In the Beginning: 19th Century World’s Fairs

In the Beginning: 19th Century World’s Fairs

By Maxine Carter-Lome

When the gates to the Crystal Palace opened on May 1, 1851 to welcome guests to the Great Exhibition, they opened the door to the future. Thirty-two countries from around the world mounted more than 13,000 exhibits to showcase the “Works of Industry of All Nations.” The exhibits included almost every marvel of the Victorian age, including pottery, porcelain, ironwork, glass, furniture, perfumes, pianos, firearms, fabrics, steam hammers, hydraulic presses, and even the odd house or two. But 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.

Over six million people traveled to London over the next six months to see such technology, design, and manufacturing wonders as a Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays, and a reaping machine that was sent from the United States. In her opening remarks, Queen Victoria heralded the Exhibition as “the greatest triumph of peace which the world has ever seen.” Not since the days of Noah’s ark, remarked a London paper, had so curious a collection of objects been exhibited together.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first in what has turned out to be a global tradition of holding World’s Fairs, or “Expos” around the world to showcase innovation, ingenuity, culture and creativity. The most recent Expo was held in 2015 in Milan, Italy. Future sites include Astana, Kazakhstan in 2017 and Dubai in 2020.

The Great Exhibition also launched a market for mass-produced souvenirs as a way for visitors to commemorate and relive their experience. The tradition of buying and collecting commemorative souvenirs continues to be an integral part of the world’s fair experience. Today, any item with the fair logo or linked to the fairs is collected—from posters, advertisements, postcards and souvenir programs to medals, buttons, banners, coins, and tokens. In addition to the fair-generated promotional items designed to mark the theme and location of each exhibition, exhibitors also created their own commemorative items for sale to showcase their brand, products, and capabilities.

The ability to purchase a piece of the novelty witnessed at an exhibit had a strong consumer appeal at every price point, and items big and small, expensive and inexpensive, left the fair in the hands of visitors from around the world that would take the company brand back home with them. For a company in the 19th century looking to be known, and countries looking to stimulate imperial trade, investing in a world’s fair was like buying 60-seconds of television airtime during the Super Bowl. You couldn’t ask for a better platform from which to launch your brand, as marketing-minded 19th century companies quickly discovered. Two of the best ways for a company to capitalize on its world’s fair investment was to offer visitors a take-away token of their visit to the company’s exhibition, and promoting medals received at the fair in sales and marketing efforts.

The tradition of distributing medals of merit for exhibits began at the first London International Exposition of 1851; however, the honor became more meaningful and internationally recognized at the Paris International Exposition of 1855, the second “official” world’s fair, when the judging criteria was changed to better ensure impartiality and selection criteria. Companies used the text: “a Grand Medal of Honor Awarded at the Paris International Expo-sition of 1855” in advertising to help promote their products.
A look at several of the more popular and seminal world’s fairs of the 19th century reflects not only the evolution of technology leading into an industrialized 20th century but the rise of commercialism and globalization at the fairs as visitors were presented with new and creative ways to buy and take home what they saw, experienced, and tasted.

The Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition, like any grand event at the time, was popularized by souvenirs and commemorative items. The Lane’s Telescopic View of the Interior of the Great Industrial Exhibition is probably the most noted souvenir to come out of The Great Exhibition of 1851. Lane’s Telescopic Views were printed and hand-colored lithographed cards held together by cloth that, when viewed through the peep hole on the front cover, provided a three-dimensional view inside the Crystal Palace.

Other popular souvenirs from this first World’s Fair included ladies’ fans, novelty “Giant” Clay Tobacco Pipes with an image of the Crystal Palace on the sides of the bowl, embroidered silk ribbons, thimbles, wax seals, and other mass-produced small and affordable items marked with the name and year of the event.

Not many items from The Great Exhibition of 1851 have survived (although a quick Google search will bring up a few). Those that have tend to be in museums or private collections. A “Joseph Elliott Celebrated Crystal Palace Souvenir Razor” can be found in the Henry Ford Collection; a hand-colored printed paper fan adorned with international flags and an image of the Crystal Palace with pierced bone ribs and guardsticks, inlaid
with silver and finished with gilt, can be found in the Victoria & Albert Collection; and a copy of Lane’s Telescopic View can be found in Columbia University’s Library.

Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855

After London hosted the first international exposition in 1851, Napoleon III realized that France needed to one-up the British. Napoleon used the 1855 Paris exposition, the next truly international world’s fair, as the occasion to celebrate forty years of peace in Europe since Waterloo. The French were determined to respond to the Great Exhibition and outdo their British economic rivals.

The 1855 exhibition, held May 15-November 15, was in many respects similar to that of 1851 but larger in size and with more exhibitors, about half of them French. The big difference between the two world’s fairs was a shift in purpose. While the world’s fair of 1851 had been ostensibly “innocent of commercial purpose,” the Paris World’s Fair of 1855 inaugurated the tradition of charging admission and placing price tags on exhibited objects.

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 to electroplate silver.

