International Expositions Essay

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The first international exposition was held in London in 1851. It was not until the 1867 Paris Exposition that specialized educational exhibits were put on display. In Paris, nearly 1,200 different educational items were included—half came from France and the remaining materials from countries such as England, Belgium, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark. At the 1873 Viennese Exposition, more than 5,000 exhibitors sent materials for the educational exhibits. Later, key exhibitions took place in the United States.

Educational exhibits included in the international expositions provided important transfer points for educational innovations of the period. In addition, they represented how education and knowledge served as instruments of hegemony and power on an international basis. In doing so, their importance was much greater than has been traditionally recognized in the history of American education. This entry focuses on key U.S. expositions.

The Philadelphia Centennial

By 1876, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, educational materials had become commonplace at the expositions. In Philadelphia, the educational exhibits included not only examples of student schoolwork, but also model curricula and school buildings—many representing the most innovative educational ideas of the era. In addition, an International Congress on Education and a Library Congress were held as part of the exhibition. Both of these congresses were among the very first meetings of their type, anticipating the large international educational research conferences that have become a widespread phenomenon in our own era.

A number of important educational firsts are associated with the Philadelphia exhibition. John Eaton, the American Secretary of Education, for example, put out an invitation to educators across the country not only to send exhibits, but also to contribute to a multivolume centennial history of American schools. Although only a few states finally contributed full-blown histories of their educational efforts and innovations, these works represent, perhaps as much as any single work, the beginning of the field of American educational history.

Interesting displays at Philadelphia included a fully operational Swedish schoolhouse, a display of metric education, and extensive portfolios from urban school systems such as St. Louis and Boston. In the area of industrial education, the exhibit of the design curriculum of the Moscow Imperial Technical Institute provided what was to become the principal model of industrial education used in the United States for the next generation.

Created by the Institute’s head, Victor Della Vos, the curriculum on display in Philadelphia broke down the training of mechanical arts, such as forging and wood joinery, into its component parts. Thus, a student in the woodworking sequence was trained how to make various wood joints. The idea was to give students the foundation necessary to create original work of their own, rather than slavishly copy the work of others. American educators such as John Runkle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Calvin Woodward at Washington University in St. Louis adapted Della Vos’s ideas for American schools, creating what would become the dominant model for industrial education in the decades that followed.

Other educational fields were also influenced by the exhibits in Philadelphia. Metric education, for example, was introduced at the exposition by Melvil Dewey, who also promoted his decimal system of library classification at the library meetings at the exposition. Probably most influential was the first public exhibition of a demonstration kindergarten by the Northern Orphanage in Philadelphia and kindergarten materials in the United States. Kindergarten training materials such as “The Gifts and Occupations,” created by the German educator Frederick Froebel and manufactured by the Massachusetts-based Milton Bradley Company, were included, as well as highly detailed photographs from the St. Louis public schools, which had begun the first public school kindergartens in the United States in 1873.

Chicago And Beyond

In 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, innovations in industrial education such as the Swedish Sloyd system were introduced and had an important impact on American school curricula. When the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition was held in St. Louis, students in the public schools were brought to the fair. The response was so positive that the Superintendent of Schools, F. Louis Soldan, and the Assistant Superintendent, Carl Rathman, persuaded the school board to allot $1,000 to buy materials from foreign exhibitors for an educational museum. Purchases included botanical collections, mounted animals, art objects, and a large collection of lantern slides. Materials from countries such as Japan, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand were included in the new museum. The museum, which opened in April 1905, is widely considered to be the first audiovisual education program in the United States.

This connection between the educational exhibits at the international exposition and museum development in the United States is an important one. After the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition closed, many foreign exhibitors gave their displays to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. These materials provided many of the early exhibits for the National Museum, as did the U.S. government exhibits that were brought back from Philadelphia.

Other museums were a direct outgrowth of expositions held in the United States as well. In March 1873, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed legislation for the construction of Memorial Hall, which was to serve as the art gallery of the exposition. In May 1877, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art was opened. This museum was the predecessor of the modern Philadelphia Art Museum. In Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History was created as a direct outgrowth of the World’s Columbian Exposition, as was the St. Louis Art Museum after the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Although the role of the educational exhibits at the international expositions as a force for innovation and educational transfer was important, the exhibits are also interesting in terms of how they reflected issues of cultural hegemony and domination during the same period. Western education, particularly technological and industrial education, was presented in the exhibits, and by educational leaders at the expositions, as a force for civilizing less “developed” countries and people. Much of the rhetoric of the educational exhibits emphasized bringing civilization to colonized populations. At each new exposition, this theme became increasingly emphasized, culminating with the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. The schooling of Native American populations, for example, was a major theme of the exhibits in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition. The education of students in the newly acquired American protectorate of the Philippines was similarly emphasized as a subject in the educational exhibits at St. Louis in 1904, including the running of a demonstration school.


  1. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1976). Education and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, 32(2), 99–109.
  2. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1979). The educational museum of the St. Louis public schools. Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, 35(3), 147–153.

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