Since it cost the host nation a great deal of money to collect the objects to be displayed, make an inner-city site available, build the exhibition buildings, mount the publicity and organise all public transport systems, profit clearly was not a motivating factor. Instead each World Fair was a basis on which a city could display its own modern science, engineering and arts. And the city could invite the rest of the world to build national pavilions and to display the best in science and the arts from across the globe. Ordinary families were encouraged to visit their nation’s Fair, providing these families with an educational opportunity as good as high school.
World Fair, 1851
Crystal Palace, London
The opening of the exhibition, usually by royalty, was the highlight of the year. Vienna’s World Fair of 1873 was inaugurated by Emperor Francis Josef of Austria, with imposing ceremonies, in the presence of a vast throngs. The day was immortalised by the music of Handel and Strauss. And almost all the World Fairs were immensely popular. 27 million visitors arrived at the Chicago Fair in 1893, a third of the country's population at the time.
The majority of the World Fair structures were meant to be dismantled at the end of the festivities. The Eiffel Tower (Paris 1889) and the Exhibition Buildings (Melbourne 1880) were clear and fortunate exceptions. As was the last remaining building of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts (now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry). Even the main attractions at World's Fairs, the national pavilions that were created by participating countries, were always pulled down.
The Koh-i-Noor diamond
The diamond reached British hands through the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. As the de facto civil authority, the British East India Company came to own it. To mark its 250th anniversary, the Company decided to present the gem to Queen Victoria to whom it was delivered in July 1850.
The Koh-i-Noor had originally been one of the world’s largest diamonds at 793 carats, but by the time it reached Britain, the size had been much reduced. Nonetheless there was enormous excitement and wonder in Crystal Palace, when official commentators and the general public saw the jewel. Although there were 100,000 other exhibits displayed in Crystal Palace, the queues to see Queen Victoria’s diamond were the longest of all.
Young Queen Victoria with the diamond in a brooch setting
Despite the undoubted success of the Crystal Palace exhibition, and its popularity with ordinary families, Karl Marx saw this World Fair as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities, a shameful circus of greed where materialism was unconcealed and vanity given full play. But he had a separate attack for the Koh-I-Noor diamond - it was, he said, a forfeit of Oriental faithlessness and the prize of Saxon valour.