Baccarat, known the world over for its fine crystal glassware, received its first Gold Medal at the exhibition and unveiled two triumphs: a 17-foot-tall candelabra and a 23-foot-tall crystal water fountain. Today, the Petit Palais in Paris, originally built for the World Expo in 1900, puts the spotlight on Baccarat pieces that appeared at the World Expos of 1855, 1867 and 1878 and the International Expos of 1909, 1925, and 1937.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC holds a souvenir fan in its collection. This commemorative fan on a leaf of painted and lithographed paper with gilt, and ribs and guardsticks of pierced ivory and mother-of-pearl rivets, shows major buildings and monuments of the 1855 Exposition Universelle. On the reverse, or user’s side, facts and figures about the exhibition are given.

Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876

The United States hosted its first official exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Close to ten million visitors went to the “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine,” as it was officially named, to be the first to see Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Remington Typographic Machine (typewriter), sewing machines, and stoves, and the first to try Heinz Ketchup and Hires Root Beer.

Everything about the experience was worth savoring and saving – from the admission ticket and official program to the printed and freely distributed circulars, trade cards, catalogs, and other advertising ephemera used by manufacturers, dealers, and exhibitors to lure visitors to their exhibit.

The Centennial Exposition offered these exhibitors and manufacturers a world stage to introduce their brand and products; but with so many exhibits and halls spread out over the fairgrounds, the competition for attention at the Fair was steep. Companies quickly learned that a free, novelty, or nominally priced souvenir was a strong enticement.

Glassmakers from around the world, including forty-seven American firms, mounted exhibitions at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Gillinder and Sons of Philadelphia constructed an entire working factory where fairgoers could watch Gillinder craftsmen blow, press, engrave and cut glass souvenirs such as frosted glass statuettes and glass slippers. According to the Gillinder Glass website, over 100,000 glass slippers were sold as souvenirs of the Fair.

Croft, Wilbur & Co., a Lititz, Pennsylvania chocolate company, lured fairgoers to its display in Machinery Hall by giving live demonstrations of the candy-making process, and then selling souvenir jars in the shape of the liberty bell filled with candy. These not only made great souvenirs but great gifts to bring home.

Not to be outdone by its exhibitors, the Centennial Exposition itself offered visitors all sorts of fair-branded keepsakes, from inkwells and sewing boxes to metal Liberty Bell paperweights, and commemorative medals and coins.

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. 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.

For the first time, pleasure and entertainment eclipsed the industrial exhibits at the 1889 world’s fair, and marked an important shift away from the fair’s original focus on educating the public about advances in science and technology. In addition to 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. 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.

Le Figaro, the oldest national daily newspaper in France, installed a printing press on the second level of the Eiffel Tower and printed a daily paper. Visitors could buy a copy and have their name inserted inside as a “certificate of ascent.”

Columbian World’s Fair of 1893

A second U.S. exposition was held in Chicago in 1893. Called the Columbian World’s Fair, the spectacle was timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the new world. More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, with 65,000 exhibits showcasing every conceivable item from a life-size reproduction of Columbus’s three ships to a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo, a 70-foot tower of light bulbs, an 11-ton block of Canadian cheese, a 46-foot cannon by Krupp, the German munitions manufacturer, and the world’s first Ferris Wheel.

Among the many products introduced at the Fair were Cracker Jacks, Aunt Jemima Syrup, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Beer, Juicy Fruit gum, carbonated soda, and hamburgers. It has even been said that Milton Hershey was inspired by a brand new chocolate-making machine that had been brought over from Germany, along with the world’s first chocolate bar. Products such as the dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs had early prototype versions on display, as well.

The Fair also introduced picture postcards to the American public. The great improvements in printing technology in the second half of the nineteenth century made possible the brightly colored, cheaply-produced advertising ephemera in the form of postcards that was widely distributed at the fair.

The American Cereal Co. issued a set of 12 lithograph trade cards as souvenirs that copied a set of paintings displayed at the American Cereal Co. exhibit and titled “The Procession Of The Seasons.” The cards were sold at the American Cereal Exhibit for 25 cents each or you could get the whole set by leaving an order at the Quaker Booth for two packages of cereal to be delivered to your home through your local grocer.

Mr. Heinz of the H.J. Heinz Company had cards printed up offering visitors a free souvenir – a small watch-chain charm shaped like a pickle made of gutta-petcha, a tough plastic-like material – to lure them to his exhibit on the second floor of the Agricultural Building. So many people flocked to receive the pickle charms that the supports of the gallery had to be strengthened to accommodate the weight of the crowds. It is estimated that one million pins were given away at the World’s Fair. Heinz’s pickle pin idea was such a successful promotion that they continued to be distributed in a centuries-long series of promotions.

At the Libbey Glass Company pavilion visitors could observe the craft of glass blowing and etching and buy souvenirs on the spot. When the exhibit initially failed to draw crowds, the company decided to allow visitors to apply their admission fee to the purchase of glass trinkets inscribed with the company name. The exhibit then drew huge crowds.

World’s fairs exist to provide a promising glimpse into the future; a vision for what could be. They are also a commercial enterprise on a grand scale. Technology and trends showcased in early 19th century fairs are, in their evolutionary form, part of our everyday life. As are such foods as Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, Heinz Ketchup, and Juicy Fruit gum, all introduced at 19th century world’s fairs. As was picture postcards, carbonated soda, and hamburgers. You never knew what you would see – or taste – when you walked through the gates of a world’s fair, but you were sure to find something to buy and take home as a timeless — and collectible — reminder of your day at the fair.

In the Beginning: 19th Century World’s Fairs