World’s Fairs conjure up images of the technicolor mid-century vision of the future from New York 1964, the Ferris wheel and Midway (and H.H. Holmes) from Chicago 1893, and the Eiffel Tower, which was constructed for the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris. There’s also the idea that these global gatherings were held primarily to entertain the masses. But they were about much more than entertainment.

The earliest versions of World’s Fairs coincided with the spread of the Industrial Revolution from England to the United States and the events provided a platform from which countries and companies could display their industrial might and latest innovations. They also were also designed to instill confidence in a public still getting used to the idea that many of the goods they use every day were now being made using machines, rather than by hand.

Here’s a look at the role of the Industrial Revolution in the creation of World’s Fairs, and how the influential international gatherings accelerated the development of new technologies.

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Local Festivals Expand to International Exhibitions

The concept of people coming together to show and sell what they’ve produced isn’t something new. After agricultural festivals had been around for centuries, groups of mechanics and artisans began organizing their own fairs around the 17th century, according to Robert Rydell, professor emeritus of history at Montana State University, and author of multiple books on World's Fairs.

“For centuries there have been agricultural fairs and festivals, and then by the time you move into the 17th century, there are different celebrations that mechanics and artisans would organize,” Rydell explains. “As you get closer to the 19th century, with the pace of industrialization picking up, there are festivals dedicated to showing off what individuals and groups of mechanics were able to accomplish through new innovations,” Rydell explains, noting that they were regional, and not yet national in scope.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations—better known as the Great Exhibition or the Crystal Palace Exhibition—changed that. The event, which is considered to be the first World’s Fair, was held in London’s Hyde Park. It was not only the first national festival celebrating industrial progress, it was also the first international exhibition, Rydell explains. “It really pulled parties, governments, and private interests from across the Atlantic and Europe together to show off the fruits of industrialization,” he adds.

The centerpiece of the event was the exhibition hall: a glass and cast-iron structure dubbed the Crystal Palace. Resembling a massive greenhouse, the interior was flooded with natural light, giving attendees an illuminating look at the world’s newest industrial marvels, typically confined to dark factories.

“The Crystal Palace exhibition was intended to provide a measure of stability and confidence in the face of growing anxiety about industrialization,” says Rydell.

Bringing the Factory to Fairgoers

In addition to being a time of unprecedented innovation, the start of the Industrial Revolution in 18th-century England was also a period of tremendous social unrest and upheaval. “People had been displaced from farms, [and there were] cycles of industrial depression,” Rydell explains. “‘There's nothing certain about the direction industrialization is going, so what's the future going to look like?’ That's the question that the promoters of the Crystal Palace tried to resolve and answer for a mass audience.”

Subsequent international exhibitions and expositions, including the ones in Paris (1855, 1867 and 1878) and Philadelphia (1876), also sought to make the public more comfortable with the idea of industrialization and manufacturing. But starting with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, companies took a new approach: instead of simply letting fairgoers view their latest products, they would show them how they’re made.

A birds-eye view of the grounds and buildings of the great Columbian exposition in Chicago, Illinois, 1892-1893.
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Process exhibits, which featured small-scale demonstrations of factories, debuted at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago.

Known as “process exhibits,” companies set up small-scale yet fully functional versions of their factories at the events, giving fairgoers the chance to witness firsthand how everything from glass to shoes to foods were made, according to Allison C. Marsh, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina in a chapter of Meet Me at the Fair: A World's Fair Reader.

But the goal of these exhibits wasn’t for attendees to leave with a working knowledge of the technical details involved in manufacturing, Marsh notes. Instead, companies aimed to demonstrate the complexity of the process and their state-of-the-art machinery. 

“By highlighting the number of steps, manufacturers could illustrate the quality of their goods and justify the price of the final product,” Marsh writes. Like the organizers of the Great Exhibition of 1851, companies hoped that these on-site factories would instill confidence in consumers who may still be hesitant about mass-produced items and industrialization in general.

A Tradition of Technological Advancement

The incredible success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 kicked off the exposition movement around the world, serving as a blueprint for those that followed. The exhibitions of new products and technological wonders lit a fire under potential competitors to come up with something even more impressive for the next exhibition, further fueling industrial growth and development. 

“Think of it in terms of soft diplomatic power,” Rydell says. “You’re not going to war with somebody, but you're basically showing the kind of power that you have accumulated through all of your resources.”