World's Fair

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World’s Fairs and expositions (or “expos”), are internationally oriented, elaborate public events which commonly cover major new developments in the fields of science, industry and culture, with technology of the future usually a prominent theme, and which serve as opportunities for countries to showcase their engineering and arts and crafts talents, as well as their cultural ideologies.


In strict usage (see The Bureau of International Expositions, below) an “exhibition” is a display of up to three months’ duration of products or arts, whereas an “exposition” is on a much larger scale and can last for up to six months. Some World’s Fairs, however, have lasted for up to two years.

By the late 19th century, three different types of exhibitions and expositions had become prominent. First, the industrial exhibition, devoted to the showcasing and promotion of new technologies of a specific country or region; second, the cultural exhibition, commemorating and celebrating an historical event; and third, the universal exposition, international in scope. It was this third type of exhibition, backed by a national government and first pioneered by the organizers of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London, that formed the blueprint for future events held in Europe and America. France and the U.S.A. would further develop and expand the concept of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and create elaborate events of international significance.

Selected list and description of some World’s Fairs

What follows is an extremely selective look at the phenomenon of World’s Fairs, as a general introduction to the theme.

Nineteenth century

The Great Exhibition of the works of industry of all nations, London 1851

(Theme: “Industry of all Nations”; Total number of visitors: 6,039,195)

The Great Exhibition opened in Hyde Park in London on 1 May 1851. Although exhibitions celebrating the achievements of a nation had previously been held in Europe, the scope of this exhibition was unlike anything that had come before, for not only was it a celebration of the power and might of British invention and production, at the same time it was also international in scope, as other countries of the world were invited to submit their own native examples of excellence in industry and commerce for display in specially designed areas reflecting the ambience of their home countries. Many writers and artists who visited the Great Exhibition were inspired to record what became a well-documented, momentous event.

The driving forces behind the Great Exhibition were Henry Cole, an assistant-keeper at the Public Records Office, and Prince Albert, patron and President of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce. In January 1850, a twenty-four-man Royal Commission was appointed to turn the plans into reality and oversee the running of the event. It was decided that the cost for the Exhibition would be raised through subscription rather than funded by the Parliamentary purse. Fund-raising committees were set up throughout the U.K., and subscriptions were promised ranging from £1,000 from Queen Victoria to pennies and shillings from the people.

The Crystal Palace The organizers of the Great Exhibition envisioned a prominent architectural structure that would serve as a focal point for the event. Joseph Paxton, a former gardener who was responsible for the Chatsworth Greenhouse at Derbyshire, contacted Henry Cole with his tender for the commission. Paxton had previously experimented with structures made of glass, wood and iron and knew how to make these materials work together. Site construction was supervised by the engineering firm of Fox and Henderson and the Crystal Palace was efficiently built according to schedule. The massive building, 1,848 feet long by 408 feet wide, was the largest ever built up to that time. The central transept was 72 feet wide and 108 feet high with a grand avenue and upstairs galleries running the whole length of the building. The enclosed area was six times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Crystal Palace was opened on 1 May 1851 by Queen Victoria who noted in her diary:

“May 1. This day is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives, with which to my pride and joy the name of my dearly beloved Albert is forever associated!”

The range of displays on offer to the public was numerous and eclectic; Robert Hunt’s 948-page “Hunt’s handbook to the official catalogue” demonstrates the wide variety of the exhibits. Exhibitions included the Fine Arts Court and Medieval Court; exotic goods from Africa; and products and objects from the colonies. Areas were dedicated to individual countries ranging from Persia to the United States. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were particularly impressed by the Colt revolvers on display in the American section. Of all the exhibiting countries, the most successful in terms of winning medals and awards was France, yet the most inventive display may have been the American device for simultaneously playing the piano and violin.

British manufacturing industry was well represented, with impressive displays from towns and cities, including steel from Sheffield, woollens from Bradford and Leeds, and cotton goods from Manchester. The center of the Crystal Palace was dominated by glass manufacturer and meteorologist Abraham Follett Osler’s 27-foot gigantic crystal fountain, which became one of the most popular exhibits and a favorite meeting place.

The concept spreads and grows

The success of the Great Exhibition fuelled the fire of enthusiasm for large-scale spectacular expositions in other cities. The first exhibitions to follow London’s were held in Cork in 1852, Dublin and New York in 1853, and Munich in 1854. Many other countries expanded on the themes of the Great Exhibition, including five events held in Australia from 1879 to 1894. Other events in the latter decades of the nineteenth century took place in Vienna, Amsterdam and Antwerp.

