The Great Exhibition and the 19th Century Cult of Progress

What kind of a vision of global interaction is created by World’s Fairs like the Great Exhibition?

Dickinson Brothers. Great Exhibition, 1851. In Jaffe D. Victoria — A Celebration, 2000.
Dickinson Brothers. Great Exhibition, 1851.

As the main organizer of ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’, Prince Albert’s objective was predominantly a national one: “for Great Britain [to make] clear to the world its role as industrial leader.”[1]

While the Great Exhibition was a platform for countries from around the world to showcase their achievements, Great Britain sought to prove its own superiority. The British exhibits “held the lead in almost every field where strength, durability, utility and quality were concerned, whether in iron and steel, machinery or textiles.”[2]

Great Britain also wanted to instill optimism and the hope for a better future. Following “two difficult decades of political and social upheaval,” in Europe, Great Britain hoped to convey that technology—particularly its own—was the key to a better future.[3]

The Great Exhibition was different to other museums in that it was housed in a purpose-built temporary building, tall enough to fit two elm trees that helped demonstrate man’s triumph over nature. The floorplan image from the UK National Archives collection, shows that a disproportionately large area was allocated to India, reflecting it’s important as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. It is also opulently adorned with trappings of empire, rather than technological achievements.

There were detractors who feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob[4], and radicals like Karl Marx saw the exhibition as capitalist obsession with commodities.

John W. Cole wrote that some prophesied:

…the building would be gutted by a simultaneous rising of all the socialists, chartists, and red republicans in the world, expressly engaged and congregated for that particular performance.

Yet he also wrote that the exhibition:

might well be called the world’s wonder, for such in truth it was. The most perfect realization of a magnificent idea that ever entered the mind of man.[5]

The general feeling, according to Cole, was that the exhibition was devoted to “instructive recreation”, with no thoughts of evil passions that had dogged the prior two decades. He thought there was a “universal impression” that, besides providing thousands of jobs and injecting vast amounts of money into circulation, long-lasting benefits would accrue.[5]

Furthermore, Cole thought that foreign visitors would look positively upon British accomplishments, customs, and institutions—learning more in the six months during the exhibition that the prior thirty-six years since the fall of Napoleon.[5]

Many prejudices have been abandoned, and many mistaken views have given way, which are not likely again to obtain influence. Our foreign friends have seen and learned that there are better avenues to public prosperity than annual revolutions erected on barricades, and that a government and constitution may be firmly established without a garrison of a hundred thousand men in the capital to compel obedience. The exhibition of the produce of all countries was an honest peace-offering from England to the whole world—a cordial proclamation of amity, unaccompanied by protocols or remonstrances.[5]

Print of India Court at the Great Exhibition. UK National Archives.

Cole thought of the exhibition as a great national event to be recorded in the annals of history. Just as Napoleon said to his veterans at the Battle of Borodino, Russia in 1812, they could say ‘I was there’, so to would people attending the Great Exhibition say, ‘I was in London in 1851’.

The industrial revolution in the United States was well underway by 1851 and the Great Exhibition was an opportunity to show its machines, products, and agricultural wealth on the world stage. Though some Americans criticized the choice of exhibits, many Europeans saw them as clear evidence of a rising industrial power. The former British colony’s exhibits were unavoidably compared to Great Britain’s, and many looked favorably on America’s offerings.

British and American rivalry comes across in both a song and cartoon from the period, with various references to wars lost and superior American engineering starting to show in agricultural machinery, locks, and steamships. America is seen as the rising industrial power and Britain the incumbent.

A verse from the poem made into a song:

Yankee Doodle sent to town
His goods for exhibition;
Everybody ran him down,
And laughed at his position;
They thought him all the world behind;
A goney muff or noodle,
Laugh on, good people,—never mind
Says quiet Yankee Doodle.
CHORUS Yankee Doodle, etc. [6]

The Great Exhibition
The tone of the cartoon is one of a feeling of sour grapes for the British, who no doubt recognize the rising might of industrialized America will someday eclipse Great Britain, as one American says:

…you wanted to pick some of your own bones in 1776 and 1812 didn’t you? It’s no use old Feller, we don’t acknowledge the relationship …[6]

Price Louis Napoleon’s opening address at the second World’s Fair in Paris in 1855 hinted at a desire to demonstrate national pride on an international stage. He said:

The French people show the world that whenever its genius is understood and is well directed it will always be the great nation.[7]

The Chicago World’s Fair showed a change in attitude from earlier European fairs in that it focused not on nationalistic prowess, but on the history of the world and its peoples. Denton J. Snider, a midwestern intellectual who sought to popularize European high culture, wrote a popular guide for the event, within which he wrote this about western culture:

… its civilization is one of progress, inner and outer, spiritual and material.[8]


1. Capturing the Light by Roger Watson, Helen Rappaport.

2. Ffrench, Yvonne. The Great Exhibition; 1851. London: Harvill Press, 1950.

3. Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary and Patricia O’Brien. Civilization in the West. 7th Edition. Vol. C. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.

4. Newth, A.M. (1967). Britain and the World: 1789-1901. New York: Penguin Books.

5. J.W. Cole, The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean, Vol. II (London: Richard Bentley, 1860, pages 3-9.

6. Cartoon:; Poem: Anonymous, Punch Magazine 21, London, 1851.

7. Catalogue of the Works Exhibited in the British Section of the Exhibition (London: Chapman and Hall, 1855), pages 1–4.

8. Excerpts from Denton J. Snider, “World’s Fair Studies,” in Kenneth L. Pomeranz et. al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A Companion Reader, Volume 2 (New York: Norton, 2011), pages 249-252.


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