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World's Fairs, Expositions and Expos

Posted on July 17, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Allison Sheridan

I have attended two World Expos in my life. The first, although I was just 3 years old, was in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1982, officially titled the International Energy Exposition and featuring the iconic Sunsphere which still stands.  The second, Expo 2000, was a World Expo held in Hanover, Germany in summer and early fall of 2000. Unfortunately, Expo 2000 ended up with low attendance and was considered a financial flop. Though exciting to see and appreciate the innovations and futuristic forward thinking in Expo 2000, it was a vastly different experience for me than one would have had in the latter 1800s and early 1900s at a World’s fair.

Fairs and Expositions were wildly popular attractions and extremely costly to create. Though the first major fairs were in Europe, the trend quickly moved to the U.S. The top popular U.S. Victorian Era expositions were: 1876 Philadelphia – Centennial Exposition; 1884 New Orleans - Cotton Centennial Exposition; 1893 Chicago – World’s Columbian Exposition; 1901 Buffalo, NY – Pan American Exposition; and 1904 St. Louis – Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Two others of note later in the 1900s are the 1933–1934 Chicago – Century of Progress International Exposition and the 1939 New York City – New York World’s Fair.

In these Victorian Era (and later) fairs, the investment was enormous with entire campuses of buildings/pavilions designed and constructed, waterways, fields, gardens, churches, amusement rides, cafeterias, streets and so much more. The buildings were packed with exhibitions from states encouraging tourism, companies showcasing their wares, machines, communication innovations, and presentations. Many countries had either their own pavilion or had an area designated to highlight the craft, art, and culture of their native lands. The exotic lands, or what was considered then to be exotic, were often featured. Today, we would find many elements of these displays beyond reproach, inhumane, and frankly, disrespectful.

The Victorian era was a different century and time all together, and thankfully the tenor and tone of contemporary expos spoke more to futurism, technology and invention. Though invention was also a highlight of the Victorian era fairs – electrification, light bulbs, moving sidewalks, automobiles, blimps, industrialization, new foods like ice cream cones, rides like the ferris wheel, medical advancements and more – those early fairs also highlighted art in many forms. Displays included corn palaces, huge animal sculptures made of odd materials (like almonds), massive statues, paintings, floral displays, and even butter sculptures! Decorative arts firms like Tiffany & Co., Weller Pottery, Rookwood Pottery, the Gorham Bronze Works, Libby and the Quaker City Glass Co. had entire rooms full of elaborate displays.

The University Museums’ permanent collection includes several objects that were souvenirs of these major events. Souvenirs ranged from booklets, paper fans, buttons, and ribbons, to commemorative glassware and ceramics. There were also awards for participation in events and exhibitions of craft and art. See each photo caption for more information on the objects.

One other interesting connection to expositions was the large showcase of cut glass. See the two different views of exhibitions of cut glass and note the tall, three-part, cut glass vase. We have this same monumental cut glass vase in the Iowa Quester Glass Collection! It is unknown how many of these were created, but likely they would have been costly and reserved for the very affluent.

World's fair objects and souvenirs remain highly collectable today. These objects help museum staff tell the story of the evolution of these major events, both the good and the bad. With the ability to use primary source objects we can evaluate the merits of aspects of the past and learn about how the future of these expos is now focused on entertainment through technological innovation and eco-awareness rather than cultural misappropriation.



IMAGE 1: World’s Columbian Fair Chicago 1893 Pamphlet, 1893. Gift of Henry and Ann Brunnier. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 76.30.88

IMAGE 2: 1940 World’s Fair New York Plaquette, 1939-40. Struck by Whitehead & Hoag. Uniface bronze plaquette with two female figures flanking a medal with the Trylon and Perisphere at the top and the award badge at bottom. Above: THE WORLD’S FAIR / OF 1940 IN NEW YORK; on badge SPECIAL AWARD OF MERIT. On bottom edge: W&H CO NEWARK N.J. Gift of Richard Draper. In the permanent collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2019.276

Julio Kilenyi designed the medals for the World’s Fair and this plaquette is very reminiscent of his work. Elaine Leotti, a researcher who studied the artists who worked for Whitehead & Hoag, attributed this plaque to him but Harry Waterson, a dedicated Kilenyi specialist thinks it unlikely. This medal remains unattributed. 

