World's Fairs

views updated Jun 27 2018


london 1851
paris 1855
london 1862
paris 1867
london 1871–1874
vienna 1873
paris 1878
amsterdam 1883
paris 1889
paris 1900

The origins of the world's fair (also known as international exposition, exposition universelle, esposizione internazionale, and Weltausstellung) lie in the Industrial Revolution, which vastly expanded manufacturing, trade, and transportation in the first half of the nineteenth century. Beginning with London's Great Exhibition in 1851, a series of world's fairs were held in Europe to showcase advances in manufacturing, science, and technology and gradually spread to other parts of the world, including the United States and Australia. The nineteenth-century world's fairs did not exhibit only machines and the products they manufactured. They attempted to summarize, categorize, and evaluate the whole of human experience. Displays of natural products, handmade goods, the fine arts, models, and ethnographic artifacts were also an important part of the exhibitions. Although the world's fairs sought to educate visitors about scientific and technological advances, entertainments and amusements gradually became a central feature of the events and sometimes even overshadowed their industrial component. The world's fairs celebrated international cooperation and peaceful competition among nations, but they were also sites of national rivalry, where countries celebrated their national identities and strove for prestige by exhibiting their manufactures, cultural achievements, and imperial possessions.

World's fairs grew out of the manufacturing exhibitions of the late eighteenth century. Unlike the great medieval fairs, the chief aim of the manufacturing exhibitions and later world's fairs was not buying and selling but exhibiting the latest machines and products in order to stimulate competition and economic progress. In Britain, the Royal Society of Arts held an exhibition of machinery and mechanical inventions in 1761, and small exhibitions of industrial products were held in Geneva in 1789, Hamburg in 1790, and Prague in 1791. The first national exhibition of industrial products, however, took place in France under the Directorate. In 1797 the Marquis d'Avèze, commissioner of the former Royal Manufactories, organized an exhibition of goods with the goal of promoting French industry and stimulating the purchase of the unsold porcelain, tapestries, and carpets that had accumulated since the Revolution and the British naval blockade. The exhibition was so successful that the interior minister, François Neufchâteau, announced plans to hold a series of national exhibitions in temporary buildings specially constructed for this purpose on the Champ-de-Mars. The first was held for three days in 1798 and featured a published catalog of exhibits as well as an official report, which underlined the French ability to compete with British industry. International economic competition was at the core of the industrial exhibition movement from the start.

France continued to hold national manufacturing exhibitions periodically throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the 1849 exhibition, which lasted for six months and drew over 4,500 exhibitors. A number of European countries followed the French example, and between 1818 and 1851 national exhibitions were held in Bavaria, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, Spain, and Sweden to promote industrial development. In 1844 Berlin hosted an "All-German Exhibition," which foreshadowed the political unification of the German states. Although the British state showed no interest in organizing national exhibitions, mechanics institutes began organizing educational exhibitions of mechanical inventions and scientific discoveries throughout the country starting in 1837. During the debate on abolishing the protectionist Corn Laws, free-trade advocates organized a "Free-Trade Bazaar" in London's Covent Garden, and after 1847 the Royal Society of Arts sponsored annual national industrial exhibitions in London. The idea of holding an international industrial exhibition to educate domestic producers by exposing them to foreign manufactures was first raised in France, in 1834 and again in 1849, but protectionist arguments warning of foreign competition and industrial espionage proved persuasive and the idea was dropped, only to be picked up by Henry Cole, a member of the Royal Society of Arts, during his visit to the 1849 Paris exhibition. On his return to Britain, Cole discussed the possibility of hosting an international exhibition in London with the president of the Royal Society, Prince Albert, who threw his support behind the project. It was decided to establish a Royal Commission to raise funds and prepare for the exhibition, which was to be self-financing. While Prince Albert is sometimes given credit as the originator of the idea of holding an international exhibition in 1851, Henry Cole and the other members of the Royal Commission were the main organizing force behind the event. The commission was dominated by industrial and financial leaders who were liberal advocates of the economic doctrine of free trade. They saw the exhibition as an opportunity both to demonstrate to the world the virtues of commercial and political liberalism and to promote the export of British manufactures.

london 1851

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, as it was called, has often been seen as a self-congratulatory celebration of Britain's confidence in its industrial might. One of the primary motivations for holding an international exhibition, however, was widespread anxiety about the quality of British industrial design. By exposing British manufacturers to the products of their Continental rivals, the exhibition's organizers hoped to stimulate them to improve the quality of their design in order to better compete in world markets. Nor was the nation united behind the Great Exhibition. Although the Corn Laws had been abolished in 1846, Britain was still deeply divided over the issue of free trade, and protectionists claimed that foreign manufacturers would steal British ideas. The memories of the Chartist demonstrations and the European revolutions of 1848 aroused fears that the exhibition would attract large numbers of workers and foreign revolutionaries to London and lead to public disorder. The biggest controversy was over the permanent exhibition building proposed for Hyde Park, which opponents claimed would spoil the park and necessitate the removal of cherished trees. Hyde Park was saved from disfigurement by the adoption of Robert Paxton's innovative design for a glass-and-iron structure in the form of a basilica that would be high enough to contain trees and that could be disassembled and removed after the exhibition. Paxton's Crystal Palace, as it was dubbed, was the chief wonder of the Great Exhibition. Of immense proportions, it was inspired by the structure of conservatories and constructed using prefabricated components that were quickly assembled on the site in only seventeen weeks. The glass walls and roof permitted natural light to illuminate the Crystal Palace's five naves, the tallest of which soared to the height of Paris's Notre-Dame cathedral. It was sold after the exhibition and moved to south London.

The exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on 1 May 1851 in the presence of the ambassadors of the participating nations. It was an immediate success and earned a substantial profit by the time it closed in October. Contrary to the dire predictions of riot and disorder, the crowds attending the exhibition were well behaved, although as a precaution the Duke of Wellington discreetly stationed mounted troops around London before the opening. After a few weeks ticket prices were lowered to one shilling from Monday through Thursday in order to attract all classes of society. Over six million people visited the Great Exhibition, most of whom came to London by railway, some on cheap excursions organized by Thomas Cook. The Crystal Palace contained over 100,000 different exhibits from some fourteen thousand exhibitors. The exhibits were classified in four categories—raw materials, machinery, manufactures, and the fine arts—and thirty subcategories. The classification system reflected the exhibition's emphasis on the manufacturing process but did not exclude the arts or machines not used for industrial production. Exhibits were displayed according to their national origin, however, and only the British section was organized according to the official classification scheme. Foreign countries were free to organize their space as they saw fit. British exhibits, including those of the colonies, occupied half of the space in the Crystal Palace, while the other half held the displays of the thirty-eight other countries that participated in the exhibition. The physical arrangement of the exhibits was often random and confusing to the visitors who beheld the vast assortment of machines, models, agricultural produce, and art. Although the intention of the exposition was to educate the public about the processes and products of industry, it was also a great spectacle. The so-called lions of the exhibition included the Koh-i-noor diamond, the queen of Spain's jewels, the Gothic medieval court, the collection of stuffed animals from Württemburg, and a crystal fountain in which flowed eau de cologne. Among the other exhibits that received the most attention were the steam-powered working machines and electric telegraph in the British section, photography in the French section, the Colt revolvers and McCormick harvester in the American section, and the cornucopia of imperial treasures presented by the East India Company. Full-scale examples of improved houses for workers, designed by Prince Albert, were displayed out-side the Crystal Palace.