But it was France, which had been successfully organizing manufacturing exhibitions in the Temple of Industry since 1798, which in this time period hosted the most elaborate Exhibitions. The Paris exposition of 1855 featured the construction of the impressive Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs Elysées. This rectangular structure with a glass central nave surrounded on four sides by a double row of low aisles was a monumental architectural achievement and was also used by the French for the Great Universal Expositions of 1867 and 1878. The 1878 Exposition was held in the center of Paris on an extended site of 66 acres and contained over 52,000 exhibits which attracted over 16 million visitors.

Perhaps the most significant of all of the late 19th century European Exhibitions was the fourth Exposition Universelle de Paris 1889, which had as its theme the celebration of the French Revolution. It is most notable for the construction of the famous landmark Eiffel Tower, which emulated two ideas from the Great Exhibition: architectural innovations, and single monuments or buildings representing an exposition as a whole.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

(Theme: “Fourth centennial of the discovery of America”; Total number of visitors: 27,500,000)

There was fierce competition between Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis to hold the 1893 exhibition, but Chicago won the bid after a concerted campaign of indefatigable written and verbal lobbying, leading Charles A. Dana, the editor of the New York Sun, to dub Chicago “that windy city”, a term (which Dana may or may not have been the first to use) which evidently has no historical reference to the city’s atmospheric conditions.

Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition was located on two sites: the main site was based to the east of Lake Michigan, and the second site on the Midway Pleasance. This latter site featured an amusement park, the first ever amusement center of its kind at a World’s Fair, a development which was not without its critics. Anthropological exhibits were placed alongside side shows and amusements, leading some strait-laced critics to suggest that the American organizers had exchanged ethnography for “honky tonk entertainment”. The centerpiece of Chicago’s Exposition was a Ferris Wheel, invented by George Washington Gale Ferris in response to the organizers’ desire for a great structure to rival the Eiffel Tower; the Wheel, having a diameter of 264 feet, with 36 cars each carrying up to 60 passengers, was the Exposition’s most prominent landmark. (The Paris Exposition of 1900 would retaliate with its own wheel having a diameter of 300 feet.)

Jackson Park was designed especially for the World’s Columbian Exposition by the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Woman’s Building was designed by Sophie Hayden, the first woman to be awarded a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Hall of Agriculture housed two of the most popular exhibits: a 1,500-pound chocolate Venus de Milo and an 11-ton cheese from Canada. The World’s Columbian Exposition, which cost the organizers $31 million, helped to establish the image of the United States as a major economic and cultural power. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 has been recreated in the early chapters of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006).

20th century fairs

In the first fifteen years of the 20th century, important World’s Fairs and Expositions flourished around the globe in ever increasing numbers. Major expositions were held in Liège (1905), Milan (1906), Brussels (1910), Ghent (1913), and San Francisco (1915). In between these events, various countries of the world held their own smaller-scale fairs celebrating anything from national anniversaries to art, trade and industry of a specific region. But again, the most elaborate exhibitions were held in Paris.

Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Paris 1900

(Theme: “Evaluation of a century”; Total number of visitors: 50,860,801)

The organizers of the 1900 event had a new rival to compete against: the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and they would be up to the task. The Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Paris 1900 celebrated the onset of the new century in an especially elaborate way by having close to 80,000 exhibits, and its high visitors attendance numbers made it the most successful grand exposition yet. A review published in the Literary Digest on 1 September 1900 confirms this:

“The few who make such comparisons abroad admit that the Chicago exhibition presented an outward appearance so beautiful that it has never been rivalled, before or since. Chicago had space and a fine situation for her fair, and she did not fail to make the most of these advantages. But in other respects the Paris Exposition of 1900 is said to be a much bigger affair. It is visited by more people, and it has more exhibits.”

Franco-British Exhibition, London, 1908

('Total number of visitors: 8,000,000)

This exhibition symbolized the entente cordiale between Britain and France and was the closest Britain would come to matching the scope of its Great Exhibition of 1851. The site, located in Shepherd’s Bush, was called the White City, so named because the buildings were covered with stucco, and the focal point of which was named the Court of Honour. The buildings would also be used for the International Imperial Exhibition (1909) and Japan-British Exhibition (1910). One of the main attractions recalled the amusement park of Chicago’s 1893 Fair: it was a ride called the Flip-Flap which pivoted 180 degrees while carrying passengers in two cages, one at the end of either arm, which then crossed at the highest point.

Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915

(Theme: “Inauguration of the Panama Canal and celebration of the construction of San Francisco”; Total number of visitors: 19,000,000)

Out of the devastation of the 1906 earthquake came the determination to rebuild a better, more prosperous San Francisco, and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 became another great showcase for mankind’s commercial and inventive genius. The exposition was also a celebration of the completion of the Franco-American engineered [[Panama Canal, which would bring new wealth to the city.

