A History of World’s Fairs: 5 of the Greatest Global Exhibitions | History Hit

A History of World’s Fairs: 5 of the Greatest Global Exhibitions

Harry Sherrin

12 Oct 2021
An aerial view of the Universal Exposition in Paris, 1900.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Global exhibitions, also known as expositions or world’s fairs, have been held regularly since the mid-19th century, showcasing the latest technological, cultural and scientific developments of their time.

These exhibitions have always been products of the environments in which they were created. In the Victorian Era, colonial attitudes permeated the exhibits. During the Cold War, on the other hand, the ‘space race’ dominated US and Soviet contributions.

Global exhibitions have hosted some huge moments in world history, from the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower to the first live TV broadcast.

Here are 5 of the most significant world’s fairs that changed the world.

The Great Exhibition – London, 1851

Widely hailed as the first world exposition, Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851 was a sprawling showcase of the world’s technological triumphs and industrial developments. Housed in the famed Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park, which later burned down, the exhibition was actually called the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.

It was the brainchild of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, and aimed to showcase the achievements of the British Empire while attracting international trade. As the host, British exhibits filled around half of the Crystal Palace. Among the expo’s some 100,000 objects were hydraulic presses, printing machines and steam engines, as well as countless other marvels of British manufacturing.

Countries around the globe sent in contributions, with France supplying a large portion.

The Great Exhibition was a roaring success, reaping a profit of over £180,000. It kickstarted a so-called ‘Golden Age of World’s Fairs’.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, 1851.

The Exposition Universelle – Paris, 1889

One of the most widely acclaimed world expos in history, France’s Exposition Universelle took place in Paris in 1889. The biggest attraction unveiled at the 1889 expo was undoubtedly the Eiffel Tower, then the tallest building on the planet. The architectural triumph served as the main archway into the exposition site.

Taking place on the anniversary of the French Revolution, Exposition Universelle 1889 aimed to showcase the achievements of France and its colonies. Its exhibits included displays of cutting-edge technologies, cherished artworks and grandiose architectural constructions.

The 1889 Exposition Universelle attracted some 32 million visitors and was ultimately one of the most profitable global expositions in history.

World’s Columbian Exposition – Chicago, 1893

Following in the tradition of many European nations, the United States had begun hosting regular world expos by the late 19th century. One of America’s most important world’s fairs was the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, which was specifically organized to surpass the remarkable success of France’s 1889 Exposition Universelle.

While none of its structures quite surpassed the Eiffel Tower, the Columbian exhibition did feature George Ferris’ ‘Big Wheel’, the world’s first Ferris wheel. It also made rides, venues and events a key aspect of the fair, constructing a vast entertainment zone for guests to enjoy. Many European expos would later follow in this tradition.

Aerial view of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1892.

Image Credit: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

The Columbian Exposition also featured displays of ‘native villages’. World expos have always been products of their time and the Columbian Exposition was no exception. Informed by ideas of Western superiority, so-called ‘primitive peoples’ featured in an amusement park of ‘live displays’ and ‘human exhibits’. Native Americans and South Pacific islanders, for example, were displayed to demonstrate the success of ‘civilising’ colonial missions or the superiority of Western society.

These ‘native exhibits’ would also go on to become regular features at world expos into the early 20th century.

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New York World’s Fair – New York City, 1939

World War One marked a turning point for world fairs. After the war, global expos declined in significance and cultural appeal; with the advent of radio and improvements to rail travel, fairs didn’t offer the same appeal as they once had.

Nonetheless, they continued to showcase key technological and cultural developments. An important example of this took place at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. There, the first live TV broadcast in history was made.

After the 1933 Chicago World Expo, every world’s fair had a specific theme. In 1930s America, those themes typically promoted positivity in the face of the Great Depression. For the 1939 New York Fair, that theme was titled The World of Tomorrow, though the project’s optimism was somewhat blighted by the outbreak of World War Two.

Expo ’70 – Osaka, 1970

After World War Two came the Cold War era. As showcases of scientific, social and cultural development, global exhibitions became battlegrounds for Cold War rivalries and the race for technological superiority – especially between the US and the USSR.

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The Osaka World Expo, unlike those of the 1950s and 1960s, focused on ‘Progress and Harmony for Mankind’. It showcased the triumphs of Japan’s redevelopment after World War Two, including successful housing developments and infrastructure projects. Visitors could also witness, for the first time, mobile phone technology in action.

Osaka World Expo drew some 64 million viewers, which at the time was the largest global exhibition audience ever.

Recent world expos have adopted a specific aim or topic of urgency. The 2005 Aichi fair in Japan, for example, aimed to sustain areas of natural beauty and importance. The 2010 Expo Shanghai revolved around the future of urban life in dense metropolises, while the 2015 fair in Milan centred on preserving food sources.

Harry Sherrin