World’s Fairs Showcase March of Progress

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An interior view of the magnificent Crystal Palace at the first International Industrial Exhibition in London 1851.

An interior view of the magnificent Crystal Palace at the first International Industrial Exhibition in London 1851.

The World's Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition, published in 1893 by A.B. Kuhlman & Co. Chicago

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During the last half of the 19th century, leading nations of the world wanted to show off their industrial and military might and their accomplishments to the rest of the world.

In 1851, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, organized the first International Industrial Exhibition in London. The event’s centerpiece was the magnificent iron-and-glass Crystal Palace that was 1,851 feet long and covered more than 20 acres. The exhibition drew 13,937 exhibitors: 6,861 from Great Britain, 520 from the colonies and 6,556 from the rest of the world. A total of about 6.2 million people visited the fair during its five-and-one-half month run and the show turned a profit of $750,000 (about $19 million today).

London’s extravaganza set the bar for subsequent world’s fairs, such as those at Paris (1867, 1878 and 1889), Vienna (1873), America’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in (1876), the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) and the Paris Exposition of 1900. Although organizers tried hard to make each event bigger and better than its predecessor, not all succeeded.

A big part of these fairs was the judging of exhibits and award of medals and certificates. Agricultural machinery manufacturers, keen to bag as many medals as they could, went to great trouble and expense with their exhibits. If a high ranking medal was won for a piece of machinery, the company proudly trumpeted the fact in its advertising for many years after. For example, in an 1887 catalog, McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. boasted of winning grand prize, highest prize, grand gold and a host of gold medals at past events. In a 1902 catalog, McCormick’s arch competitor, Deering Harvester Co., claimed to have won six gold, six silver and 11 bronze medals at the 1900 Paris Exposition, along with several decorations.

World War I wiped out most of the proud monarchies of Europe and left many countries with no funding to hold grand events such as world’s fairs. The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II put a damper on world’s fairs in those eras, although San Francisco did host a world’s fair in 1939. Dozens of smaller, self-styled world’s fairs have been held all over the globe through the years, beginning with the First London Exhibition in 1756, but most of those were of a regional nature and conducted on a small scale. – Sam Moore 

Read about the 1893 world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition, at Chicago’s Jackson Park: “1893 Columbian Exposition: World’s Fair Highlighted Agriculture in America.”