05 January 2013

A World Fair at Crystal Palace, 1851

The World Fair was a very large public exhibition, held every 4 years or so in different countries. It was a tradition that started in the mid C19th and has continued ever since.

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 1851 World Fair in London was vitally important, because it was the first. Until then, there had been national expositions in Paris every four years, but never an international project of such magnitude. This was Prince Albert’s opportunity to show off the achievements of industrialised Britain, where design and technology were leading the world. Vienna in 1873, Melbourne in 1880, Paris in 1889 and Chicago in 1893 and St Louis in 1904 were equally important, although they had different themes of cultural significance.

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 Great Exhibitions Sale: Two Centuries of International Art and Design from the World's Fairs (published by Sotheby’s in London in 2006) is a wonderful source of information about objects displayed at various World Fairs. Sotheby’s was not confident about the true origins of the Koh-I-Noor diamond which was displayed in the southern central gallery of the Crystal Palace in 1851. Probably it had been mined in India and had been presented to Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan in the 16th century.

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

Eventually Queen Victoria mounted her new stone in a brooch setting which she often wore, as can be seen in royal portraits of the time. But one question remains. Why would a huge diamond been given the starring role in an exhibition that was to raise the educational level of ordinary British families and overseas visitors? Science, technology, design and the arts – yes! Social improvement – yes! Rank snobbery and elitism – seems inappropriate! This question still nags, whether historians believe that the diamond was illegally stolen from its Indian owner or was legitimately claimed by the British.

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.


Andrew said...

Ownership of the diamond might be more clear cut if the British East India Company wasn't in control. I would guess its ownership was negotiated with a sultan or ruler.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The Crystal Palace was certainly the most iconic of the World's Fairs. The building itself lasted in altered form until 1936.

Some other existing Fair buildings: San Francisco still has the Palace of Fine Arts (1915).The site of the 1904 St. Louis fair became the campus of Washington University, and some of the Fair buildings are still in use as college buildings. Also, I have heard of a lot of the smaller buildings at fairs being moved after the even, and some of these are still extant, although probably only fair historians know where they are.

Deb said...

We went to the International Exhibition in Brisbane last century. It was fantastic for as long as the event lasted.

columnist said...

This diamond is certainly a "girl's best friend" in that it is worn in the crown of the queen consort rather than the sovereign, so that the present Queen's (Imperial State) crown has the Cullinan diamond as its principal jewel.

I wonder whether the tradition of the monarch wearing the crown for the State Opening of Parliament will continue into the next reign. The idea still works in my mind principally because Queen Elizabeth II has always done so, but also because she is a woman, and the potentially ridiculous idea doesn't occur (to me). But King Charles III, or King William the V? Well who knows.

Hels said...


The relationship between the diamond, its former owner and the British East India Company is very murky. Despite having read a lot of papers on the topic, there seems to be more truth hidden than revealed.

As recently as Sept 2012, the descendants of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, who they say was forced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond, launched a court action in the UK for the diamond to be returned to India. The court case failed.

Hels said...


Happy 2013 :) It is such an appalling waste of resources to build fantastic buildings, bridges, roads, railway lines and pavilions for these international exhibitions, knowing they were to be pulled down almost immediately. If they wanted to return the site to its original condition, then run the fair's facilities in huge tents.

The Eiffel Tower (Paris 1889) and the Exhibition Buildings (Melbourne 1880) and the Palace of Fine Arts (Chicago 1893) were not the only survivors, as you noted. But I have photos from every world fair since 1851 on, and can count the survivors on my fingers. What a terrible waste.

Hels said...


nod..spouse and I went on one of those package weekends to the Brisbane World Expo 88, and loved every minute of it. Imagine if we were that excited in 1988, how excited the ? less sophisticated crowds must have been in 1851.

Hels said...


I didn't even think to mention the Cullinan Diamond (530 carats) because it was not found until 1905. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond started off life bigger (793 carats) but ended up smaller (106 carats).