The Great Exhibition was more than a mere display of goods; it was also an international competition that measured and compared the technological, economic, and artistic development of each nation. Adopting the practice of the French national exhibitions, the organizers appointed juries to evaluate the exhibits and gave prizes to those deemed best; 170 Council medals were awarded for innovation and 2,918 Prize medals for excellence in workmanship. Britain, with over half of the exhibitors, received the most awards, but France came in a close second even though it was represented by many fewer exhibitors. Most of Britain's Council medals were awarded for machinery, while France's were more evenly distributed among the various categories of classification. The Great Exhibition, while it confirmed Britain's leadership in manufacturing, was also a victory for French design. The German states won few Council medals but received numerous Prize medals, while the United States obtained few medals of either type, though the exhibition did raise awareness of its growing industrial power. After the exhibition ended the Royal Commission

published a voluminous official catalog containing detailed descriptions of every nation's exhibits together with discussions of the historical and scientific background. Other nations and some American states also published official reports and catalogs in which they evaluated the exhibition and its exhibits.

paris 1855

The Great Exhibition and its Crystal Palace quickly spawned imitations, eventually leading to a succession of international expositions throughout Europe and the world. Dublin and New York each held international exhibitions in 1853, but the next truly international world's fair took place in Paris in 1855. The French were determined to respond to the Great Exhibition and outdo their British economic rivals, and planning for the 1855 Exposition Universelle began in 1851. Like the Great Exhibition, the first French world's fair celebrated international peace and cooperation, despite the ongoing conflict with Russia in the Crimea. Napoleon III intended the exhibition to showcase the achievements of his new Second Empire, to demonstrate that Paris was the artistic center of the world, and to encourage French industry to become more competitive. The exhibition was also used to strengthen relations with Britain, France's ally in the Crimean War, and Victoria and Albert visited Paris at Napoleon's invitation.

A permanent exhibition building, the Palace of Industry, was erected on the Champs-Elysées, where it remained in use until 1897. Although constructed of iron and glass like Paxton's Crystal Palace, it was more traditional in appearance, for its iron frame was hidden by a classical facade. It turned out that the Palace of Industry could not hold all the exhibits, and the machinery and fine arts had to be placed in secondary structures erected nearby. The 1855 exhibition was in many respects similar to that of 1851, but larger in size and with more exhibitors, about half of them French. Attendance was lower, at just over five million visitors, and the exhibition lost money. French and British industry again dominated the exhibition and took the majority of the awards. There were few innovations to be found in 1855, but among the novelties on display were new materials such as cement and aluminum and the new technique for electroplating silver. The British and French empires were prominently displayed, with large sections devoted to India and Algeria. The exhibition also contained a thematic section devoted to improvements in the lives of the working classes, which contained examples of inexpensive consumer goods and models of improvements in housing. The French placed much greater emphasis on the fine arts, in which France excelled, than the British had in 1851. About five thousand works of art from twenty-nine countries were exhibited in 1855, among them paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Two of Gustave Courbet's canvases were not accepted for exhibition, so the young artist held his own exhibition outside the fine arts pavilion, the first of a number of alternative art exhibitions held by disgruntled artists at world's fairs.

london 1862

Britain attempted to follow up on the success of the Great Exhibition with the International Exhibition of 1862. Yet the sequel failed to arouse the anticipated interest despite its larger size and the inclusion of many more works of art. The enormous brick building that was chosen to house the exhibition, whose size was its only outstanding feature, never gained the popularity of the Crystal Palace, which was still standing in its new location in south London. Prince Albert's death in late 1861 cast a shadow over the exhibition, while the United States, in the midst of a civil war, sent only a few items to display. The shortage of cotton caused by the war had crippled Britain's textile industry and reduced its exhibits. A number of technical innovations where on show, however, such as a calculating machine and Henry Bessemer's newly developed process for making steel. The exhibition attracted only slightly more visitors than in 1851, despite improvements in transport and communication, and closed with a substantial deficit. The 1862 exhibition's poor showing suggests that ever-bigger copies of the Great Exhibition had limited public appeal and that simply displaying a multitude of machines and objects was not enough to draw the crowds.

paris 1867

Although Dublin hosted a small international exhibition in 1865, the next important world's fair was held in Paris in 1867. The Exposition Universelle of 1867 established Paris as the center of the world's fair movement and significantly changed the look of subsequent world's fairs. Organized by the Saint-Simonian Frédéric Le Play, this was the first world's fair to expand outside of the main exhibition building, which was surrounded by international restaurants, an amusement park, and separate national pavilions constructed by the participating nations. Among the structures dotting the exhibition grounds and giving them a festive atmosphere were a picturesque Swiss chalet, an Indian temple, a Tunisian palace, a Gothic cathedral, and an English lighthouse. It was also the first world's fair to remain open in the evening and to include non-European peoples as part of the exhibits, in North African tableaux vivants, for example, and an Egyptian bazaar with native craftsmen and camel attendants. These innovations became standard in subsequent world's fairs. The Parisian excursion boats, or bateaux mouches, made their first appearance at the exhibition to take fairgoers sightseeing on the river Seine.

The elliptical main exhibition hall, an enormous iron-and-glass structure a mile in circumference, was designed to facilitate the classification and comparison of the displays by grouping them together by both product and nation. Breaking with the tradition established at the Crystal Palace of organizing the displays along national lines, Le Play attempted to combine two organizing systems: products and the nations that produced them. Concentric halls, each devoted to a particular category of objects, ringed a central garden in the interior of the exhibition hall. Each nation's products were arranged along lines radiating from the center and intersecting the concentric bands. This two-part classification system, much more ambitious than the schemes used in previous world's fairs, aimed to present a complete picture of human activity throughout the world from prehistoric times to 1867. Another concept introduced was the use of thematic displays of the "History of Work" and the "History of the Earth," which sought to put the entire exhibition in historical perspective. In seeking to organize, classify, and exhibit all of human history, the exhibition constructed an epic of material progress in which European civilization played the leading role and created the illusion that scientific knowledge could order and control the world. The outer concentric hall contained the Gallery of Machines, a raised area affording views across the interior of the exhibition. A hydraulic elevator carried visitors to an observation platform on the roof. Among the novel exhibits in 1867 were petroleum, an American rocking chair, artificial limbs, the telegraph, and a working model of France's latest engineering feat, the Suez Canal. Demonstrations of new diving equipment were held each day, where the public could see men remain underwater for several hours in an iron tank. Among the spectators was Jules Verne, who incorporated the inventions he saw at the 1867 exposition in his novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1870).

Like the 1855 exposition, that of 1867 celebrated the progress and prosperity ostensibly brought to France by the Napoleon III's Second Empire. France's colonies were prominently displayed, with separate sections devoted to Algeria, Tunis, and Morocco. The empire's proclaimed social ideals were manifested in an entire section of the exposition devoted to social welfare. It included exhibits of model sanitary housing for the poor and social projects to improve the lives of workers. Napoleon himself contributed a design for a workers' housing project, which unsurprisingly won a grand prize. The exposition, while a great success that attracted nearly seven million visitors and made a respectable profit, turned out to be the swan song of the Second Empire. The festivities were marred by the June execution of Napoleon's protégé Maximilian in Mexico and the return of his widow to Paris. King Victor Emmanuel II demonstrated his anger at Napoleon's meddling in Italian affairs by avoiding the exposition, while during his visit to Paris the tsar of Russia was nearly assassinated by a Polish patriot. Discontent with Napoleon's policies was growing at home, and the emperor's critics voiced their opinions more and more loudly. In addition, Prussia's rapid defeat of Austria the preceding year called into question whether France would long remain the leading power on the Continent. One of the sensations of the exposition was a fifty-ton steel cannon made by the German firm Krupp. Three years later the same cannon would be used to bombard Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.

london 1871–1874

The four London International Exhibitions held from 1871 to 1874 represented an attempt to limit the size of world's fairs by focusing each year on specific categories of exhibits, together with scientific discoveries and the fine arts. They also took steps to avoid the international rivalry that had characterized previous world's fairs by organizing the displays according to class rather than nationality and by opting not to award prizes. Ten exhibitions were planned to be held over ten years in an assortment of temporary buildings erected near London's Albert Hall, which hosted a series of concerts. The first exhibition was relatively successful, but declining interest led to the decision to end the exhibitions after the 1874 season.

