The first world’s fair recognized by the Bureau of International Expositions was the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in and around a glass structure called the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. Thirty-two countries participated in the almost six-month-long event, which attracted more than six million visitors. Few souvenirs of the event remain, and even the Crystal Palace is gone (in 1854 it was moved to Sydenham in South London, where it burned to the ground in 1936).
Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1855 at the Palais de l’Industrie. Organized by Prince Napoleon Jerome, the agriculturally focused expo is best perhaps remembered for its official classification of Bordeaux wines, a five-tiered system that persists to this day, despite the complaints of oenophiles.
The United States hosted its first official exposition in 1876 to mark the country’s centennial. Held in Philadelphia, the Centennial Exposition offered visitors all sorts of keepsakes, from inkwells and sewing boxes to metal Liberty Bell paperweights and stereoviews of everything from Tiffany vases to the steel turret salvaged from the famous Civil War vessel “The Monitor.” It was also the place where Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, the telephone, was introduced.
Toward the end of the century, in 1893, a second U.S. exposition was presented in Chicago. Called the Columbian World’s Fair, the spectacle was timed for the 400th anniversary of… the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the new world. In addition to the china, glassware, prints, postcards, badges, medals, and charms that were produced for the fair, collectors of world’s fair material seek out the official U.S. coins that were minted prior to the event to help raise money for it.
Paris held its second world’s fair in 1900; like the first, it was located around the Eiffel Tower. Souvenir plates depicted guests from all over the world attending the fair and the structures built for it, as well as lists of scheduled events, such as a performance by Sarah Bernhardt. Visitors could also take home souvenir photo portfolios, postcards, and stereoviews of the fairgrounds.
The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, followed in 1901; coins, pinbacks, and shot glasses were offered at that fair. A new-fangled contraption called an x-ray machine was exhibited, but the event is infamous as the assassination site of President William McKinley, who was shot by an anarchist inside the Temple of Music.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis in 1904, offered the usual array of ceramic plates and glass and metal cups to visitors, and it gained greater notoriety in 1944 when “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland, hit movie theaters.
In 1909, Seattle hosted its first world’s fair when the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was held on what is now the campus of the University of Washington. Tourists took home Staffordshire plates, aluminum cigar holders, and beribboned pinbacks.
In 1915, San Francisco and San Diego each held expos to mark the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The San Francisco event popularized the ukulele, while the San Diego expo left a lasting legacy on the city’s Balboa Park.
A couple of decades later, in 1933, the city of Chicago presented A Century of Progress, an Art Deco feast of posters, beaded purses, salt-and-pepper shakers, radios, Brownie cameras, pocket watches, clocks, and model cars and trains. Jigsaw puzzles of the fairgrounds were produced, and at the Hall of Religion, you could pick up a copy of “The World’s Smallest Bible,” which fit in a teaspoon. Burlesque queen Sally Rand performed at the fair, and photos of her famously revealing fan dance are prized by collectors.
The end of the decade, 1939, saw two fairs in the United States, held simultaneously in San Francisco and New York. While the fair in San Francisco is recalled by some for its arts and design exhibitions, including a model room by Kem Weber, New York’s “World of Tomorrow” is an icon of late-Great Depression optimism, symbolized by the 700-foot-tall Trylon and its adjacent 200-foot-diameter Perisphere, which housed a miniature city of the future dubbed “Democracity.” Fiesta made plates depicting a potter at his wheel, there were numerous types of hand-painted Nippon ware to choose from, and there were even knockoffs of Wedgwood and Lalique. RCA made a commemorative radio, Remington did the same with a portable typewriter, and Macy’s sold Dutch Girl dolls. Lighters, compacts, and ashtrays were also popular, as were coins, pins, buttons, badges, and pocket knives.
Four fairs were held in North America in the 1960s: The Century 21 Exposition in Seattle, 1962; yet another World’s Fair in New York, 1964; Expo 67 in Montreal; and HemisFair ’68 in San Antonio. Of these, the expos in Seattle and Montreal left the biggest marks. Seattle is still identified with the Space Needle that was built for the event and immediately replicated on stamps, medals, plates, glasses (the ones given away at Mobil gas stations are probably the best known), spoons, lamps, and pens. The legacy of Expo 67 can be seen in the architecture of Moshe Safdie, whose modular Habitat ’67 housing units are either an eyesore or a work of a visionary genius.