Monday, July 22, 2013

The Great Exhibition

File:Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. 1854.jpg
The Crystal Palace courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And saw thim walls, And glittering halls, Thim rising slendther columns, Which I poor pote, Could not denote, No, not in twinty vollums… This Palace tall, This Cristial Hall, Which Imperors might covet, Stands in High Park, Like Noah's Ark, A rainbow bint above it.
~ William Makepeace Thackeray

It was Prince Albert who had the bright idea of a world’s fair. France had just had the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844 and England couldn’t be outdone. They were going to have a world’s fair, not just a fair for the country.

Fairs were old hat, they’d been around since the dawn of time. Exhibitions were a little newer; the first one was in London in 1756 with the novel name of the First Exhibition. It had live artists like Reynolds, Wilson, Cosway and Roubiliac on display, not to mention their paintings. After that there was a whole slew, one through seven, of exhibitions in Paris, displaying their manufacturing might and in 1829, there was the American Institute Fair, founded "for the encouragement of agriculture, commerce, manufactures, and the arts." There were a couple after that in Sardinia and numbers eight through eleven in France.

But this was going to be a world’s fair. Queen Victoria was on the throne and England had never been in finer form; even France couldn’t match her industrial might. The fair had to be splendid and it had to be housed in a splendid building. They picked Hyde Park, a spot in London, the world’s biggest city, for the building site and erected the Crystal Palace.

File:Broad Walk in Hyde Park, by Park Lane - - 788977.jpg
Hyde Park courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It must have been lovely, the sunlight glittering off the glass and cast iron that made it. The ceiling was twenty-seven feet tall, plenty big enough to house the full sized elm trees they planted inside. Queen Elizabeth noted to the Duke of Wellington that there were an awful lot of sparrows in there. The Duke proposed a solution, “sparrowhawks, ma’am.”

But the most important thing was that the Crystal Palace was large enough to house the first world’s fair. The American Institute Fair picked up and came over the Pond and others were not to be outdone. Exhibits from Australia, India, New Zealand, Denmark, France and Switzerland moved in, bringing with them things like looms, envelope machines, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays, the world's biggest known diamond, the precursor to today's fax machine, Colt’s marvelous revolvers and a   barometer that used leeches.
The fair was a success. Over six million people flooded in to see the sights, equivalent to one third of Britain’s population. Lots of notables came, not to mention Samuel Colt, Charles Darwin, members of the OrlĂ©anist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte BrontĂ«, Lewis Carroll and George Eliot. At the opening on May 1, 2,500 tickets were sold, the total that had been printed for the day. England raked in the dough, in total four and a half million shillings, £19,580,504 in today’s money, or roughly $31,659,687.77, more than enough to pay back what it had coast.

It was all over by October and the United States, Australia, India, New Zealand, Denmark, France and Switzerland packed up and left. The surplus money from the fair was used to build the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, all located in Albertopolis south of Hyde Park. Once they were done, there was still some money left over, so it was used to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research. It continues to do so today.

The fair was so popular, it was decided that the Crystal Palace would hold a permanent exhibit. It was
relocated to Sydenham, south of London. Because people just couldn’t leave it alone it was outfitted with two railway stations between 1857 and 1864. The Crystal Palace held the world’s first world’s fair, so it seemed fitting that it held the world’s first cat show in 1871. There was a poem written for it in 1851 and another in 1909. In 1911 it housed the Festival of Empire to celebrate the coronation of George V. During the First World War, it served as a naval training facility under the name of HMS Victory VI. Most people slipped up and called it the HMS Crystal Palace instead. It burned down in 1936.  
This is a cat

The Great Exposition was the first of many world’s fairs, the most famous and largest of which, was probably the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892, which had not one building, but two hundred. We have never seen another like it. The Eiffel Tower, one of France’s most famous landmarks, is a relic of another world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Since then World’s Fairs have been held more often than the Olympics. They pop up all over the place, Ecuador, New Zealand, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Panama, India, just to name a few. Just think of a country, and it’s probably had one. There’s even one in Milan in 2015, if you’d like to go, and there was one in South Korea last year, if you want to think about where you could have gone.   

And it was all Prince Albert’s idea.     


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