vienna 1873

The nineteenth century's only Germanic world's fair was held in Austria in 1873. The Vienna Weltausstellung marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Francis Joseph I and was intended to celebrate the country's recovery from its political and economic setbacks in the 1850s and 1860s, which included the separation of Hungary, as well as to publicize the ambitious program of urban planning and reconstruction that had made Vienna one of the grandest cities in Europe. The exhibition was held in Vienna's wooded Prater park on the banks of the Danube and was the first world's fair to have separate buildings devoted to industry, machinery, agriculture, and art, an innovation borrowed from Moscow's Polytechnic Exhibition of 1872. The main exhibition building was the Palace of Industry, an ornate structure in the Italian Renaissance style that was designed to be used as a permanent home for the Corn Exchange after the fair ended. Its vast nave was a half-mile in length, with sixteen galleries branching off to the sides. At the center was a rotunda under the world's largest dome. Within the Palace of Industry the exhibits were organized geographically, with the participating countries arranged from east to west and Austria at the center. In the park surrounding the Palace of Industry stood the buildings devoted to machinery, agriculture, and art as well as numerous international pavilions and entertainment venues. While housing exhibitions at earlier world's fairs had focused on the needs of urban workers, at Vienna there was an extensive exhibit of rural homes from around the world. Visitors were entertained by open-air concerts at the Strauss pavilion, military bands, and gypsy musicians.

The Vienna exhibition devised the most complex system of display categories used at any nineteenth-century world's fair, comprising some twenty-six different categories, including new ones such as transportation, forestry management, the ownership of ideas, the education of women and children, the healing arts, and the living conditions of the common people. It focused more extensively than earlier fairs on social and educational issues and even had a category devoted to the cultivation of good taste among the population. Germany participated in the Vienna exhibition for the first time as a united nation and, after Austria, contributed the largest number of industrial exhibits, while France managed to mount a credible display despite the devastating defeat it had recently endured in the Franco-Prussian War. It was Japan, however, that made the biggest splash in its first large-scale effort at a world's fair. Japan's exhibits introduced Europeans to its art, culture, and industry, while the Japanese delegation to the Vienna exhibition carefully studied Western technology and industrial organization and published their observations in ninety-six volumes after returning home.

The 1873 exhibition was beset by a series of unfortunate events. The Vienna stock exchange was hit by a worldwide financial crisis and collapsed less than a week after Emperor Francis Joseph opened the exhibition, resulting in an economic depression and soaring unemployment. Fears of a repetition of the cholera outbreak of 1872 kept many visitors away from the city, while heavy rains damaged the exhibition buildings in late June. The exhibition suffered a huge financial loss, even though by the time it closed it succeeded in attracting more than seven million visitors.

paris 1878

In 1878 France's newborn Third Republic held a world's fair in Paris to demonstrate to the world that the nation had recovered from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. The Exposition Universelle of 1878 was a celebration of the republic and of French civilization, and it contributed to healing the divisions caused by the seize mai political crisis of the preceding year. As Victor Hugo enthused, "The world is our witness that France makes good use of defeat." However, some critics argued that France could not afford such a lavish expenditure when it had only recently paid off its indemnity to Germany, while French churchmen objected to the secular tone of the fair, for the republic forbade religious remarks in the opening ceremonies. French artists who specialized in battle scenes were enraged that the fair also forbade the exhibition of paintings whose subject was the Franco-Prussian War. The memory of France's defeat was still fresh, and the German government was pointedly not invited, although German artists participated unofficially. Sixteen million people attended the fair, but it closed with a sizable deficit.

The fair was organized similarly to its predecessor in 1867. The centerpiece of the exhibition was the Palace of Industry on the Champ-de-Mars, a rectangular building that housed most of the displays, which were again ordered by their class in one direction and by nationality in another. Visitors could choose to examine a single class of manufactures from around the world or all the manufactures of a particular country. A striking innovation was the Street of Nations in the central court of the Palace of Industry, where foreign nations built separate entrances to their exhibits, resulting in an eclectic assortment of national architectural styles. Some nations also built pavilions across the Seine in the Trocadéro Park, which was dotted with curiosities such as a Japanese farm, an Algerian café, and the head of Auguste Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, the hand and torch of which had been exhibited two years earlier at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Exhibits by large manufacturers, such as the Singer Company's sewing machines and Schneider-Creusot's enormous pile driver, were very prominent at the fair and a sign of the coming domination of world's fairs by corporate displays and pavilions. A more exotic venue at the 1878 world's fair was the Street of Cairo, a collection of shops and a bazaar where North Africans were employed to serve visitors. The Cairo street proved so popular that it became a staple fixture of world's fairs, increasing in size with each fair until it constituted an entertainment zone unto itself, with restaurants, cafés, and belly dancers in addition to dozens of shops.

The 1878 world's fair was the first to employ technology to control the temperature, through a system of pipes that carried water from the Seine under the raised floor of the Palace of Industry. Water was also harnessed to power hydraulic elevators that speeded visitors to the top of Trocadéro Hill, where a permanent palace was erected for concerts, art exhibits, and international congresses that were held as part of the world's fair. Some of the congresses had long-lasting consequences, such as the establishment of the International Postal Union, the introduction of international copyright laws, and the adoption of Braille as the recognized international system of touch reading. One of the most sensational events during the fair was the illumination of the Avenue and Place de l'Opera with Thomas Edison's new electric lighting. Edison's phonograph, first displayed to the public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, was introduced to Europeans at the 1878 Paris fair to great acclaim. Edison himself, self-taught and of modest origins, was lionized by much of the French press as an example of what the human mind could achieve in the absence of social barriers.

amsterdam 1883

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed an explosion in the number of world's fairs and smaller international exhibitions, as the exhibition phenomenon spread far beyond Europe. The United States had hosted its first major world's fair in Philadelphia to celebrate the centennial of the American Revolution in 1876, and Australia held world's fairs in Sydney in 1879–1880, Melbourne in 1880–1881 and 1888–1889, and Adelaide in 1887–1888. Other international exhibitions took place in Atlanta (1881 and 1895), Boston (1883–1884), Calcutta (1883–1884), New Orleans (1884–1885), Antwerp (1885 and 1894), Edinburgh (1886), Glasgow (1888), Barcelona (1888), Chicago (1893), San Francisco (1894), Brussels (1897), Guatemala City (1897), Nashville (1897), and Stockholm (1897).

The first and only Dutch world's fair, the International Colonial and Trade Exposition of 1883, was the first to place empire at center stage. While every world's fair since London's Great Exhibition had included numerous displays of the products of Europe's overseas empires, their main focus had been industry. The Amsterdam world's fair presented empire as spectacle. Unlike French world's fairs, the Dutch fair was organized by businessmen without government financial assistance, although the government did give its approval to the project. The facade of the main building, designed by a French architect, was an exotic pastiche of Indian motifs that curiously had no relation to the architecture of the Netherlands' own colonial possessions in the East and West Indies. Separate pavilions were devoted to colonial exhibits, the city of Amsterdam, and the monarchy, while arts and ethnographic displays were presented in the newly built Rijksmuseum. Only the Netherlands and Belgium mounted full-scale exhibits, but most European nations were represented as well as the United States, Haiti, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Japan, China, Turkey, Persia, and Siam. About one million people visited the fair, but its significance was much greater than attendance figures indicate. For the first time, a world's fair displayed villages inhabited by colonial peoples, who entertained visitors in displays of their native customs. Exhibits of exotic non-Western peoples by itinerant showmen dated back at least to the sixteenth century and were commonplace throughout Europe by the second half of the nineteenth century. Starting with the Amsterdam fair, however, the "native village" was a regular feature of European and American world's fairs. A mixture of commercial sensationalism, pseudoscientific anthropology, and imperial power, it served as a vivid contrast to the ultramodern technologies on display and seemed to confirm assumptions about the superiority of European civilization. In the era of the "new imperialism," colonial exhibits became an increasingly ostentatious component of the world's fairs, which celebrated colonialism as a force for human progress.

