurrent, embodied in an 1872 speech there by Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) in which he asserted the empire's centrality to Britain and to the Conservative Party. The building's apogee as an imperial site came with the Colonial and Indian Exhibition (1886) and the Festival of Empire (1911). The latter, designed to demonstrate to the British public the significance of the empire and to encourage consumption of imperial goods, featured a train journey through the empire that took visitors past replicas and scale models of a Jamaican sugar plantation, a Malay village, and an Indian palace.
Additionally, whereas the Great Exhibition had been organized primarily to educate British men and women about industrialization and tasteful consumption, the Sydenham building was designed to entertain and to amuse, with fireworks displays, balloon flights, and dog shows. Especially popular were the musical festivals, as the Crystal Palace became the most important venue for public music-making in the United Kingdom. Weekly concerts there introduced thousands of British men and women to classical music and stimulated the composition of English music, and the large-scale performances of Handel's oratorios transformed the performance of choral music for a century.
Finally, whereas the Hyde Park building had symbolized the mixing of the classes and the masses, the Sydenham site was clearly for the latter, a point made by George Gissing's novel The Nether World (1888), in which workers celebrate their August bank holiday at the Crystal Palace, enjoying its circus-like games and refreshments but suffering from the heat and dust inside the glass building.
Despite the popularity of the events held there, the Crystal Palace began experiencing financial
problems as early as the 1870s, and saving it took the intervention of Lord Plymouth, who in 1911 put up £230,000 to preserve the site, which was subsequently used as a naval supply depot during World War I. There was one final attempt to refurbish the building after the war, when the Imperial War Museum opened there in 1920, but the building had become run-down beyond repair. Late in the evening on 30 November 1936, a fire of unknown origin broke out in the building, and by morning there was little left but molten glass, twisted iron, and a pile of ash and rubble.
Both the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace have proved to be enormously influential. A succession of world's fairs and expositions followed in the wake of the 1851 London event, including Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1889, 1900, 1937), Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904), and New York (1939, 1964). The Crystal Palace building prompted the design of derivative structures in New York (1853), Dublin (1853), Munich (1853–1854), Manchester (1857), and Madrid (1873), and the Paddington railway station in London designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859) contains a "Paxton roof." The Crystal Palace can also be seen as the forerunner of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and insofar as there was a proposal after the exhibition closed to convert the Crystal Palace into a 1,000-foot-high tower with elevators, all modern skyscrapers owe their origin to the Crystal Palace.
Perhaps most importantly, the Crystal Palace has become one of the foremost symbols of modernity itself. In Notes from Underground (1864), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) complained that the mathematical exactitude and rationality of the Crystal Palace left nothing to doubt, that it was the last word and the ultimate truth. It has also been seen as giving form to Karl Marx's (1818–1883) dictum that "all that is solid melts into air." Admired by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887–1965, known as Le Corbusier) and É mile Zola (1840–1902), vilified by Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and John Ruskin (1819–1900), the Crystal Palace, both in Hyde Park and in Sydenham, remains a projection screen for public opinion about industrial capitalism.
Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. New Haven, Conn., 1999.
Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939. Manchester, U.K., 1988.
Hoffenberg, Peter H. An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War. Berkeley, Calif., 2001.
McKean, John. Crystal Palace: Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox. London, 1994.
Musgrave, Michael. The Musical Life of the Crystal Palace. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.
Piggott, Jan R. Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham 1854–1936. London, 2004.
Walton, Whitney. France at the Crystal Palace: Bourgeois Taste and Artisan Manufacture in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.
Jeffrey A. Auerbach
J. A. Cannon