World’s Fairs Essay

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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.


  1. “A Brief History of the World’s Fairs.” Time.,29307,1986326,00.html (Accessed September  2014).
  2. Mitchell, Timothy. “The World as Exhibition.” Comparative Studies in Society and History,  31/2 (1989). (Accessed June 2015).
  3. 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).
  4. Swartout, Harry. “How the ‘World of Tomorrow’ Became a Thing of the Past.” Time. (Accessed August 2014).
  5. World’s Fairs. “Expos Q & A.” (Accessed September  2014).

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