The visual impact of the buildings, or “exhibition palaces” as they were described, were said to be stunning. First, they were painted in an ivory-grey color, the entire color scheme designed by artist Jules Guerin. Then, specially designed lighting by Walter D’Arcy Ryan, director of General Electric’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory and well-known for lighting Niagara Falls in 1907, used new lighting techniques to breathtaking effect. Giant spotlights illuminated whole buildings while smaller, colored lights were placed in recesses, a technique known as “shadow” lighting. The pièce de résistance were the highly refractive cut glass lights, fashioned in imitation of precious gems, which were used to illuminate a 400-foot tower. These unique lights were produced by workers in Austria using a secret method, and in all, 130,000 lights were used in the tower illuminations.

A motion picture entitled “Mabel and Fatty viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco, Cal.”, made by the Keystone Film Company in 1915 and lasting just over 16 minutes, can be viewed online.[1]

The British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924

As the name suggests, the British Empire Exhibition was created to strengthen the bonds that tied the far-flung Empire together; as well as to promote trade and industry, and to remind the people of Great Britain how the country had become great in the first place. World War I had devastated the population, high unemployment was left unchecked by the government of the day, and countries such as India were taking steps toward independence. The British Empire Exhibition was an important moral-booster for the British people, even though the underlying theme of a mighty sovereignty ruling other nations halfway around the globe is now considered distasteful.[2]

The Bureau of International Expositions

The Bureau of International Expositions (B.I.E.) was established in Paris in 1928 by a diplomatic international convention to officially sanction World’s Fairs, to prevent too many Fairs from being held at the same time, and to ensure that the fairs held were of sufficient quality. The B.I.E. was to cover all non-commercial international fairs lasting longer than three weeks, and which were organized by a nation to which other nations were invited through diplomatic channels.

The B.I.E., still in operation today, categorizes World’s Fairs in two ways. The first, an International Registered Exhibition (or World Exhibition), is held every five years, with a duration of up to six months, and has a general theme. The second, an International Recognized Exhibition, has a more specific or specialized theme, can last no longer than three months, and may only be held during an interval between World Exhibitions. Trade fairs are not regulated by the B.I.E.

A Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago, 1933-34

(Theme: “A Century of Progress”; Total number of visitors: 48,769,227)

The Century of Progress International Exposition was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city of Chicago, Illinois’s rise from a small settlement town to one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of close to four million, and which had become the financial center of the Midwest. Although the Fair was held in the midst of the Great Depression, the organizers decided to fund the event through the sale of special memberships and by subscriptions. The Fair was held not only to celebrate Chicago’s great achievements, but also those of the rest of the world, with an emphasis on science and industry. It was staged on a group of artificial lakes alongside Lake Michigan. Among the buildings constructed especially for the event in the famous “Loop” district was the largest-ever Woolworth dime-store.

The color scheme of the buildings was designed by Joseph Urban, who served as the Director of Color. Each building on site was painted using four hues from a palette of twenty-three colors, so that the Exposition as a whole earned the nickname “Rainbow City”. This was designed intentionally in total contrast to the “White City” of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The effect was said to be even more striking at night, when both white and colored lights illuminated the buildings.

New York World’s Fair 1939-40

(Theme: “Building the world of tomorrow”; Total number of visitors: 44,955,997)

The idea for this Fair was formed in 1935 by a group of influential New York businessmen who thought the event might lift the U.S.A out of the Great Depression by stimulating economic profit. At face value, however, the historical reason for the Fair was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President of the U.S.A. The New York World’s Fair Corporation was headed by Grover A. Whalen, who promoted the Fair fiercely at every opportunity. In what was one of his canniest moves, he commissioned multimillionaire daredevil aviator Howard Hughes to deliver to various world leaders invitations for the Fair during Hughes’ historic around the world flight in July 1938 (and as a goodwill gesture to the people of New York, Hughes had christened his Super Electra the New York World’s Fair 1939). The Fair, which covered over 1,216 acres at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, opened on 30 April 1939. More than thirty nations participated in the international exhibition.

