Local organizers would be challenged to come up with a World’s Fair that could match -- for ambition, imagination and sheer extravagance -- the famous Expositions of the 19th century.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents (or The Crystal Exhibition), spearheaded by Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, was held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. Charles Darwin visited, as did Charlotte Brontё , Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, and other luminaries of the time. The exhibition was housed in the Crystal Palace, a vast building of iron and glass hailed as an architectural and engineering marvel. The Koh-i-noor diamond was exhibited, and the first public restrooms, designed by George Jennings, were made available to the public for a penny. Six million people attended the exhibition, and the resulting surplus continues to fund research grants and scholarships to the present day.
There were, of course, naysayers. Some conservative thinkers suggested that this vast horde of visitors might erupt into a revolutionary mob; while Karl Marx and his fellow radicals decried its emphasis on capitalist commodities.
Not everything went well. Many of the buildings still remained unfinished at opening time, and though more than 26 million people attended, the Chicago fair teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Worse still, a pall was cast over the closing days of the exposition when the popular mayor of Chicago was assassinated.
The Exposition Universelle, held in Paris over the summer and autumn of 1889, marked the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Its centerpiece was the newly completed Eiffel Tower, which served as the grand entrance to the fair (and caused outrage among the artists of Paris. who called it "the junkman's Notre Dame".) Other main attractions were the Galerie des Machines, which used hinged arches to span what was at that time the world’s longest interior space; and the Colonial Exhibition, “which for the first time brings vividly to the appreciation of the Frenchmen that they are masters of lands beyond the sea....”
(Engineering, May 3, 1889)
In my novel Wild Talent, Jeannie Guthrie and her friend Alexandra David spend a day at the Exposition Universelle – and their reactions, as recorded in Jeannie’s Paris journal, are mixed.
(From Chapter Thirty-Two, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural)
I am not surprised that Madame Blavatsky so dislikes M. Eiffel’s tower. That metal colossus looming over the city is startling to see and impossible to ignore. Alexandra tells me that some of Paris’s most famous writers and artists protested its construction with an angry petition to the city government, but to no avail. However Alexandra, who because of her Oriental studies takes a longer view, says “After all, it is only made of iron. In time it will simply rust away, and fall to bits like Ozymandias.”
In any event, it serves as a grand entrance to the Universal Exposition, and passing beneath is like entering the gates of fairyland. The exposition spread out along the Champ de Mars and well beyond, commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution. (I hoped there would be no guillotines on display – to my relief there are not – though we have heard there was a proposal, wisely rejected, to build one thirty metres high.)
There is an endless and bewildering number of exhibits – more than 61,000, according to the official guide – “a gigantic encyclopaedia, in which nothing is forgotten.” In the History of Habitation we saw a prehistoric house (rather like a tall, lumpy anthill), a Lapland and a Russian house, and homes of the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians. We visited a Polynesian village, a Chinese pavilion, an Angkor Pagoda, a Portico of Ceramics, a display of antique Persian carpets. We rode on the trottoir roulant, the moving pavement, drank black coffee and ate pastries in a Moorish café, watched the Argentinean tango dancers, heard music played on gamelins by Javanese musicians, and opera played on Mr. Edison’s phonograph machine. In a week, or a month, one could not hope to see and hear everything. We agreed to leave the galleries of Industry and Machinery and the Palace of Beaux Arts for another day; nor did we try to see Buffalo
Bill and Annie Oakley in their “Wild West Show”, for the crowds were far too thick.
Though it is advertised as one of the main attractions of the fair, what we enjoyed least was the village nègre, where four hundred native people from the African colonies are kept on display. “A zoo for human beings,” said Alexandra in disgust. “Quelle horreur! C’est révoltant!” – and we quickly moved on.
By then my feet were starting to ache and my head buzzed. I swear that visiting an exposition is more work than thinning a whole field of turnips! But Alexandra, when she is in a mood to explore, has boundless energy.
. . . “Let us stay till after dark,” said Alexandra, “and see the lights come on.” And so we had dinner in an outdoor restaurant, where we ordered cheese soufflés and a bottle of white wine, and were serenaded by a string quartet.
It was nearly midnight, and both of us a little tipsy from the wine and baba à rhum, when at last we went in search of a cab to take us home.