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Who was the person credited with the concept of a world's fair?

Queen Victoria
Robert Moses
Prince Albert
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World's Fair
by E.L. Doctorow


This novel tells the story of Edgar Altshuler, a 9-year-old boy from the Bronx, and his adventures at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. On his first visit to the fair, Edgar is enthralled by industry's vision of the futuresafe, secure and prosperous cities, speedy and cheap transportation and modern invention to make life easier. On his second visit, he sees that the exhibits are constructed of gypsum whose paint is peeling and that the displays are really toys.
                                   
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1964 NY World's Fair

Travel back in time to the 1964 New York World's Fair and take a tour of the fairgrounds. Though not sanctioned by the World's Fair Committee, it was still a spectacular exposition.
              
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1939 NY World's Fair Snowglobe
 

The Great World's Fairs
by Bob Brooke

 

What exactly is a world’s fair? Is it a fair, an exhibition, a gathering place? It’s all those things and more. People have been going to fairs of one kind or another for centuries.



Where and when the first fair was held isn’t known, however, evidence points to the existence of fairs as early as 500 BCE in the eastern Mediterranean. Back then they had more to do with trade and commerce—a sort of marketplace, such as the great camel fairs in Arabia. Fairs were also tied to festivals and religious feasts. As the fair evolved in Western Europe, it became a place for trading agricultural products. But it wasn’t until Prince Albert of England linked a fair to science and technology in 1851 that the first world’s fair was born.



For over 150 years, the public has been inspired by and in awe of the world’s fair. Since making its grand debut in Victorian London, the international spectacle has celebrated the achievements of countries across the globe, including industrial inventions, scientific advancements, and cultural contributions.

Inspired by a string of national exhibitions in 18th and 19th-century Britain, London hosted the first world’s fair, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, in 1851. With a focus on both enlightening and entertaining, this exposition showcased the industry of nations around the world, introducing audiences to “exotic” ideas and paving the way for future world’s fairs.

As the world’s fairs evolved, they featured a wide variety of exhibitions of industrial, scientific, and cultural items on display at a specific site for a period of time, ranging usually from three to six months. World’s fairs include exhibits from a significant number of countries and often have an entertainment zone in which visitors can enjoy rides, exotic attractions, and food and beverages. Since the mid-19th century more than 100 world’s fairs have been held in more than 20 countries throughout the world.

The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), a Paris-based organization established in 1928, governs and regulates these fairs. Its objective is to bring order to exposition scheduling and to make clear the rights and responsibilities of the host city and participants. The original convention that established the BIE and set up guidelines for expositions has been revised a number of times, but as of the early 21st century a large exposition, termed a “registered exhibition,” could be held once every five years, and one smaller exposition, called a “recognized exhibition,” could be held during the interval.

Early National Exhibitions
The English national fairs of the 18th century, which combined trade shows with carnival-like public entertainment, were among the forerunners of the modern world’s fair.

The British mechanics’ institutes began sponsoring exhibitions in the 1830s. They brought scientific education to craftsmen and factory workers, and their exhibitions displayed tools and other labor-saving mechanical devices based on the latest scientific inventions. These exhibitions also featured entertainment and exotic displays, such as so-called “genuine historical relics” of sometimes dubious authenticity, as well as fine arts shows that mingled works by local and national artists.

Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition And Its Legacy
The idea of a grand exhibition wasn’t entirely new but drew on exhibitions that had gone before it. British inventor Sir Henry Cole and Prince Albert planned what came to be commonly known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, held in London’s Hyde Park between May 1 and October 15, 1851. This show placed an emphasis on new technologies—including an early model of the fax machine and an advanced telescope—as well as extraordinary curiosities, like a rare Celtic brooch and the world’s largest diamond.

A royal commission chaired by Prince Albert held a competition for a building design. Ultimately, however, the commission rejected all the entries submitted and instead chose a design by Joseph Paxton, a greenhouse builder. Paxton’s iron-and-glass structure, dubbed the Crystal Palace, delighted the public and contributed to the success of the exhibition.

The exhibits on display inside the Crystal Palace included scientific and technological marvels from many different countries as well as works of art and craftsmanship. Some six million people attended the exhibition, which earned a substantial profit, one of only two fairs to do so.



The critical and financial success of the exhibition ensured that world’s fairs would continue to be held. The period between 1880 and World War I was a golden age of these fairs, with more than 40 international expositions held in locations as varied as Australia---Melbourne, Victoria in 1888 and Hobart, Tasmania in 1894 and 1895—Guatemala City, Guatemala in 1897, and in Hanoi in1901 and 1903, then located in French Indochina and now the capital of Vietnam..

Not to be outdone by the British, Americans mounted the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, more commonly known as the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition, held in 1853 and 1854 in an iron-and-glass structure in Bryant Park. It showcased the same types of displays as its London counterpart but also included an especially impressive sculpture collection. Unfortunately, attendance never measured up to expectations, and it ended with a substantial financial loss. It would be more than 20 years before another exposition occurred in the United States.

