Every few years, from the mid-ninteenth century until the last decades of the twentieth, people from around the globe would descend on a city in Europe or the United States and flood a massive fairgrounds. These fairgrounds were sprawled across acres of parks and spotted with dozens of pavilions and buildings. Brightly colored, dazzlingly white, or somewhere in between, these structures varied greatly in size, design, and purpose (scroll down to the three images at the end of this post to get a better idea). Some looked like pure fantasy while others were modeled as nostalgic–and sometimes imagined–views of the past or sleek-looking hopes for the future. Others were constructed as celebratory monuments to the present (see the French “Air Palace,” France’s aviation-themed pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition). On more than one occasion, the design and placement of buildings–or even a nation’s conspicuous absence from a World’s Fair–reflected international tensions (the iconic image of Nazi Germany’s pavilion facing off against the Soviet pavilion in 1937 is probably the best example; this image seems an appropriate representation of the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words”).
It wasn’t just about the pavilions, though. The fairs were filled with sights, sounds, and smells that must have been completely foreign—and truly astonishing—to many guests. Imagine how overwhelming all of this would have been in an era before automobiles and airplanes made travel much easier and at a time in which technology that we take for granted—television, motion pictures, radio, even color photography—had either not yet been invented or was so new and expensive that people could only get the full experience at one of these huge fairs.
In short, whether you call them World’s Fairs, Universal Expositions, Expos (not Montreal’s former baseball team, though its name relates to exposition history¹), or International Exhibitions, these were BIG undertakings that attracted A LOT of people. Estimates place the number of visitors who visited the 1900 Paris Exposition at nearly 51 MILLION people (mind you, this was for an event that lasted from mid-April to mid-November; historian Richard Mandell points out that the two-year 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair attracted 51,607,307 guests). All in all, these expositions were, as scholars have said, something like cultural snapshots of an era.
Approaching the fairgrounds with tickets in hand, visitors were eager to be entertained, educated, and enchanted. They encountered a dizzying array of inventions, huge industrial machines, glimpses into the future, and a variety of foods and beverages. They gawked at “authentic” people, housing, and animals brought from around the world and were mesmerized—and offended—by “exotic” entertainers.² Visitors also experienced things that, from our vantage point, appear flat-out silly. Take Sir Preserved Prune, for example. He was an armored knight atop a steed, made from prunes, whose domain was California’s state pavilion at the 1893 expo (see image below). Later, in New York, the 1939-1940 World’s Fair–“The World of Tomorrow”–included Westinghouse’s Elektro, a 7-foot-tall robot who could walk and speak. Nothing crazy, right? Well, Elektro, described by one recent writer as rather like a “proto-troll,” puffed away at cigarettes, smugly informed viewers that “my brain is bigger than yours,” and freely offered “vaguely creepy comments about women.”³
As having a fruit-producing state include a sculpture of dried fruit indicates, these fairs introduced the world to new and locally produced products. Many recognizable foodstuffs that have become, for better or worse, part of Americana were introduced at World’s Fairs. The 1893 Chicago expo, where George Ferris’ Wheel towered as one of the most notable attractions, gave visitors their first tastes of Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, and Juicy Fruit gum.
Additionally, Pabst lager won an award for “America’s best beer,” which the company subsequently promoted by renaming the brew “Pabst Blue Ribbon” (current opinions vary on whether this product’s inventors deserve a medal or a rotten tomato). In fact, in Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch, author William Knoedelseder explains that Adolphus Busch (in the mid-nineteenth century, Busch joined with Eberhard Anheuser to found Anheuser-Busch) had for years “competed maniacally” with Frederick Pabst’ brewery. Apparently, after a panel of judges at this fair awarded the “blue ribbon” to Pabst lager instead of Budweiser, Adolphus “personally pursued” one of these judges across Europe in a fruitless effort to have the ruling overturned in favor of Budweiser. While a bit obsessive, Adolphus’ response to his beer’s finishing spot had some practical rationale: the panel’s decision appears to have had repercussions for beer sales, as “Pabst Blue Ribbon” proceeded to outsell its rival for the next six years. (49) This competitive streak definitely ran in the family. Seeing Budweiser again slip into second place after the Second World War, Adolphus’ grandson Gussie—August Anheuser Busch, Jr.—grumbled that “being second isn’t worth anything.” I like Knoedelseder’s take better, though. He believes that Gussie more likely—and more colorfully—fussed that “being second isn’t worth [something that rhymes with “mitt”].” (49)
In any case, there was more to experience at a fair than could reasonably be done in a single visit, or perhaps several visits. Yet after a few months, maybe as long as a year, the fair would close and nearly every exhibit, building, and decoration would be dismantled. One, two—a few more in certain cases—prominent structures were left in place in the host city, designed as permanent reminders. Here are a few of the more recognizable ones: the Eiffel Tower (Paris, 1889), the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais (Paris, 1900), the Space Needle (Seattle, 1962), the Unisphere in Queens (New York World’s Fair, 1964-1965) [pictured below], and the Sunsphere (Knoxville, 1982). As you can see, some of these structures have become symbols of the host cities.
Though not much of the obvious physical landscape of these fairs remains, it’s not hard, even today, to find souvenirs from these expositions. All you have to do is browse around on your preferred online marketplace or, better yet, shop locally and poke around at a neighborhood vintage boutique or antique store. Two examples (below) show a postcard from New York in 1964-1965 and a souvenir plate depicting a scene from Charles Garnier’s “History of Human Habitation” exhibit, which was located at the base of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 (Garnier was the guy who designed the city’s famous Opéra).
World’s Fairs were the sites of tragedy, too. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated in Chicago in 1893, and, just 8 years later, President William McKinley met the same fate in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition. Chicago was also where serial killer H.H. Holmes operated his macabre “Murder Hotel,” the story of which is a key component of Erik Larson’s non-fiction work Devil in the White City.
Today, mymodernmet.com tells us, something akin to these historical world’s fairs continues in two forms. The first, World Expos, are held every five years (years that end in “0” or “5”), last for about six months, and serve to find “solutions to universal challenges of our time.” Specialized Expos are the second group. Typically, these are smaller fairs held between World Expos, last for around three months, and focus on “finding solutions to precise challenges of humanity” (information courtesy of U.S. Department of State’s International Expositions Unit). While these contemporary events are the descendants of what is generally considered the first world’s fair, London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 (or, officially–and less suitable for a bumper sticker–the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations), they aren’t exactly the same. And this is something that I plan on looking into in future a post.
Below are some views from around the 1900 Paris Expo (courtesy of Arthur Chandler’s website, arthurchandler.com).
¹ In 1969, when the city was thinking what to call their newly awarded club, it made sense to name it after the 1967 Interntional and Universal Exposition–more simply, “Expo 67”–which Montreal had hosted. Ray Corio, “Question Box: How did the Montreal Expos acquire their nickname and what is the team logo supposed to represent?,” The New York Times, June 3, 1985.
² Importantly, especially for expos of the pre-World War II era, these events were presented as peaceful national competitions held to collectively Western progress. It needs to be kept in mind that, whether hosted in Paris, London, or Chicago, organizers and exhibitors (probably most visitors as well) defined “progress” and in strictly Western terms. This meant that non-Western, i.e. non-white, nations were included but typically as a curiosity or an example of how the United States and European powers had helped to bring non-white peoples out of their supposed state of savage backwardness.
³ Keri Blakinger, “A look back at some of the attractions at the 1939 World’s Fair,” New York Daily News, April 30, 2016.