paris 1889

Held to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution, the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 produced one of the modern world's great iconic images: the Eiffel Tower, a cast-iron tower that at 300 meters high was the tallest structure ever erected. Cherished today as the symbol of Paris, the naked iron skeleton of Gustave Eiffel's tower was initially seen by many Parisians as a hideous defilement of the city's skyline, by others as an expression of the primitive, barbaric power of industrial society. The tower was a hit with the public, however, and almost two million people ascended it by elevator during the exposition, including the Prince of Wales, W. F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Sarah Bernhardt, and Thomas Edison. The central axis of the fair on the Champ-de-Mars ran under the Eiffel Tower to the entrance of the main exhibition building, at the rear of which stood the Gallery of Machines, another feat of modern construction technology whose glass roof enclosed fifteen acres of exhibition space without support from internal columns. Among the mechanical wonders on display were a steam-powered tricycle, a German gasoline-powered motorcar, and a huge exhibit of Thomas Edison's multitude of inventions, including an electric phonograph that charmed the crowds by alternately playing the French and American national anthems. From electrically powered moving platforms suspended over the gallery visitors could look out onto the humming machinery in motion below. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Gallery of Machines offered the public spectacular views and constituted an attraction in itself, apart from the technology it exhibited, which had become part of the entertainment.

Some eighty other buildings filled the Champ-de-Mars and the banks of the Seine, containing displays of foreign industrial manufactures, the fine arts, horticulture, and agricultural products and machinery, as well as thematic displays such as one devoted to "Social Economy," an attempt by the French government to respond to growing labor unrest by displaying the gains made by the working class under the Third Republic. More successful was Charles Garnier's history of human habitation, comprising forty-nine structures depicting the evolution of housing through the ages. Another historical display used stationary tableaux to illustrate the development of human labor from prehistory to the present. The Trocadéro Palace contained ethnographic exhibits that included works of African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian art. Many countries erected national pavilions, among which Mexico's contribution was an Aztec palace. A large section of the exposition was devoted to the French colonial empire, with palaces and pagodas designed by French architects to

house exhibits from colonies in Indochina, India, and Africa, where visitors could ride in rickshaws powered by Indochinese. As in 1878, colonial peoples were brought to Paris to populate villages representing Senegal, Tonkin, Tahiti, and other French imperial possessions. Paul Gauguin was inspired to go to Tahiti by the impression made on him by the living examples of "noble savages" he saw at the fair's Tahitian village.

Pleasure and entertainment eclipsed the industrial exhibits at the 1889 world's fair, which marked an important shift from the original focus of world's fairs on educating the public about advances in science and technology. In addition to the exotic spectacles offered by native villages, concerts, balls, and theater performances were regularly held in the exposition's park, which contained a variety of international restaurants and cafés providing refreshments to fairgoers. At the Pavilion of Military Aeronautics, visitors could make an ascent in a tethered balloon, while in the Palace of Liberal Arts they could closely inspect a giant globe of the earth by riding to the top in an elevator and descending along an inclined walkway. Electricity was widely used to enhance the festive atmosphere, illuminating the fairgrounds by night to prolong visitors' enjoyment of the attractions in the park, which included a fountain display with colored lights. Each evening a tricolor searchlight atop the Eiffel Tower cast its beam across the darkened skies over Paris. A more serious attitude prevailed at the dozens of official international congresses that took place during the exposition and were devoted to topics ranging from alcohol abuse to women's role in the labor force. There were also some unofficial congresses, one of which, held by Marxist socialists, founded the Second International and adopted May First as the international holiday of labor.

Although some European monarchies refused the invitation to a world's fair celebrating the French Revolution, most countries were represented, if unofficially, by their firms, who refused to sacrifice publicity and profit for political considerations. Even members of the royal families of Britain and Russia, both of whom had vocally refused to take part in a celebration that paid tribute to the French Revolution, visited the exposition nevertheless. One of the most successful world's fairs of the nineteenth century, the 1889 Paris exposition attracted over thirty million visitors and even made a modest profit. It almost certainly boosted France's self-esteem, drew attention to France's colonial empire, and helped to draw a line over the divisive Boulanger affair of the preceding winter.

paris 1900

Less than three years after the close of the 1889 exposition the French government announced plans for another one in 1900, partly in order to seize the initiative from Germany, which had been considering holding its first world's fair. In France the 1890s were marked by political scandals, economic and demographic stagnation, and a growing sense of the nation's declining influence in the world. The disunity of the Third Republic had been only temporarily obscured by the triumphant success of the 1889 fair, and the exposition of 1900 aroused enormous controversy while still in the planning stages. Critics claimed that it would benefit only Paris to the detriment of the provincial economy, that it would morally corrupt the French, and that it would do nothing to further the interests of French businesses. Not since the preparations for London's Great Exhibition of 1851 had a world's fair aroused such concerted opposition. Supporters countered with arguments that emphasized the stimulus it would give to exports and the jobs it would create and contended that the honor and international prestige of France were at stake. Although domestic opposition was overcome, diplomatic crises also threatened the exposition. The Fashoda crisis of 1898, when France backed down before British forces in East Africa, strained relations between the two countries, and French support for the Boers in their war with Britain did nothing to improve matters. The United States was insulted by the location its pavilion was allotted and had to be mollified with a more prominent position. More importantly, the drawn-out Dreyfus affair tarnished France's reputation and led some nations to consider a boycott of the exposition, a prospect averted only when Dreyfus finally received a presidential pardon in September 1899.

The world's fair of 1900 was the largest ever held in Paris. It attracted more than fifty million visitors, short of the official projection of sixty million but still a record that was only surpassed in 1967 at Montreal's Expo 67. Spread out on the Champ-de-Mars, Trocadéro Hill, along the banks of the Seine, and in the Bois de Vincennes (connected to the rest of the exposition by the city's new Métro line), it comprised over 80,000 exhibits divided into 18 classes and 121 subclasses. It was the last European world's fair to attempt to summarize the achievements of Western civilization, although its vast size and the chaotic arrangement of the multitude of exhibits made it almost impossible for visitors to take it all in. As at previous world's fairs, many worthy international congresses on various subjects took place, included two organized by French feminists. An event that heralded a new form of national competition for prestige was the second meeting of the modern Olympic Games, held in the Bois de Vincennes.

There was little in the way of architectural innovation at the 1900 exposition. The official buildings, such as the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, and the Palace of Electricity, had their iron internal structures hidden by facades decorated in the ornate neoclassical style favored by the academics of the École des Beaux-Arts. On the left bank of the Seine the Street of Nations, inspired by the one in the 1878 exposition, was lined by foreign pavilions in historical national styles, such as Germany's sixteenth-century Rathaus. France's ally Russia occupied an enormous amount of space on Trocadéro Hill, where in addition to a Kremlinesque national pavilion it also contributed a pavilion of Asiatic Russia, in which visitors could make a simulated journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Finland, although part of the Russian Empire, asserted its separate identity with one of the most original buildings of the exposition, a superb national pavilion designed by Eliel Saarinen using native woods and decorative motifs inspired by Scandinavian nature. Another noteworthy structure was the theater of the American expatriate dancer Loie Fuller, designed in the art nouveau style by Henri Sauvage. Although the exposition was not the triumph of art nouveau that it is sometimes made out to be but rather an eclectic hodgepodge of extravagant and colorful buildings, elements of art nouveau were present in a number of structures, including the main staircase of the Grand Palais, René Binet's Monumental Gateway to the exposition grounds on the Place de la Concorde, and the fashionable Pavillon Bleu restaurant. The best examples, however, were to be found in the rooms of the German, Austrian, and Hungarian pavilions and in the entrances to Hector Guimard's Métro stations.