You are right, of course. The Cullinan Diamond is now more important because it is set in the head of the Sceptre with the Cross.

King Charles III? I hope he avoids the political obstinancy of Charles I and the religious insensitivity of Charles II.

columnist said...

There are two Cullinan's, I in the Sceptre, and II in the Crown.

As for Charles's name when he becomes king, I understand he has indicated that he might choose George, as in his grandfather, who himself chose George to add a sense of continuity to the monarchy in the year of 3 kings, (1936). So perhaps he will be George VII.

marc aurel said...

We were thrilled by the Atomium in Brussels when I was twelve. It is still there.

Hels said...


Good to see you in 2013. Atomium, a giant model of an iron crystal cell, was specially built for Expo '58 in Brussels. No wonder you loved it – the whole idea was to give children fun, but also to dazzle them with science.

Fortunately for the Belgian economy, many of the 1958 buildings were re-used from an earlier International Exhibition in the same area.

Hels said...


Prince Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor (born 1948) has plenty of name choices :) But if he doesn't ascend the throne very soon, he is going to be an elderly and creaky king.

Even King Edward VII was only 61.

Enzie Shahmiri Portraits and Fine Art said...

I would have loved to attend the World Fair. Can you imagine all the new inventions that were on display and never seen before. It must have been quiet a sight.

ChrisJ said...

If Charles keeps his head, he may well choose some other name than Charles :)

Hels said...


Prince Albert was very smart. He understood that if Britain was to be the top nation when it came to industrialisation, design and technology, an all-singing all-dancing world exhibition was essential. I also would have given my eye teeth to have been there.

Hels said...


There aren't many names to choose from (Henry, William, Charles, Edward etc) and every name has been blotted by at least SOMEONE. But then popes faced exactly the same problem.

So my solution is for Charles to branch out and call himself something exotic eg King Gideon I or King Elvis I.

Hels said...

The blog called Elginism http://www.elginism.com/ has just written about David Cameron and the anti-returnist’s reasoning behind keeping Koh-i-noor diamond.

The timing is perfect.

Hels said...

What a great story!!! When the exiled teenage boy Duleep moved to England, he soon became very popular and was quite the gentleman aristocrat. Queen Victoria doted on the prince who she called her beautiful boy. See his portrait made by the German artist, Winterhalter.

See The Virtual Victorian blog http://virtualvictorian.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/the-allure-of-cursed-diamond.html

Amy Cooper said...

Many thanks for the exciting blog posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you are a brilliant writer. I actually added your blog to my favorites and will look forward for more updates. Great Job, Keep it up..
Mosaic south africa

Hels said...


look forward to seeing you!

It is interesting that the Company decided to present the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria and even more so that it happened in 1850. The Indian Rebellion, the rebellion in India against the rule of the East India Company, was in 1857 so we can assume that the Company was already in trouble in the years leading up to the rebellion.

Geri Walton said...

I think this was one of the best fairs. I have a book with illustrations of the exhibits and it fascinating to through and see the variety of items that were on display.

Hels said...


agreed. The French had been presenting national fairs for years, but Crystal Palace was the first world fair!

And it was one of the best because a] it was of great importance to the national pride in Britain and across the Empire or b] Prince Albert was giving great royal patronage or c] the advanced state of the industrial revolution in Britain meant the science, technology, arts, crafts and architecture really were well ahead of the progress made in other countries by 1851.

But then national pride was at stake in every world fair, I imagine.

Hels said...

Why were most of the World Fair structures meant to be dismantled at the end of the festivities? What a waste! Even worse, some structures were loathed, even before the World Fairs started. Go to Invisible Paris for information:

In a letter sent to newspaper 'Le Temps' in February 1887, a group of artists, writers and architects criticised the soon to be built Eiffel tower, calling it "inutile et monstrueuse". Gustave Eiffel, an engineer and a "constructeur de machines", would be scarring the beautiful face of the city in an attack on generations of artistic creation.