World's vanity fairs

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The hall of industry at the Stockholm "General Art and Industry Exhibition" (Allmänna konst- och industriutställningen), 1897

Universal exhibitions are a curious mixture of trade fairs, secular and religious ceremonies, and folk games.

They not only featured "high-tech" displays, but also many kitsch products that were better classified as "oddities." Such inventions were particularly numerous at the first London exposition in 1851.

A so-called "<a href="" >comic electric telegraph</a>" with a brand-new "inter<i>face</i>" could visualize letters and words sent through an ordinary telegraph by manipulating a mechanical face.

Caught between wanting to show both the highest levels of progress as well as unique 'national' characters, both past and future at World's Fairs often took on a carnival air. Spectators could travel between the 'future in the present' industrial temples (associated with European nations) to the supposed 'past' in the present: displays of 'traditional' cultures found in the colonies, where 'natives' had to parade for spectators in special displays.

Sometimes these were combined: the very first moving pictures shot in Sweden were at the 1897 "General Art and Industry Exhibition". Films, however, were not displayed in the futuristic-yet-neo-Baroque industrial hall, but (along with other technologies such as X-rays) in 'Old Stockholm', a half-scale model of the city as it had been in 1500.

How to cite this page


Slawomir Lotysz, 'World's vanity fairs', Inventing Europe,


  1. MacLeod, Christine. Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

About this tour


Fair enough? Europe on display at the World's Fairs

The World Exhibitions, which began in 1851, originally served as a kind of stage upon which European nations could display their progress and achievements. Large countries in particular used the fairs to compete with each other. In so doing, they also depicted not so much the actual condition of science, technology, and art in Europe, but the Western European outlook on the rest of the world.

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World Fairs

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