The Trylon and Perisphere were the iconic Modernist architectural monuments of the New York 1939 Fair designed by architects Wallace Harrison and J. Andre Fouilhoux. The Perisphere, 180 feet in diameter, connected to the spire-shaped 610-foot Trylon by what was at the time the world’s longest escalator. The buildings, which held futuristic exhibitions, were widely reproduced on booklets, stamps, souvenirs, and awards. Both were subsequently torn down after the fair, their materials used in WWII armaments.

IMAGE 3: These beautiful cut glass objects were part of Philadelphia’s Quaker City Cut Glass Exhibit in the Palace of Varied Industries at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The exhibit’s booth was 55 x 20 feet and was built with black walnut wood. Believe it or not, the booth was completely lit by electric lights! The tables displaying the glass were lined with French Plate glass and all the shelves were of plate glass. Note the large three-part tall vase in the center, this is Quaker City’s “Empress” Pattern vase, which is in the University Museums’ permanent collection – the Iowa Quester Glass Collection. Included in this display was Roosevelt revolving punch bowl, a St. Louis vase measuring more than 5 feet 7 inches, compotes, jugs, decanters, and more. These photos are from a C. L. Wasson stereograph card in the Library of Congress.

IMAGE 4: Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884 - New Orleans) Souvenir Tumbler, Etched Band pattern, 1885. Manufactured by Portland Glass Company (Portland, ME, 1864 – 1874). Glass, clear pressed and etched.  Inscription: “Worlds Exposition N.O. 1885”; “Mother”. Gift of Jacquelyn, member of #871 Captain Greeley Quester, and Ronald Smith. In the Iowa Quester Glass Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2016.774

IMAGE 5: Pan Am World’s Fair (1901 - Buffalo, NY) Souvenir Mug, Corona pattern (AKA: Sunken Honeycomb), 1901, manufactured by Greensburg Glass Co. (Greensburg, PA, 1889 – 1899). Glass, clear pressed ruby staining. Inscription: “Pan Am 1901 Buffalo.” Gift of Clifford Smith. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2016.916

Ruby flashed objects were one of the most popular souvenirs of the fair. This type of commemorative glass first appeared at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. The glass is made by dipping a clear pressed glass object (mug, tumbler, toothpick holder, or glass) into a red staining. The thin red staining layer could then be etched with letters and even personalized with names.

IMAGE 6: Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904- St. Louis) Souvenir Tumbler, World’s Fair pattern, c. 1904, manufactured by Westmoreland Glass Co. (Grapeville, PA, 1889 – 1984). Pressed glass, gold flashing. Gift of Jacquelyn Smith. In the Iowa Quester Glass Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2005.43

IMAGE 7: Octopus Vase, c. 1887 by Loetz Witwe Glassworks (Czech, 1852 – 1947). Glass, blown. Engraved on base: pat. 9159. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 3.8.31

This elaborate “air trap” technique (aka: Federzeichnung) was something never before seen was patented in 1887. The design was first introduced to the public at the Exposition Universelle, 1889 – Paris and helped to earn Loetz several prizes for innovation in decorative arts.

IMAGE 8: Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904- St. Louis) Souvenir Tea Plate, 1904, manufacturer unknown. Glass, pressed. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 3.15.23

IMAGE 9: Glimpses of the World’s Fair: A Selection of Gems of the White City Seen Through a Camera Book, 1893. Published by Laird & Lee (Chicago, IL, 1883 – 1913). Gift of Dennis Wendell. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 90.9.21

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