Many of America’s largest companies sponsored pavilions exhibiting the latest design technology. Many of the dozens of buildings on site were extraordinary architectural visions. The two most iconic symbols of the New York World’s Fair 1939 were the Trylon and the Perisphere. The tall and narrow Trylon (700 feet high, and containing the world’s largest escalator) and the spherical Perisphere (200 feet high) were the only structures at the Fair to be painted white, and were used on all publicity brochures and guides for the Fair. The Perisphere housed “The World of Tomorrow” called Democracity, which was intended to be a perfect model of a perfect world. Both the Trylon and the Perisphere, which were connected by a giant ramp called the Helicline, were designed by the architectural firm of Harrison & Foulihoux. The main group of industrial architects who were responsible for the overall design of the Fair were Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, and Walter Dorwin Teague. Geddes’s most famous exhibition was Futurama, a 36,000-square-foot model of America in the year 1960, which was commissioned by General Motors. It was noticed many times during Futurama’s first season that the perfect city had no churches, an omission that was rectified for the 1940 season.

Loewy designed a “taxicab of the future”, a vehicle powered by electricity, which was exhibited at the Chrysler pavilion as a part of Loewy’s History of Transport exhibit. The Fair also included a device which measured the thickness of a human hair; a scaled-down vision of superhighways; and also a new invention called television.

Despite an estimated 15 million hot dogs and 15 million hamburgers consumed during the Fair’s two seasons, the event, which had cost approximately $160 million, was a financial disaster.

Festival of Britain, London, 1951

Although not strictly a World’s Fair and so not recognized as such by the B.I.E., the Festival of Britain was an important event for the British people. It was built in the midst of post-war London, much of which was in ruins, and helped to promote feelings of recovery and progress. Herbert Morrison, Labor Deputy Leader, described the event, which took place at the centenary anniversary of the Great Exhibition, as “A tonic for the nation”.

Hugh Casson was appointed director of architecture for the Festival, the main site of which was located on the South Bank of the Thames. The Festival was a good chance to redesign the look of Britain’s towns and cities, especially their public spaces. The Royal Festival Hall was the only major building constructed for the Festival that is still standing.

The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair

(Theme: “Peace through Understanding”; Total number of visitors: in excess of 51,000,000)

The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was held in Flushing Meadows on the same site as the 1939-40 Fair. It hosted a structure similar to the Perisphere called the Unisphere, a 12-story high, stainless steel model of the Earth. The Fair took place in the middle of the so-called Space Age and looked towards a brighter, more optimistic age. This second New York Fair was the largest ever to be held in the United States, covering over one square mile of land. It was not, however, to be specifically an international showcase, but rather a focus on giant American corporations. The organizers reported that the Fair would require at least 70 million visitors to make a profit, to which the B.I.E. responded that the Fair would have to have a two year run in order to achieve this; yet, according to the B.I.E. rules, expositions of this class could only run for six months. The Fair organizers ignored the B.I.E. in this instance and in another instance as well: the organizers decided to charge rent to exhibitors, which was also against the rules. In response to these violations, the B.I.E. was forced to call for an international boycott of the Fair, and as a result of this, most European countries, including the Soviet Union, did not take part.

Norman Bel Geddes designed another General Motors-sponsored exhibit-ride, the Futurama II, which was an updated version of his popular original Futurama, which had been a centerpiece of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In this Fair’s two year run, nearly 26 million visitors sat in moving armchairs and glided past miniature dioramas including a lunar base and an underwater world where guests holidayed at the “Hotel Atlantis”. Other exhibits included the “World’s Largest Cheese”, from Wisconsin. The construction of this New York Fair, like the one previous, was overseen by Robert Moses, known as New York’s “Master Builder”.

The Internet 1996 World Exposition

(Theme: “A world’s fair for the information age”)

With the advent of the Internet, World’s Fairs and Expositions can now take a different form. The Internet 1996 World Exposition took the concept of the World’s Fair into the electronic age with a nod of respect to the great fairs of the past. It acknowledged their importance by basing itself on their model, inviting individuals to take part by building their own pavilions in cyberspace and giving them the freedom to tour at will, with no entry fee.

The project, managed by Karl Malamud, president of Internet Multicasting Service based in Washington, D.C., was funded by governments and corporations such as IBM, Sony, Worldwide Solutions, Inc., and Yahoo!. The majority of sponsors represented Korea and Japan, with the United States having the third largest number of sponsors. World leaders including Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Kim Young Sam of Korea, and Premier Lien Chan of Taiwan each sent an optimistic letter of support for a global community brought closer together by information technology.

The main computers received five million visitors in 1996, while the Fair itself made over $100 million through commercial sponsorship. Featured events of the Fair included composer Tod Machover’s “Brain Opera”, an “interactive, musical journey into your mind, to be presented simultaneously in physical and cyber space”; and the Garry Kasparov versus Deep Blue (computer) chess match.


  2. The British Empire Exhibition was not classed as a World’s Fair by the Bureau of International Expositions.