The World’s Exhibitions conjure up images of New York’s 1964 mid-century technicolor vision of the future, the 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel and Midway (and HH Holmes), and the Eiffel Tower, which was built for the World’s Fair. from 1889 in Paris. There is also the idea that these world gatherings were organized primarily to entertain the masses. But it was more than just entertainment.
The earliest versions of the World’s Fair coincided with the spread of the Industrial Revolution from England to the United States and the events provided a platform from which countries and companies could display their industrial might and the latest innovations. . They were also designed to instill confidence in an audience still used to the idea that many of the products they use every day are now made using machines rather than by hand.
Here’s a look at the role of the Industrial Revolution in creating World’s Fairs and how influential international gatherings accelerated the development of new technologies.
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Local festivals expand to international exhibitions
The concept of bringing people together to show and sell what they have produced is not new. After agricultural festivals had existed for centuries, groups of mechanics and craftsmen began organizing their own fairs around the 17th century, according to Robert Rydell, professor emeritus of history at Montana State University and author of several books on world exhibitions.
“For centuries there have been agricultural fairs and festivals, and then as you step into the 17th century, there are different celebrations that mechanics and craftsmen would organize,” says Rydell. “As we move closer to the 19th century, with the acceleration of industrialization, there are festivals dedicated to showing what individuals and groups of mechanics have been able to accomplish with new innovations,” says Rydell. , noting that they were regional, and not yet national in scope.
In 1851, the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry from All Nations, better known as the Great Exhibition or Crystal Palace Exhibition, was a game-changer. The event, which is considered the first World’s Fair, took place in Hyde Park in London. It was not only the first national festival celebrating industrial progress, it was also the first international exhibition, explains Rydell. “It really brought together parties, governments and private interests across the Atlantic and Europe to show the fruits of industrialization,” he adds.
The centerpiece of the event was the exhibition hall: a glass and cast iron structure called Crystal Palace. Resembling a massive greenhouse, the interior was flooded with natural light, giving attendees an enlightening look at the world’s newest industrial wonders, usually confined to dark factories.
“The Crystal Palace exhibit was intended to provide a measure of stability and confidence in the face of growing anxiety over industrialization,” said Rydell.
Bringing the factory to fairground enthusiasts
As well as being a time of unprecedented innovation, the start of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century England was also a time of enormous social upheaval and upheaval. “People had been moved from farms, [and there were] industrial depression cycles, ”says Rydell. “There is nothing certain about where industrialization is going, so what will the future look like? This is the question that the promoters of the Crystal Palace have attempted to resolve and answer for a mass audience.
Subsequent international exhibitions and exhibitions, notably those in Paris (1855, 1867, and 1878) and Philadelphia (1876), also sought to make the public more comfortable with the idea of industrialization and manufacturing. But starting with the Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, companies took a new approach: instead of just letting show visitors see their latest products, they would show them how they were made.
Known as “process exhibitions,” the companies installed small-scale but fully functional versions of their factories at the events, giving visitors the chance to see for themselves how everything was made, from glass to glass. shoes to food, according to Allison C. Marsh, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina in a chapter of Meet me at the fair: a world fair reader.
But the purpose of these exhibits wasn’t for attendees to come away with a working knowledge of the technical details involved in manufacturing, Marsh notes. Instead, the companies aimed to demonstrate the complexity of the process and their advanced machines.
“By highlighting the number of steps, manufacturers could illustrate the quality of their products and justify the price of the end product,” writes Marsh. Like the organizers of the Universal Exhibition of 1851, companies hoped that these factories on site would inspire confidence in consumers who may still be hesitant about mass products and industrialization in general.
A tradition of technological progress
The incredible success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 kicked off the exhibition movement around the world, serving as a model for those that followed. The exhibitions of new products and technological marvels have kindled a fire under potential competitors to come up with something even more impressive for the next exhibition, further fueling industrial growth and development.
“Think of it in terms of soft diplomatic power,” Rydell says. “You are not going to war on someone, but you are basically showing the kind of power that you have amassed with all your resources.”