Among the new technologies on display were X-rays, wireless telegraphy, bicycles, automobiles, turbines, and cinema, but the exposition's massive use of electric lighting was the biggest marvel. Paul Morand, a contemporary chronicler of the exposition, dubbed electricity "the religion of 1900." In the Palace of Electricity visitors could watch the dynamos at work supplying electricity to power machinery and illuminate the exposition grounds at night to create a fairy-tale landscape. The Monumental Gateway, the bridges over the Seine, and the Eiffel Tower sparkled with thousands of incandescent lights, giving Paris a glimpse of the luminous future. Loie Fuller's dance performances, in which she employed colored lights and electric arc lamps together with her trademark flowing scarves, were a sensation. Another hit, the Cinéorama, used phonograph music, colored filmstrips, and ten synchronized projectors on a 360-degree screen to simulate a balloon ride in a vivid demonstration of the possibilities afforded by new technologies of entertainment.

The 1900 world's fair had an unprecedented number of commercial venues operated by private firms and businessmen. All the major French department stores had their own separate pavilions, as did the American McCormick Harvesting Machine Company and France's Schneider metallurgical firm. There were 207 restaurants and 58 different attractions with separate entrance fees, giving the exposition the character of a vast amusement park. Visitors could travel back in time in Vieux Paris or Andalusia in the Time of the Moors, take in the sights of faraway places in the Tour du Monde, make a sea voyage to Constantinople at the Maréorama, and view the moon through the world's largest telescope. An electric-powered moving sidewalk, modeled on the one that had made its debut at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, offered a novel terrestrial experience to those not daring enough to ride the giant Ferris wheel, another Chicago import. In addition to the extensive official colonial displays of France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal, there were commercial exhibits of native villages inhabited by African and Asian people as well as the ever-popular Street of Cairo and its belly dancers. The 1900 exposition was noteworthy, however, for one attempt to challenge the prevailing imperial and racist images of "primitive," non-European peoples in W. E. B. Du Bois's Exhibit of American Negroes, located in the Social Economy section of the exposition alongside other American exhibits of tenement houses and libraries. It contained materials on African American history, contemporary social and economic conditions, educational institutions, and literature.

Contemporary assessments of the 1900 world's fair were mixed. To be sure, the exposition had attracted an unprecedented number of visitors and probably infused money into the French economy, although a number of contemporary critics claimed that it was a financial catastrophe. Paris got new buildings and a new bridge over the Seine, the Pont d'Alexandre III. Most of the businessmen who had paid dearly for concessions lost money, however, and eventually got a partial refund of their fees. To some observers the exposition had revealed France's industrial weakness. The German technical and artistic exhibits outshone those of France, adding to French anxieties about their nation's decline. Others were struck by the contrast between the vast material riches on display and the inability of the exposition to adequately classify them in the interests of

scientific progress. Although some scholars have linked such pessimistic assessments of the 1900 world's fair to a fin-de-siècle loss of faith in science, reason, and progress among intellectuals, it is doubtful that their disillusionment was shared by the millions of ordinary visitors.

The 1900 Exposition Universelle was the climax of the series of world's fairs held between 1851 and World War I. Although world's fairs were held between 1900 and 1914 in Glasgow (1901), St. Louis (1904), Liége (1905), Christ-church, New Zealand (1906–1907), Dublin (1907), Brussels (1910), and Ghent (1913), none of them approached the size or scope of the one in Paris in 1900. By 1900 world's fairs were increasingly seen in Europe as a financial burden on their host countries and the participants, a phenomenon known as "exposition fatigue." Established firms were sometimes reluctant to interrupt their production by shifting resources and labor into preparations for a world's fair, although new firms welcomed the opportunity to attract publicity and perhaps win prize medals for their products. In 1907 an international federation of exhibitors was set up in Paris to deal with issues relating to world's fairs, and in 1912 seventeen nations signed a convention to regulate international expositions. Although the convention was never ratified due to the outbreak of World War I, efforts to bring world's fairs under international supervision resumed after the war, eventually resulting in the formation of the Bureau of International Expositions, formed in Paris in 1931, which today is the regulatory body that supervises the conduct of world's fairs.


The great nineteenth-century world's fairs or universal expositions were regarded by contemporaries as historic events that had an enormous international impact. They spread ideas, created a universal exhibition language, and marked the stages of the rapid developments in applied science and technology in Europe and the world during the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the most important contributions of the world's fairs was to facilitate technology transfer, acquainting people from different countries with the latest improvements in technology and industrial design. Some manufacturers, such as Colt, McCormick, Edison, Bessemer, and Krupp, were very successful in using the world's fairs to find new markets for their products. The international exhibitions promoted the idea of social progress, too, through exhibits devoted to model housing, education, and public health issues. Exhibition techniques and novelties were also transferred from one world's fair to the next and between Europe and the rest of the world. Chicago's Ferris wheel of 1893 was a response to Paris's Eiffel Tower of 1889, and its success led the 1900 Paris world's fair to acquire its own Ferris wheel. The world's fairs influenced and were influenced by commercial entertainments and museum displays, from which they borrowed native villages and other ethnographic exhibits.

For Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century world's fairs were evidence of how capitalism had overcome national boundaries, but they were also important expressions of national rivalry and of national identities. France in particular consistently used international expositions to assert its superiority in the arts and its universal civilizing mission, which is why art exhibitions and displays of colonies and their inhabitants were such a key component of French exhibits. The world's fairs also offered opportunities to smaller or peripheral countries to assert or construct national identities in an international setting. Japan was remarkably successful in promoting its culture and industry at world's fairs, while Mexico forged a distinctive image of itself as a non-European but modern and progressive nation. Finland used world's fairs in the late nineteenth century to project a unique national identity in the face of St. Petersburg's campaign of Russifi-cation. Imperialism was a constant presence at the world's fairs from the Great Exhibition until well into the twentieth century. The ever more lavish colonial displays of the European empires raised their national prestige, reinforced existing cultural and racial stereotypes, and proclaimed the progressive influence of European colonialism.

World's fairs have been interpreted as expressions of nationalism, imperialism, racism, consumerism, and capitalism, which they were. Yet they were also social rituals, and as such it is not surprising that they reflected the dominant ideologies of their historical settings. The world's fairs reveal much about the outlooks and intentions of their organizers, but their impact on the public is difficult to assess. Their size meant that it was impossible for most ordinary visitors to study the multitude of displays more than superficially. People went to the world's fairs not only to be educated but also to be entertained and have a good time, and throughout the nineteenth century the entertainments on offer grew more and more spectacular until the world's fairs resembled giant amusement parks.

The world's fairs' emphasis on the latest developments in human endeavor meant that they were a fleeting presence in the cities that hosted them, but they left behind a considerable material legacy. London's network of cultural institutions in south Kensington was founded with the profits from the Great Exhibition, while the Crystal Palace served as an exhibition hall and cultural center in south London until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. The profits from the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888 funded the construction of the City Museum and Art Gallery on the exhibition grounds in Kelvingrove Park. In Paris, structures erected for its expositions universelles were often reused for years before being demolished to make way for new buildings for other expositions. The Trocadéro Palace stood until 1936 when it was replaced by the Chaillot Palace for the 1937 Exposition Universelle, while the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais, and the Petit Palais are today visible reminders of the impact of world's fairs on the appearance of Paris.