As rivals to the British, the French mounted their own exhibitions. Fair organizers in Paris held the first in a long series of international expositions in 1855. The exposition occupied a larger space and included exhibits from more countries than the Crystal Palace, and it presented several new features, such as reduced admission prices on Sundays and a separate fine arts pavilion that contained some 5,000 works by artists from 29 countries. Although it lost money, the 1855 Paris exposition left such a positive legacy that the government sponsored subsequent expositions in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900, each attracting a larger attendance than the previous one.

By the 1870s the international exposition movement had become well established, and the planners of the centennial commemoration of America’s Declaration of Independence concluded that a world’s fair would be the most appropriate type of celebration. Consequently, the U.S. Centennial Exhibition, held in Philadelphia in 1876, was a critical success and attendance of just under 10 million was enough to offset a large financial loss. It inspired a rush of world’s fairs in the United States, especially in the South, over the next 40 years.



The Philadelphia centennial exhibition showcased the products of the early Industrial Revolution in America. The 700-ton Corliss engine, the largest steam engine ever built amazed fairgoers, as well as new inventions such as the telephone, the typewriter, and the mechanical calculator. In addition, the exposition hosted the first international art exhibition in the United States and was the first to spread exhibits out over several large, topically designated pavilions, a practice that soon became standard. Some 24 states erected their own pavilions as well, an idea repeated at many later fairs.

When they weren’t marveling at the first transcontinental telephone call or admiring the on-loan Liberty Bell, visitors spent their time strolling down wide boulevards, attending scientific and educational presentations, “traveling” to international pavilions and enjoying thrilling displays of sports, racing, music and art.

Although there were many important expositions in the last decades of the 19th century, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 was the most significant world’s fair in U.S. history and one of the most important in the history of world expositions. Coming soon after the spectacular 1889 exposition in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower was the main attraction, the World’s Columbian Exposition, in the minds of its organizers, had to be bigger and more important than its Parisian predecessor. Chicago’s managers never found a signature structure to surpass the Eiffel Tower but they did create an exposition whose architecture shaped the country’s style for the next 25 years and whose exhibits were more impressive than anything seen before. Moreover, the exposition introduced the concept of the midway, a lively entertainment zone, a feature that soon became a staple of virtually all future expositions.

It also boasted an array of rides, including the world’s first Ferris Wheel and a moveable walkway. Additionally, the World’s Columbian Exposition was the first to feature international pavilions, an important element of fairs to follow.



The World’s Columbian Exposition marked the peak of the golden age of fairs. It was more spectacular than anything that had preceded it, and, with the possible exception of the great Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, no later exposition matched its splendor or its influence. Still, a major international exposition occurred almost annually somewhere in the world between 1893 and 1916, when World War I brought a temporary end to the movement. Some, like St. Louis in 1904 and San Francisco in 1915, were large and showy. Others, like the Jamestown Exhibition—held in Norfolk, Virginia in 1907 for the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony—were smaller and marked important historical anniversaries. Still others, like London’s Franco-British Exhibition in 1908, signified bilateral friendship. In addition, some smaller countries hosted expositions to mark their emergence onto the international scene, such as the Belgian expositions in Liège in 1905 and Brussels in 1910.

The world’s fairs held in the United States were somewhat different from those held in Europe. U.S. participation in European fairs was privately managed. Besides being mostly privately run, American world’s fairs included rides, exotic attractions, and by the 1890s, foreign or native “villages” that showed fairgoers the way of life of groups from Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific islands, who were generally presented as belonging to “primitive” societies. By the first decade of the 20th century, fairs in Europe also had adopted these types of entertainment attractions.

The Turning Point for World’s Fairs
World War I was the turning point for world’s fairs. After the War, fairs never regained the cultural status they had enjoyed before the war. Fewer were held, and many weren’t artistically or commercially successful. With improved transportation and communication, fairs had less to offer people who could now see movies or hear radio programs about foreign lands or even travel relatively easily to visit them firsthand.



Nonetheless, there were some noteworthy expositions during this time. The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, made the architectural and design style known as Art Deco highly popular for the next 15 years. The British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924 and 1925, the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris in 1931, and the Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Brussels in 1935 showcased the overseas empires of these three countries at a time when rumblings of independence were just beginning to be heard from their colonies.

Two American expositions of the 1930s deserve special mention. The Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933 and 1934 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940 were both exciting examples of Art Deco architecture, designed to take fairgoers’ minds off the Great Depression by suggesting the wonderful future that awaited them once the hard times were over.

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair, and those that followed, took a different approach, one less focused on technology and aimed more at cultural themes and social progress. For instance, the theme of the 1939 fair was "Building the World of Tomorrow"; at the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, it was "Peace Through Understanding." Unfortunately, the BIE had refused to sanction the fair because of the organizers’ refusal to follow its guidelines.

 

WATCH A VIDEO:  1939-40 NY World's Fair Newsreel

Today, people can see and hear what’s happening all over the world at the touch of a button or the swipe of a smartphone screen. New technology happens faster than people can absorb it. In this digital age, world’s fairs such as existed in the 19th and early 20th century now seem redundant.

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