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Making Connections: 4 World’s Fairs and Expositions

Walker Library / Special Collections / Making Connections

World’s Fairs and Expositions

Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world's advancement. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people; and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of the people. They open mighty storehouses of information to the student.

— President William McKinley at the 1901 World's Fair

World's Fairs, also known as international expositions or universal exhibitions, have been around since the mid-19th century. The first World's Fair was held in London, England in 1851 and was known as The Great Exhibition. It showcased the latest advancements in technology, art, and culture, and drew over six million visitors from around the world. The event was so successful that other countries soon followed suit, and World's Fairs became a popular way to promote international cooperation and showcase the best of each nation's achievements. Over the years, some of the most iconic World's Fairs include the 1889 Paris Exposition which gave us the Eiffel Tower, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago which introduced the Ferris Wheel, and the 1967 Expo in Montreal which featured the iconic Biosphere.

Our World’s Fair collection began with a tunnel book souvenir from The Great Exhibition in 1851. It has since grown to include postcards, postage stamps, ephemera, and books from and about the World’s Fairs held in the United States since 1893. We also have a sizeable collection of materials from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. When viewed as a whole, this micro-collection has come to a crossroads in terms of its size and could transform into a larger, discrete collection. We will need to ask if we wish to continue to expand and broaden the collection. Is there an audience or a need? Or is the micro-collection simply enough?

Collections: Philatelic; Ephemera; Dimensional and Artist Books


The Great Exhibition, held in London in 1851, was a landmark event that showcased the industrial and technological advancements of the era. Organized by Prince Albert, the exhibition aimed to celebrate and promote innovation, trade, and cultural exchange. Housed within the magnificent Crystal Palace, the exhibition brought together over 14,000 exhibitors from around the world, displaying a vast array of products and inventions, ranging from machinery and textiles to art and scientific instruments. The event is a significant milestone in the history of international exhibitions and a symbol of the Victorian era's progress and global influence.


The World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Spanning over 600 acres in Jackson Park, the exposition showcased advancements in technology, arts, and culture from around the world. Designed by renowned architects and landscape artists, such as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead, the fairgrounds featured magnificent neoclassical buildings, including the iconic White City, adorned with electric lights that illuminated the nighttime sky. Notable attractions included the Ferris Wheel, an engineering marvel that provided breathtaking views of the city, and exhibits that displayed innovations like the telephone, typewriter, and moving walkway. Attracting over 27 million visitors, the exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on American architecture, the arts, American industrial optimism, and Chicago's image.

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The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis in 1904, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, which had doubled the size of the country. The fair showcased various industries, cultures, and innovations, including advancements in transportation such as the Wright Brothers' flying machine, agricultural inventions like the mechanical reaper, and cutting-edge inventions in the Palace of Electricity, such as the x-ray machine and the infant incubator.

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The Century of Progress was a world’s fair held in Chicago in 1933 to celebrate the city's centennial anniversary. It showcased technological and cultural advancements of the time and aimed to inspire hope and progress during the Great Depression. The fairgrounds covered over 600 acres along Lake Michigan and featured iconic architectural structures, such as the Sky Ride and the Science and Technology Building. Visitors experienced futuristic exhibits, including the "House of Tomorrow" showcasing modern home appliances and designs, and the "Hall of Science" featuring groundbreaking scientific discoveries. The fair also introduced the first commercially successful television, the "RCA-Picturescope," and popularized the concept of consumerism through various displays and demonstrations. The Century of Progress left a lasting impact on Chicago's skyline and played a significant role in shaping the cultural and technological landscape of the era.

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The New York World's Fair of 1939 was a grand international exhibition held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, New York. Spanning over 1,200 acres, the fair served as a platform to celebrate progress and inspire hope amidst the turbulent times leading up to World War II. When World War II began four months into the Fair, many exhibits were affected, especially those on display in the pavilions of countries under Axis occupation. The fair's theme “The World of Tomorrow” was represented in its iconic symbol, the Trylon and Perisphere, as well as in the Futurama exhibit by General Motors, which presented a utopian vision of transportation and urban planning, and the first public demonstration of television by RCA.

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The Seattle World's Fair of 1962, officially known as the Century 21 Exposition, showcased the spirit of innovation, technology, and cultural exchange. With its overarching theme of “The Age of Space”, the fair is known for the construction of the iconic Space Needle as well as the Alweg monorail. The fair served as a platform for unveiling groundbreaking technologies, such as the first video telephone, but in addition to science and technology, the fair boasted a robust arts program. At its Opera House, the opening night performance showcased the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by guest conductor Igor Stravinsky with Van Cliburn as a guest soloist.

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The New York World's Fair 1964-1965 was held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, New York City. It was the second-most expensive American world's fair of all time, exceeded only by St. Louis's Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. The fair's iconic structures, including the Unisphere and the Space Park, symbolized the optimistic spirit of the space age and the possibilities of a better future. With exhibits from over 80 countries, the fair offered visitors a glimpse into diverse cultures, cutting-edge inventions, and interactive displays.

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The Knoxville World's Fair of 1982 celebrated the theme of "Energy Turns the World." The fairgrounds featured iconic landmarks such as the Sunsphere, a spherical glass structure that offered panoramic views of the city. The fair helped to revitalize Knoxville’s economy and enhanced its reputation as a cultural and tourist destination.

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