Their impact on art and architecture was mixed. By opening the 1855 and 1867 expositions to non-academic painters, Napoleon III undermined the power of the Académie des Beaux-Arts to determine taste, yet conservatives dominated the committees that selected works for display at the world's fairs until World War I. Only the Centennale exhibition in 1900 included representatives of modern trends in painting such as impressionism and postimpressionism. The Crystal Palace was an architectural sensation and spawned replicas in New York, Dublin, Munich, and other cities, but neoclassical, baroque, and Renaissance influences predominated in most of the main exhibition buildings constructed for world's fairs before World War I. Although art nouveau was very much in evidence at the 1900 world's fair, the Glasgow international exhibition of 1901 was dominated by Spanish Renaissance architecture and bore no trace of Glasgow's own modernist style, developed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his followers. National architectural styles incorporating folk elements and themes were developed for their world's fair pavilions by some countries, while European architects designed pavilions for colonies in "indigenous" styles that sometimes served after independence as the basis of new national styles. These national and indigenous styles are perhaps the most lasting architectural legacy of the world's fairs, for they influenced the development of the entertainment environment of the twentieth-century theme park.

See alsoCivilization, Concept of; Consumerism; Crystal Palace; Imperialism; Industrial Revolution, Second; Popular and Elite Culture; Second International; Tourism.


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Chandler, Arthur. "Revolution: The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889." World's Fair 7, no. 1 (1987): 1–9.

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

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Anthony Swift

World's Fairs

views updated May 23 2018


From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, world's fairs, sometimes called international expositions or exhibitions, helped define and change the meaning of leisure and recreation in the United States. Drawing inspiration from London's 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition and the European fairs that followed in its wake, American fairs blended entertainment with education, fun with high-minded civic engagement, and mass consumption with America's nationalism. After World War II, with the proliferation of theme and amusement parks and with the rise of electronically mediated forms of mass entertainment through movies, television, video games, and the Internet, world's fairs seemingly lost relevance to post-modern life. But if Americans lost their fascination with these spectacles at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is worth noting that people in other nations had not and that major universal expositions were being planned in Japan (2005) and China (2010).

Fairs of the Victorian Period

Anyone with knowledge of Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol can readily imagine the historical context that produced the first world's fair, London's fabled Crystal Palace Exhibition. By the midpoint of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed England into a nation with a far-flung empire. At the same time, industrialization spawned population displacement, gross inequities of wealth, and pressures for social and political change that threatened established power relations. With thoughts in mind of the 1848 political revolutions in Europe and the Chartist movement in England, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, endorsed the idea of holding an international exposition that would feature the exhibits of the industrialized nations and impress the British public with England's position at the apex of "civilization." Housed in a building that looked like an enormous greenhouse, these displays attracted more than 6 million visitors and helped inspire confidence among England's middle classes in the future of England and its empire.

The success of the Crystal Palace captured the attention of a group of New Yorkers who raised private capital to organize the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853. It tanked. With tensions between the North and South on the increase, New York's exposition backers, who included newspaperman Horace Greeley and showman P. T. Barnum, failed to win backing from the federal government. Whether a federally funded fair in New York might have helped Americans mend their sectional differences is an interesting question to contemplate, but the fact is that the United States went to war with itself between 1861 and 1865, and more than 600,000 Americans lost their lives as a result.

How could and should the American nation be reconstructed? This question led a number of influential politicians, business leaders, and scientists to look overseas for answers. What they saw mushrooming across Europe, in the aftermath of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, was a series of universal expositions that were explicitly intended to inspire national confidence and pride. In the early 1870s, civic leaders in Philadelphia approached Congress for support for an international exposition to be held in that city in 1876 to commemorate the anniversary of the American Revolution. With backing from the White House, Congress agreed to invest federal dollars in the enterprise. The outcome was the largest world's fair organized to date both in terms of acreage and scale of buildings.

Because the backers of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition saw their enterprise as a nation-building effort that would impart lessons about America's progress, civilization, and morality to the millions of visitors who came to the fair, exposition authorities made no room for popular entertainments. Indeed, when popular urban amusements, including inexpensive restaurants and prostitution, began to proliferate outside the fairgrounds, exposition authorities, citing the danger of fire, persuaded the city to destroy many of the buildings that had been given over to popular entertainments. In Philadelphia, the line between "high" and "low" culture was carved in stone.

At the next major American world's fair, the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, thinking about the relationship between "high" and "low" forms of culture underwent an important shift. At the 1893 fair, exposition authorities, instead of expressing overt hostility to popular shows, actually embraced them as part of the exposition's educational mission and organized them along a mile-long avenue called the Midway Plaisance, which ran at a right angle to the main exposition grounds and was where one could find displays dedicated to "civilization."

What led to this change in thinking were several interconnected developments. First, the United States economy was unstable. A major depression in 1873 had triggered nationwide strikes, and these continued through the 1880s and 1890s. By the mid-1880s, a growing number of Americans were wondering aloud if the Civil War had only been the opening volley in a longer war that now seemed to involve not regions, but social classes. If world's fairs were to succeed in continuing the process of America's national reconstruction after a devastating civil war, a way had to be found to increase attendance and to educate visitors about the reasons they should be hopeful about America's future. Popular amusements provided that possibility. Second, Europeans, especially the French, who had been confronting mounting class warfare (the Paris Commune took place in 1871), had created new ways of joining education and entertainment through the medium of the world's fair. Around the base of the Eiffel Tower, which had been constructed for the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, French exposition organizers had arranged a series of outdoor exhibits from French colonies that featured indigenous people from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Presented as "authentic" representations by leading French anthropologists, these living ethnological villages proved enormously popular and seemingly validated the need for the "civilized" nations to control "savages."

This lesson struck home in Chicago. Chicago's world's fair authorities placed the Midway Plaisance under the charge of prominent Harvard ethnologist Frederic W. Putnam. Midway shows featured villages of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners living in "authentic" settings in the shadow of the midway's (indeed the fair's) central icon, the enormous revolving wheel designed by engineer George Ferris in response to the tower erected that Gustavus Eiffel had designed for the 1889 Paris fair. Stretched out along the midway, so-called ethnological villages became outdoor demonstration lessons for social Darwinian ideas about the "progress" of human societies as they evolved from "savagery" to "civilization." As one visitor remarked when she passed under the railroad bridge that divided the midway from the main exposition palaces located on the main exposition grounds, "in what seemed like one step, you've passed out o' darkness and into light" (Burnham, p. 201).

The breakthrough that occurred at the 1893 fair was the growing realization by the fair's political, economic, and intellectual underwriters that lofty educational goals (introducing millions of people to racialized, social Darwinian ideas about the meaning of progress) could be fun and profitable. Because exposition managers had to worry about the fair's profitability, they appointed entrepreneur Sol Bloom as Putnam's assistant to oversee the moneymaking side of the midway. Bloom parlayed his success with shows that included risqué belly dancers and various mechanical amusements into a career that led him to Broadway and to a career in the U.S. Congress, where he contributed to founding the United Nations. Because of his and Putnam's efforts, never again would it be possible to imagine a world's fair without a midway. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the layout of the Chicago fair, with the midway shows segregated from the main exposition palaces, still reflected some ambivalence about the relationship between culture and entertainment.

That ambivalence rapidly disappeared. At the 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition, midway amusements, including ethnological shows, became part of the main exposition grounds. When the last of the Victorianera fairs was held in San Francisco in 1915 to 1916, midway pleasures, including a heroic painting of a scantily clad woman with a mechanically driven rotating navel, had helped undermine many of the more repressive values of the American Victorians. Indeed, the commercialized amusements of the midways inspired the creation of amusement parks, many of which featured mechanical rides that had first been introduced at world's fairs.

America's Depression-Era Fairs

Significantly, after World War I, many pundits declared world's fairs to be hopelessly out of date, believing that motion pictures and theme parks had rendered international expositions cultural dinosaurs. But just as America's Victorian fairs had been organized in response to the economic and political upheavals of its era, so America's fairs of the 1930s represented cultural responses to economic collapse, political tumult, and despair about the future.

