Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: world fair from The Penguin English Dictionary

an international exhibition featuring exhibits and participants from all over the world.


Summary Article: World's Fairs and Expositions from Encyclopedia of American Studies

Often described as “encyclopedias of civilization,” world's fairs have characterized the modernizing world since the success of London's 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. By World War I world's fairs spanned Europe, the United States, and the colonies of the world's imperial powers. Following World War I a second wave of world's fairs began and crested with the worldwide collapse of capitalism in the 1930s. After World War II, world's fairs had to compete with a growing array of electronic media and theme parks, and they lost some of their luster and popularity in the United States, especially after the 1984 New Orleans World Exposition proved financially disastrous and Chicago decided not to hold a world's fair in 1992. These failures notwithstanding, world's fairs continued to be held (Seville, Spain, 1992; Lisbon, Portugal, 1998; Hannover, Germany, 2000) and planned (Aiichi, Japan, 2005). Whether or not world's fairs ever regain their prominence in the United States, they certainly had a formative influence in shaping the modern American nation-state after the Civil War.

World's Fairs in the Victorian Era

As in Europe, world's fairs in the United States owed their origins to the Crystal Palace Exhibition. This fair was sponsored by the British government against a backdrop of social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution and was intended as a cultural counterweight to the aftershocks of the 1848 political revolutions in Europe. Mired in the throes of a political crisis, the U.S. government refused to send an official exhibit. But a number of American manufacturers sent displays of such items as harvesters and guns that convinced foreign observers that the United States was rapidly industrializing.

Some six million people attended the Crystal Palace Exhibition. However, when a group of New Yorkers, led by Horace Greeley, sought federal support for their plans to build a Crystal Palace Exposition in 1853 on what was later the site of the New York Public Library, their plans were subverted by a lack of consensus in Congress. With only limited support from the federal government, the 1853 exposition became a local and regional event.

Thoughts about holding a world's fair receded in importance with the onset of the Civil War. But when it became clear, especially after the Panic of 1873, that reconstructing the American nation would be neither automatic nor natural, discussions began in earnest about holding a world's fair that would transcend sectional loyalties and reinvent a sense of American nationalism.

When it opened in 1876 the Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition became the focal point for rebuilding confidence in America's future. The fair covered 285 acres (115 ha), attracted nearly ten million fairgoers, and displayed many technological marvels, including Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. But the fair also defined progress along carefully constructed gender and racial lines. Few African Americans were allowed to participate; American Indians were displayed as savages; and women were relegated to subordinate status, a role that Susan B. Anthony explicitly protested when she presented the “Declaration of Women's Rights” during the fair's Fourth of July ceremonies.

The Philadelphia fair did not make a profit from gate receipts, but its residual effects, especially in the construction, lodging, and transportation industries, boosted the city's sagging economy. Equally important, the fair stimulated the cultural reconstruction of the United States—a process that would continue well into the next century in a context that saw the children of Civil War veterans confronting growing signs of a new kind of internal strife, class conflict.

After 1876 America's world's fair movement headed south to New Orleans (1884–1885), Atlanta (1895), Nashville (1897), Charleston (1901–1902), and Jamestown (1907). These fairs overwhelmingly promoted the reintegration of the South into the United States by emphasizing trade with Latin America and the investment opportunities for Northerners in Southern industry. They also promoted a new theory of race relations best articulated by Booker T. Washington in his “Atlanta Compromise Address” at the 1895 Atlanta fair, in which he urged African Americans to accept segregation in exchange for increased economic opportunities in the New South.

In 1893 the United States entered its worst depression prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s. With signs of political radicalism everywhere to be seen (even before the depression and with the political restoration that had been accomplished since the Civil War appearing increasingly tenuous), the U.S. government determined to hold another world's fair to mark the quadricentennial of Columbus's landfall in the New World. Chicago's civic leaders outbid rivals in St. Louis and New York to win congressional approval to host the World's Columbian Exposition. Arguably the most important world's fair in American history, it attracted nearly twenty million visitors and involved countless millions more in exhibit gathering activities at the state and local levels and in such nationalizing rituals as the Pledge of Allegiance, which was introduced as part of the fair's dedication ceremonies.

The 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition was an architectural wonderland. Chief architect Daniel Burnham and some of the most important American architects of the time, including Louis Sullivan; McKim, Mead and White; and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, converted a desolate tract of land south of downtown Chicago into a laboratory for urban planning. The main exhibition buildings, often called palaces, were designed in a neoclassical style, painted white, and called the White City. Major exhibition structures displayed the marvels of American industrial and agricultural productivity, as well as some Americans' claims to be as artistically sophisticated as their European counterparts.

If the White City was intended to define the meaning of civilization, another part of the fair, the Midway Plaisance, was intended to define its antithesis, “savagery.” Inspired by the anthropological and colonial exhibits at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, the Midway, which ran for a mile at a right angle to the White City, featured so-called ethnological villages with Africans, Chinese, Japanese, American Indian, Middle Eastern, Irish, and German inhabitants who performed for fairgoers in the shadows of George Ferris's monumental revolving wheel. The Midway, part of the fair's anthropology department, popularized social Darwinian ideas about race. It also fired the imaginations of many entertainment impresarios, including George C. Tilyou, who led the way in transforming Coney Island into the amusement capital of Victorian America.

