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The World’s Fair, also known as the Universal Exposition, is an international event that has served various purposes throughout its lifetime. Traditionally, a World’s Fair is a gathering of people from across the globe who demonstrated the arts and products from their homelands. Such events have been going on since ancient times, but modern World’s Fairs began in the middle of the
History Of The World’s Fair: Highlights
The first World’s Fair, known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents, took place in 1851 in Hyde Park, London. This event, and World’s Fairs for many years following, gave innovators across the globe the opportunity to showcase their inventions— especially new technologies.
Modern marvels from the first World’s Fair included an early fax machine and the toilet. However, in 1851, the most stunning invention was likely the Crystal Palace—a greenhouse-like structure composed of glass and cast iron. It encompassed the entire exhibition.
At the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, innovators showed off a new invention: horsepower. The American Centennial Exhibition commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United States. Among the exhibit’s showings was a 1,500-horsepower Corliss steam engine, which powered every exhibit at the fair. It was turned on for the event by President Ulysses S. Grant and was the centerpiece of the exhibit’s opening festivities.
In 1889, the World’s Fair was held at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, and was called the Exposition Universelle. The event commemorated a significant moment in France’s history: 100 years of the storming of the Bastille. This event has traditionally represented the beginning of the French Revolution. A replica of the Bastille prison was created for the fair, but the highlight of the event was La Tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower), which was designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Eiffel Tower, at 1,063 feet, was the tallest standing structure of its time. At the time of its completion, it was considered an eyesore, but today, it is one of Europe’s most-well-loved monuments.
In 1893, the World’s Fair came back to the United States, specifically, Chicago, Illinois. Although Christopher Columbus landed far from this city, the event was held there to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the New World. The great Chicago Ferris wheel debuted at the event. It was 26 feet tall, held 36 cars, and could hold as many as 60 individuals. The wheel was built and designed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.
Skipping to 1915, when the World’s Fair was held in San Francisco and was dedicated to the completion of the Panama Canal, the event was titled the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The event was much more than a dedication to the canal, however. Its opening was also a sign of faith and gratitude in the city of San Francisco, which had been nearly destroyed in an earthquake and fire in 1906. At the center of the fair stood the 433-foot-tall Tower of Jewels, a structure that features more than 100,000 Austrian glass fragments known as nova gems. These gems ranged in hues from aquamarine and yellow. The jewels were lighted by sunlight during the day and by spotlights and floodlights in the evening.
In 1967, the World’s Fair was held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. At the International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, the United States commissioned the U.S. futurist and architect Buckminster Fuller to design its pavilion to characterize our nation’s culture at the event. What emerged was a 200-foot rendition of Fuller’s iconic geodesic dome, which became one of the highlights of the event. Although a fire in 1976 burned the acrylic “skin” of the dome, the steel lattice now remains as a design at a local museum.
In 1970, the position of the World’s Fair changed quite drastically. The World’s Fair had been held exclusively in Western countries for more than 100 years, and the United States alone played host to the event 18 times. In 1970, Japan changed this by hosting Asia’s first World’s Fair in Osaka. The event hosted the first IMAX film, magnetic-levitation technology, and mobile phone innovations.
In 2010, the World Expo was hosted in China for the first time—further establishing the wealthy country as a world player. It was held in the city of Shanghai on the banks of the Huangpu River and was the first major World Expo in the tradition to occur since 1992. The theme of the exposition was “Better City—Better Life,” and it showed China as the “next great world city.” The Expo emblem featured the Chinese character 世 (shì, or world), which was modified to represent three people joined together by the 2010 date. It featured the largest number of countries ever at a World’s Fair event and, at 5.28 square kilometers, was the largest site ever. By the time the exposition had ended, more than 73 million people had visited and 246 countries participated. It was the largest World’s Fair/Exhibition ever to occur.
World’s Fairs And The Expression Of The Orient
World’s Fairs have come under scrutiny for presenting the Orient as the Other, especially Egypt, as Timothy Mitchell points out. In one exhibition in Stockholm in 1889, the Egyptian exhibit was set up like a chaotic bazaar, while other exhibits were clean and well organized. Donkeys paraded around the event to give tourists rides, disgusting the Oriental visitors.
And it wasn’t just the Orient. Throughout the 19th century, non-European nations and visitors continued to be marginalized and stereotyped, being put on display to satisfy European curiosity. Europeans were known for their propensity to stand and stare at Other objects and people. Orient and non-European individuals, of course, found this uncomfortable. The European observer is a common theme across all World’s Fairs.
Race And Fair Representations During The World’s Fairs
Mitchell is not the only academic to have found issue with the World’s Fairs. Robert W. Rydell, in his texts on the subject, calls out the blatant racism showcased at such events. Rydell argues that America’s early World’s Fairs actually served to legitimate racial exploitation in the United States and the creation of an empire abroad.
Rydell is particularly interested in the “ethnological” displays of nonwhites. These displays, which were set up by showmen but endorsed by popular anthropologists at the time, lent scientific credibility to popular racist attitudes—enhancing public support for foreign and domestic policies on the subject of race and the Other.
In addition, the expanding concern over immigration by the leisure class during these early World’s Fairs helped promote eugenicist ideas about the hierarchy of white populations. World’s Fairs did not stand in opposition to the workingclass idea of leisure, either. In fact, they utilized them to racially segregate members of the American population in the name of “science.”
Over the years, the World’s Fairs have become more politically correct and accepting of all entries, individuals, and exhibits. However, it is important to remember the history of these events so that we do not repeat our mistakes.
World’s Fairs have made a large impact on the world, both culturally and in terms of innovations. Some of the greatest inventions were first showcased at these events, which now have an uncertain future. Although the next World’s Fair is taking place in 2015 in Milan, Italy, attendees will not see the same kind of innovations they could have expected to see 100 years ago. The medium for the exhibition has changed, and themes tend to be more environmental than technological or architectural. Today’s World’s Fairs focus on solving large-scale global problems instead of new technological innovations. The issue with World’s Fairs is that they do not make money for their host countries, whereas events such as the Olympics do. The United States, however, will participate in future World’s Fairs and will likely host one in one of its largest cities in 2025.
- “A Brief History of the World’s Fairs.” Time. http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1986326,00.html (Accessed September 2014).
- Mitchell, Timothy. “The World as Exhibition.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 31/2 (1989). (Accessed June 2015).
- Rydell, Robert and Nancy E. Gwinn, eds. Fair Representations: World’s Fairs and the Modern World. European Contributions to American Studies, vol. 27. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994. (Accessed June 2015).
- Swartout, Harry. “How the ‘World of Tomorrow’ Became a Thing of the Past.” Time. http://time.com/79600/the-fall-of-the-fair/ (Accessed August 2014).
- World’s Fairs. “Expos Q & A.” http://www.worldsfairs.com/Worlds_Fairs/Expos_Q%26A.html (Accessed September 2014).