With their modernistic and streamlined designs, Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition (1933–1934),San Diego's California Pacific International Exposition (1935–1936), Dallas's Texas Centennial Exposition (1936), Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition (1936), San Francisco's Golden Gate International Exposition (1939–1940), and New York's World's Fair (1939–1940) emphasized science and technology and mass consumption as solutions to depression-plagued America. Entertainment at the fairs, especially Sally Rand's famous fan dance at the Chicago exposition and numerous striptease shows at subsequent fairs, placed a "modern" stamp on these expositions and made the Victorian era seem a distant memory.

Three points need to be made about the entertainment and recreational possibilities of these fairs. First, the main pavilions dedicated to science, technology, and productive industries tried to make their exhibits fun. For instance, the Westinghouse exhibit featured a talking robot, while the General Motors Futurama exhibit included moving chairs that transported visitors into scenes that depicted an imaginary America in 1960. Second, as the depression continued, the fairs gave greater attention to becoming tourist destinations that would attract visitors from far distances and encourage them to spend their money, thus stimulating economic recovery. Third, like their Victorian forbears, the modernistic fairs of the 1930s still featured entertainments that explicitly demeaned different ethnic groups, especially African Americans, and people with physical disabilities, who were exhibited as "freaks."

American Fairs of the Space Age

World War II catapulted the United States out of the depression and into a decade of economic prosperity. The postwar years, however, were not without their share of anxieties about nuclear war and ecological disaster. In 1962, in response to the Soviet Union's successes in the space race, the U.S. government lent its support to a world's fair in Seattle that featured a Space Needle, a new monorail system, abundant science exhibits, and an adult show called Planet Eve that showcased topless women seducing men dressed as astronauts.

In 1964 to 1965, New York held another world's fair that celebrated the triumph of mass consumption and the potential of American mass culture to dominate the world. Like earlier fairs, the New York World's Fair relied heavily on corporate exhibitors, but the heavy involvement of the Walt Disney Corporation in planning exhibits reflected the prominence of theme parks in American life and hinted at a major challenge to the world's fair medium, namely how world's fairs, if they were seen primarily as sources of entertainment and leisure, could compete with Disney and Disney-esque theme parks. It is ironic, to say the least, that Walt Disney's father had worked as a laborer at the 1893 Chicago fair and that this same fair had fired the imaginations of the entrepreneurs who made Coney Island America's first modern theme and amusement park—the very institution that would, by the middle of the twentieth century, threaten to render the world's fair medium obsolete.

The 1964 to 1965 New York World's Fair was the last major world's fair held in the United States. Smaller fairs in Fairbanks, Alaska (1967), San Antonio, Texas (1968), and Spokane, Washington (1974) sometimes had profound impacts on local economies, but never reached the scale of previous world's fairs. In the 1980s, fairs in Knoxville, Tennessee(1982), and New Orleans, Louisiana (1984), encountered serious financial problems. Then, when Chicago abandoned plans to host a fair in 1992 to celebrate Columbus's quincentennial, it seemed the world's fair bubble had burst—at least in the United States.

Predictions about the demise of the world's fairs, however, are nothing new. And, if the United States seems ambivalent about the medium, other nations continue to tumble over one another in the effort to secure recognition from the Bureau of International Expositions to hold world-class expositions. In 2005, Japan is hosting a major international exposition, and China is planning a universal-class exposition for 2010 that may either leave Americans smug about having abandoned their tradition of fairs or leave them wondering how to get back in the game.


World's fairs are remembered as architectural laboratories (Louis Sullivan's Transportation Building at the 1893 Chicago fair), as showcases for inventions (television was introduced at the 1939 fair), and as supply lines for major museums (many of the Smithsonian Institution's artifacts are derived from world's fairs). However, they were also engines of mass culture and mass entertainment that helped make both central to America's national identity.

See also: City Parks; National Parks; Park Movements; State Parks; Theme and Amusement Parks; Urbanization of Leisure


Brown, Julie K. Contesting Images: Photography at the World's Columbian Exposition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.

Burnham, Clara Louisa. Sweet Clover. Chicago: Laird and Lee, 1893.

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

Gilbert, James. Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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

Haddow, Robert H. Pavilions of Plenty. Exhibiting American Culture Abroad in the 1950s. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Hoffenberg, Peter H. An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australia Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

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

Robert W. Rydell

World's Fairs

views updated May 29 2018


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 .

World's Fairs

views updated May 29 2018

World's Fairs

World's fairs are modern events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whereas medieval fairs were concerned with the selling of goods, modern world's fairs were involved in the selling of industrial technology and industrial society; they fostered the idea that industrial development was to be equated with social progress. World's fairs not only furnished a place where the latest technological achievements could be presented to an international public, but they provided an orientation to people confronting the vast and rapid changes of industrialism. They offered a photograph of the present, a story of past progress, and a vision of the future. But by the middle of the twentieth century, world's fairs had lost much of their importance and charm.

The first world's fair was held in London in 1851. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and president of the Royal Society of the Arts, wanted to go beyond the national industrial exhibitions that France had made famous and Britain was ready to duplicate. After much discussion, a building of glass and iron/wood beams was constructed in Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace held all of the exhibits. Since it was built with prefabricated interchangeable parts, the building was constructed and taken down quickly, with little damage to the Park. In fact, the building was actually constructed over 10 large elm trees. During the 141 days it was open, over six million attended. The Crystal Palace Exhibition's success inspired other nations to hold international exhibitions.

World's fairs are remembered by the products they introduced to the public. Americans did very well at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Cyrus McCormick's reaper, Samuel Morse's telegraph, and Charles Goodyear's vulcanized rubber products were well received. Colt revolvers and Robbins-Lawrence rifles made with interchangeable parts were recognized as having revolutionized the making of fire-arms. Elisa Otis demonstrated his safety elevator at the New York World's Fair in 1853. At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone, and Thomas Edison gave his first public demonstration of the phonograph in Paris in 1889. Sound-synchronized movies, x-rays, and wireless telegraphy marked the 1900 Paris fair. The St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 introduced the safety razor, the ice cream cone, iced tea, and rayon. President Franklin Roosevelt's televised opening of the 1939 New York World's Fair began regular television broadcasting in the United States. IBM's (International Business Machine) computer demonstrations educated visitors to the New York World's Fair of 1964-1965.

More important than the inventions were the industrial systems that the fairs exhibited to the public. The Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 celebrated the age of steam. In Machinery Hall, the giant Corliss steam engine, 40-feet high and 2,520 horsepowers strong, powered all the machinery in the hall. There were also steam fire engines, steam locomotives, and steam pumps. By 1893, the Chicago World's Fair was celebrating the age of electricity. At night, the fair was lighted by thousands of incandescent light bulbs. In the Electrical building were Edison and Westinghouse dynamos and electric motors that powered other machines. Transportation, however, was the theme in St. Louis in 1904. Trains, streetcars, and over 160 motorcars were displayed. A major feature of the fair was the dirigible contest, where a large cash prize awaited anyone who could pilot his airship over a prescribed route.

While world's fairs were held to celebrate historic milestones, contemporary concerns were often in the minds of fair planners. The 1876 Philadelphia Exposition recognized the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The fair was also viewed as a means to remind Americans of their common ideals, and thus heal the wounds of the Civil War. Paris' 1889 World's Fair celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution. Chicago's Exposition of 1893 recognized the 400th year anniversary of Columbus' discovery; and the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 commemorated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Both fairs were also seen as demonstrating the importance of the midwest to the nation. The centennial of the founding of the city of Chicago was the reason given for holding a world's fair in 1933. New York's World's Fair in 1939 celebrated the 150th year anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. The "Building the World of Tomorrow" theme had the high purpose of showing how a well planned democratic society would survive the world's turmoil. The outbreak of World War II in September resulted in the new theme of "Peace and Freedom" for the 1940 opening.

