The Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle was the climax of the series of world’s fairs held between 1851 and World War I. Later fairs would not even approach the size or scope of this Art Nouveau extravaganza to celebrate the achievements of the 19th century and give a peek into the 20th.
The largest ever held in Paris, the exposition housed 80,000 exhibits attracting 50 million visitors. There were 207 restaurants and 58 different attractions with separate entrance fees, giving the exposition the character of a vast amusement park.
Among the new technologies on display were wireless telegraphy, X-rays, bicycles, automobiles, turbines, and cinema, but electric lighting was by far the biggest draw. Paul Morand, a contemporary chronicler of the exposition, dubbed electricity “the religion of 1900.” In the Palace of Electricity visitors could watch dynamos supplying electricity to power machinery and turn the night into an illuminated fairy-tale wonderland.
Although the exposition had attracted an unprecedented number of visitors and infused money into the French economy, critics labeled it a financial catastrophe. Massive cost overruns generated losses of 82,000 francs (approx US$ 85m today) over the six months of operation. While Paris got some new buildings and the Pont d’Alexandre III bridge over the Seine, most businessmen lost money, eventually receiving partial recompense.
Imperialism permeated all world’s fairs, with lavish displays raising national prestige and proclaiming the progressive influence of European colonialism. Yet to some observers, the exposition had revealed France’s industrial weakness. German technical and artistic exhibits outshone those of France, adding to French woes about national decline.
The Exposition Universelle revealed more about the outlook of its organizers than the benefits to the public. The sheer size meant that most visitors were unable to study the multitude of displays more than superficially. People went not only to see the latest technological developments, but also to be entertained and have a good time. As glorious a symbol of the “Belle Epoque” as it was, the exposition’s lasting legacy has probably done more to influence today’s theme parks and resort cities than to further the interests of scientific education.
– Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, 2006 From World History in Context.
– Video – own compilation.