Like the Philadelphia fair, the Chicago exposition discriminated against African Americans. To protest the fair's policies, which had the effect of excluding most African American exhibitors, Ida B. Wells urged blacks to boycott the fair. Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, urged blacks to attend the fair and used his position as Haiti's official representative to the exposition to condemn the rising tide of segregation and lynching.

American women also divided over the best strategy to use with respect to their representations at the fair. Congress had mandated the creation of a separate Woman's Building, but some women argued that women exhibitors should be placed on an equal footing with men in the major exposition buildings. When the exposition's male directors finally decided that the Woman's Building would be located at the juncture of the White City and the Midway Plaisance, it was clear that women were expected to have an uplifting and civilizing influence on the anarchy and savagery on view along the Midway.

Similar to most world's fairs, the 1893 exposition was intended to be temporary—seen, read about, and remembered. But its institutional legacies were anything but ephemeral. It led to the creation of several museums, including Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. Its displays contributed to many other museum collections, including those of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution. It inspired such writers as William Dean Howells and Robert Herrick to write novels based on the fair and served as the occasion for a meeting of historians that heard Frederick Jackson Turner present his famous frontier thesis.

Between 1894 and 1916 the American world's fair movement would spread to San Francisco (1894); Omaha (1898); Buffalo (1901); St. Louis (1904); Portland, Oregon (1905); Seattle (1909); San Francisco (1915–1916); and San Diego (1915–1916). In the wake of America's war with Spain and acquisition of the Philippine Islands, each of these fairs assumed increasingly explicit imperial designs, especially the 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition. This fair attracted about fourteen million visitors and created as its centerpiece a massive display of twelve hundred Filipinos who lived on what was called the Philippine Reservation. With several of America's prominent American Indian leaders, including Geronimo, on display elsewhere on the fairgrounds, the Philippine Reservation made clear that America's imperial policies at home were being extended overseas.

World's Fairs between the Wars

Following World War I, America entered a decade of prosperity that made world's fairs seem less urgent, at least in the eyes of the nation's elites who usually sponsored these events. When the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial flopped, many critics predicted the end of the era of great international expositions. The 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression, however, ignited a new wave of exposition fever that began with another fair that took place in Chicago.

The 1933–1934 Century of Progress Exposition took as its central theme the idea that “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” Fueled with ideas from the National Research Council, composed of some of America's leading scientists and engineers, the Century of Progress Exposition was intended to shore up faith in the durability of American corporate-driven economy and the ability of America's scientists and engineers, together with its corporate leadership, to find a way out of the Depression. To attract visitors the exposition's directors, including oil baron Rufus Dawes and his brother, former U.S. vice president Charles Dawes, broke with the neoclassicism of early exposition builders and opted for dazzling, multicolored, modernistic architectural designs. The result was a technology- and science-driven consumerist paradise. Embraced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the fair alleviated the effects of the Depression in Chicago and led civic authorities in other American cities to follow suit. San Diego hosted a fair in 1935–1936, Dallas in 1936, Cleveland in 1936, and San Francisco and New York in 1939–1940.

The 1939–1940 New York World's Fair marked the end of America's Depression-era fairs with its “world of tomorrow” theme. The fair's most popular attraction was Futurama, the General Motors pavilion designed by Norman Bel Geddes. Intended to build popular support for raising taxes for highway construction, Futurama, with its futuristic model of an American landscape in 1960, artfully mapped a future where corporations, theoretically responding to popular wishes, rivaled nation-states in importance.

All of the fairs of the 1930s mirrored the racial tensions of the era. At the Chicago fair, African Americans were virtually excluded from construction jobs and sometimes denied access to exposition restaurants. At the insistence of African Americans and their supporters in the New Deal administration, the Dallas fair was forced to include a separate Negro Building, one that featured the art work of Aaron Douglas and notable inventions by African Americans, but this structure was the only one torn down when the fair reopened in 1937. Racial tensions reached such high levels in New York that African Americans set up picket lines at the entrances to the fair on opening day, making clear their willingness to challenge overtly the doctrines and practices of white supremacy.

After winning the vote in 1919, women were divided over the wisdom of establishing separate pavilions for women's displays. In the absence of separate women's pavilions, women were represented, and sometimes represented themselves, in terms of the prevailing consumerist rhetoric that enveloped the fairs. Featured as model consumers, fashion icons, and erotic performers, women gained inclusion in the world of tomorrow but not as fully recognized human beings.

World's Fairs during the Cold War Era

World War II ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity in American life. At the first postwar fair, the 1958 Brussels Universal Exposition, the United States constructed a major pavilion to offset the presence of the Soviet Union's pavilion, which featured a model of the Sputnik satellite that the Soviets had launched in 1957. The perception that the United States had fallen behind in the race to space provided the stimulus for the next era of world's fairs in the United States.