The outside world had a way of impinging upon world's fairs. At the New York World's Fair of 1853, Susan B. Anthony led a demonstration for women's rights. For the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, a women's building housed a display of inventions by women, and photographs showing women working in a variety of occupations. Of particular note was Emma Allison, who operated a steam engine that ran five looms and a printing press. When a man asked her if the work was too demanding for someone of her sex, she replied "It's easier than teaching, and the pay is better." At the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, the women's building displayed a great collection of works by women. These included a library of 5,000 books, paintings, and sculptures, and mechanical devices invented by women. A careful selection of statistics from around the world showed the extent to which women were a part of the world economy. Susan B. Anthony believed the women's building did more to raise the consciousness of women than all the demonstrations of the nineteenth century.

At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, vendors and amusements were located outside the fairgrounds. The 1893 Chicago planners recognized that a profit could be realized by bringing the amusements and vendors into the fair itself. One of the most popular of the Midway exhibits was the "streets of Cairo" featuring the belly dancer "Little Egypt." She also appeared at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, but was outdrawn by "Jim Key," the talking horse. The 1933 Chicago World's Fair had Midget Town and the fan dancer, Sally Rand. The New York World's Fair of 1939 featured the synchronized swimming of "Aqua girls" in Billy Rose's Aquacade. The world's fairs would be remembered for their outstanding amusements. The Eiffel Tower was a huge success at the 1889 Paris fair. For a generation that had not yet flown in an airplane, seeing the world from 985 feet was unlike anything they had ever experienced. The 1893 Chicago fair offered Charles Ferris' great wheel: 40 cars, each carrying 36 passengers, rode to a height of 270 feet. Forty years later, Chicago offered a 200-foot high Sky Ride across the second longest suspension span in the United States. The parachute jump at the 1939 New York World's Fair attracted thrill seekers and onlookers.

Since world's fairs were international events, international organizations held their meetings at the fairs. At the 1900 Paris World's Fair, 127 international organizations met. Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904 hosted the second and third Olympic games. Featured at the fairs were villages of natives from around the world. Dressed in their native costumes, these villages were publicized as serving an educational function. The subtle message, however, was an ethnocentric view that celebrated Western progress by comparing Western achievements at the fair with the backwardness of these native cultures. Following the Olympics, the St. Louis fair held three days of "Anthropology games." Native peoples at the fair were enticed to demonstrate their skills. Sioux Indians participated in archery contests, African natives threw javelins, and seven-foot Patagonians tried the shot put. Their inability to match Western records not only confirmed the value of training, but again suggested the superiority of Western civilization.

Those who went to the fairs had their faith in Western industrial progress confirmed. At the height of the Depression, Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress assured visitors that science guaranteed a better future. The science building had a giant statue gently guiding a trembling man and woman into the future. The official guidebook to the fair stated, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms." By 1939, Fascism and Nazism were on the move in Europe. Visitors to the New York fair were given a powerful message of hope. The symbols of the fair, the Trylon and Perisphere, suggested that soaring human aspirations could be realized on this earth. Inside the sphere was a giant model city known as Democracity. This utopian city had Centerton as its business and cultural center, Millvilles of light industry, and Pleasantvilles, which were exclusively residential. Democracity, with its defined zones and rational streets, carried the message that well-planned livable cities were possible through democratic forms of government. Futurama, the General Motors exhibit, the most popular at the fair, presented a vision of America united by a 14 lane national highway in which radio-controlled autos moved at 100 miles per hour. With its green suburbs, industrial parks, productive farms, and high rise urban centers, this vision of America in 1960 offered an inspirational alternative to the chaos that the world was experiencing.

World's fairs have lost their importance because technical fairs and television are a more effective means of presenting new technological developments to specialists and to the general public. Television can bring foreign cultures to our homes, and air travel can bring us to foreign cultures. Today, international organizations are connected with permanent agencies of the United Nations. Theme Parks such as Disney World and Epcot Center provide the amusements and thrills that were once found at world's fairs. Finally, the expense of holding a world's fair required corporate sponsorship. The resulting commercialization of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair suggested that fairs were now oriented toward selling products. The fair's ferris wheel, for example, was a giant tire with the name of the tire company in huge letters on the sides of the tires. Our view of technology has also changed. We no longer accept the idea that because we can do something technologically, we ought to do it, and that we will do it. General Motors' 1964-1965 exhibit demonstrated how humans could explore and colonize the oceans, the deserts, and the polar ice caps. Few were inspired by this vision.

—Thomas W. Judd

Further Reading:

Allwood, John. The Great Exhibitions. New York, Studio Vista, 1978.

Badger, Reid. The Great American Fair: The World's Columbian Exposition and American Culture. Chicago, Nelson-Hall, 1979.

Briggs, Asa. Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace: Impact and Images of the Industrial Revolution. London, Thames and Hudson, 1979.

Burg, David. Chicago's White City of 1893. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1976.

Findling, John E. Chicago's Great World's Fairs. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994.

Harrison, Helen. Dawn of A New Day: The New York World's Fair, 1939/40. New York, New York University Press, 1980.

Luckhurst, Kenneth. The Story of Exhibitions. London, Studio Publications, 1951.

Mandell, Richard. Paris, 1900: The Great World's Fair. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Weimann, Jeanne. The Fair Women: The Story of the Women's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Chicago, Academy Press, 1981.

World’s Fairs

views updated May 29 2018

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).

World's Fairs

views updated Jun 27 2018

World's Fairs

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a series of international exhibitions in major cities around the globe attracted millions of visitors to national and corporate pavilions that demonstrated their industrial and cultural achievements. Many products now in common use were first seen by the general public at world's fairs, such as the telephone (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1876); the phonograph (see entry under 1900s—Music in volume 1), in Paris, France (1889); incandescent lights and the Ferris wheel (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1), in Chicago, Illinois (1893); the ice-cream cone (see entry under 1900s—Food and Drink in volume 1), in St. Louis, Missouri (1904); television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), in New York (1939); and the IBM (see entry under 1980s—Commerce in volume 5) computer, in New York (1964).

The first modern world's fair was London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, organized under the leadership of Prince Albert (1819–1861). The first in the United States was Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876, which commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of national independence. Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893 marked the rebirth of the city after the fire of 1871; it was famous for its "White City" that inspired the City Beautiful movement in architecture and city planning. In 1933, Chicago's Century of Progress fair celebrated the city's centennial. The 1958 Brussels World's Fair celebrated Europe's revival after World War II (1939–45).

With its "World of Tomorrow" theme, the New York's World's Fair that opened in 1939 offered an optimistic view of the future to Depression-weary visitors. The Futurama exhibit of General Motors (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) imagined the United States as it might appear in 1960, complete with television, an elaborate highway system (see entry under 1950s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), high-rise urban centers, suburbs (see entry under 1950s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), and modern farms. The fair's symbols were the Trylon and Perisphere, an obelisk next to a sphere that included a prototypical utopian city called "Democracity." Unlike earlier fairs, the New York World's Fair of 1964 had few national pavilions, with most of the exhibits instead constructed by U.S. corporations to promote their products and images.

World's fairs in the later twentieth century had far less of an impact on the general public, for whom television, the Internet (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5), and theme parks provided much of the information and entertainment once offered by international expositions.

—Edward Moran

For More Information

Allwood, John. The Great Exhibitions. New York: Studio Vista, 1978.

Badger, Reid. The Great American Fair: The World's Columbia Exposition and American Culture. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979.

Findling, John E. Chicago's Great World's Fairs. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Harrison, Helen. Dawn of a New Day: The New York World's Fair, 1939/40. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

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World fairs