Pavilions at Les Invalides, 1900, Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

The zenith of the trade fair is the world exhibition. Extremely popular from the late 1800s well into the 20th century, universal exhibitions were a typical product of late-19th-century society. Empowered by accomplishments in technology and industry, and fostering the idea of a surveyable, controllable universe, a ‘universal exhibition’ was viewed as the ultimate showcase, allowing for a travel around the world in far less than 80 days.

London may pride itself on having been the first city to have hosted a universal exhibition (1851). Its magnificent venue: the Crystal Palace, built by gardener and architect Joseph Paxton. Boasting no less than 13.000 exhibits, the event featured striking innovations such as Frederick Bakewell’s fax machine and Mathew Brady’s daguerreotypes.

The Crystal Palace, s.d., Lévy & Fils, KU Leuven, In Copyright
The Crystal Palace, s.d., Lévy & Fils, KU Leuven, In Copyright

The first exhibition was a roaring success: 6 million visitors made for a financial surplus that not only ensured the future of the event but has furthered innovation in industrial and engineering sciences ever since: to the present day, the fund established as a result of the expo grants fellowships and scholarships to British students.

After 1851 the golden era of world exhibitions took off, with no less than 40 events throughout the Belle Époque. Five were hosted by London’s historical rival Paris, that spared no efforts as to surpass the Crystal Palace extravaganza. From its première in 1855 onward, the Parisian fair continued to grow in terms of size and scope, commercial ambition and artistic claims.

The 1889 edition was a milestone. Covering an area of about one square kilometre, the exhibition featured a new star attraction: a tower boasting an airy design that seemed to be defeating the constraints of its main component, wrought iron. The creation of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel would become one of the world’s iconic landmarks, offering a new perspective on the City of Light. 

View of the palace of gas industries from the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, 1889, Neurdein Frères/Roger-Viollet,  Parisienne de Photographie, Public Domain Mark
View of the palace of gas industries from the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, 1889, Neurdein Frères/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, Public Domain Mark

Another highlight of the 1889 fair was a reconstruction of the Bastille - the exhibition was, after all, commemorating the centennial of the French Revolution - the courtyard of which was covered with a sky-blue ceiling and used as a ballroom. A third much-admired feature was the ‘Machinery Hall’ - at the time the largest interior space in the world.

The mining equipment section at the machines gallery, 1889, Neurdein Frères/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, Public Domain Mark
The mining equipment section at the machines gallery, 1889, Neurdein Frères/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, Public Domain Mark

The exhibition of 1900 may be considered a milestone in cultural history, as it represented both the end of an era and a ‘state-of-affairs’ at the dawn of a new century. While the Eiffel Tower still attracted the masses, the fair now boasted a new centerpiece: the largest refracting telescope ever constructed. The objective lens measured up to 1.25m (49 inch), while the steel tube was 60m (200 ft) long. Since it was built for display purposes and difficult to aim at astronomical objects, it was not suited for scientific use. After the exhibition, the builders failed to sell the telescope, which eventually ended up as scrap. The lenses, however, are still preserved at the Paris Observatory.

Big room of the "Siderostat" inside the palace of Optics, 1900, Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright
Big room of the "Siderostat" inside the palace of Optics, 1900, Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

Boasting such innovations as the elevator, Diesel’s engine (running on peanut oil!) and Art Nouveau, the exhibition ushered in a new epoch in science and arts. A wealth of exotic oriental architectures was to be discovered at the Le Tour du Monde pavilions, boasting a Japanese pagoda, an ornate Indian construction and a Siamese pavilion.

The pavilion of Siam (present Thailand), 1900, Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright
The pavilion of Siam (present Thailand), 1900, Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

While photographers such as Léon & Lévy have left behind an extensive treasury of images documenting the great world exhibitions of the early modern era, an aspect hardly ever documented is the re-transformation of dream into reality… Shown in this final image are the remains of the ferris wheel erected for the 1900 exhibition - the tallest in the world at the time. The passenger cars were so large that, during World War I, they were put to use as family homes. The dismantling of the wheel serves as a reminder of the fact that all good things - no matter how mighty or marvellous - must indeed come to an end.

Demolition of the Big Wheel, 1920, Maurice-Louis Branger/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright
Demolition of the Big Wheel, 1920, Maurice-Louis Branger/Roger-Viollet, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

If you enjoyed this exhibition, then make sure to check in again for the fourth and last instalment in The Pleasure of Plenty series. We’ll be focusing on patterns, textures, collages and crazy collections for a fitting finale to this feast for the eye!