This era began with the 1962 Seattle Century 21 Exposition, which boasted a 600-foot (180-m) Space Needle as its central icon. Just when decolonization movements were sweeping the developing nations, the Seattle fair held out the promise of colonizing the last frontier—space.

Two years later, with the United States increasingly embroiled in a war in Vietnam and with race riots sweeping many U.S. cities, New York City hosted its second fair of the century. The 1964–1965 New York World's Fair attracted over fifty million visitors during its two-year run. Administered by city planner Robert Moses, most of its pavilions were sponsored by corporations, continuing a trend that had been in evidence since the 1930s. Opening day ceremonies featured a major address by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was interrupted by vociferous demonstrators demanding greater federal intervention on behalf of civil rights. Despite popular robotic attractions designed by the Walt Disney Company, including dancing dolls in the Pepsi Pavilion that sang “It's a Small World,” and one of the most extensive amusement zones ever organized for a world's fair, the New York fair lost twenty-one million dollars.

Given its huge financial losses, the New York fair easily could have marked the end of the American world's fair tradition had it not been for Expo 67 held in Montreal. The Montreal fair included as one of its subthemes “Man in Control?” and raised a series of questions about the relationship between industrialization and the environment. Expo 67 reignited world's fair hopes in the United States, most immediately in Spokane, Washington, where that city's civic leaders determined to hold Expo '74: The International Exposition on the Environment. The next international expositions held in the United States, the 1974 Knoxville and 1984 New Orleans fairs, also reflected concerns about environmental degradation and about the “energy crisis,” although both of these expositions tended to highlight the predictions of corporate sponsors who asserted that abundant energy resources existed to fuel America's consumer-oriented civilization well into the future. Unlike the Spokane and Knoxville fairs, however, the New Orleans exposition was a financial disaster from start to finish, causing many critics to doubt that the United States would ever again host a major world's fair.

Those doubts increased when Chicago announced it would abandon plans to hold a fair in 1992. The reasons for the collapse of the 1992 fair were many, including fears that it would become a “nuclear airplane: too costly to build, too big to fly.” An equally important reason for the fair's collapse was the failure of exposition planners to win support from Chicago's African American leaders, including Mayor Harold Washington, who thought the money needed for the fair could be better spent to alleviate poverty in the city.

The debacles in New Orleans and Chicago marked a pause in the American world's fair movement. It would, however, be unwise to predict an end to world's fairs. Perhaps the best question to ask is not whether world's fairs will return to the United States, but when? If the past is any indication, the next wave of world's fairs will begin about the time the prosperity bubble of the 1990s bursts and large numbers of Americans begin doubting the ability of transnational corporate capitalism to usher in utopia.

Bibliography
  • Benedict, Burton, The Anthropology of World's Fairs (Scholar Press 1983).
  • Bolotin, Norman; Christine, Laing The World's Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (Univ. of Ill. Press 2002).
  • Cawelti, John, America on Display, 1876, 1893, 1933, in The Age of Industrialism in America,ed. by Jaher, Frederic (Free Press 1968).
  • Findling, John E., ed., Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988 (Greenwood Press 1990).
  • Ganz, Cheryl R., The 1933 Chicago World's Fair: A Century of Progress (Univ. of Ill. Press 2008).
  • Garn, Andrew, Exit to Tomorrow: World's Fair Architecture, Design, Fashion (Universe 2007).
  • Greenhalgh, Paul, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions, and World's Fairs, 1851-1939 (Manchester Univ. Press 1988).
  • Greenhalgh, Paul, Fair World: A History of World's Fairs and Expositions from London and Shanghai, 1851-010 (Papadakis 2011).
  • Rydell, Robert W., All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at America's International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Univ. of Chicago Press 1984).
  • Rydell, Robert W., World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Univ. of Chicago Press 1993).
  • Rydell, Robert W.; John, E. Findling; Kimberly, D. Pelle, Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States (Smithsonian Inst. Press 2000).
  • Rydell, Robert; Laura, Schiavo, eds., Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s (Yale Univ. Press 2010).
  • Samuel, Lawrence R., The End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair (Syracuse Univ. Press 2007).
  • Schrenk, Lisa D., Building a Century of Progress: The Architecture of Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair (Univ. of Minn. Press 2007).
  • Robert W. Rydell
    Copyright 2016 The American Studies Association

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Exhibitions and World’s Fairs
    Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present

    Ever since the huge success of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the idea of exhibitions and world’s fairs to promote trade, industry, art,...

    Full text Article New York World's Fair, 1939
    The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Design Since 1900

    Was the last in a series of great international exhibitions stretching back to the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. It was staged to...

    Full text Article New York World's Fair, 1939
    Encyclopedia of American Urban History

    The New York World's Fair of 1939 took as its model the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition of Chicago and, like its predecessor, had as its theme...

    See more from Credo