The Paris Expo 1900 honored the past even as it raced into a new century. While it ushered in some new marvels it also gave a stage to some innovations introduced at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Nearly 50 million people visited its 543-acres from April 15, 1900 to November 12. Among the iconic exhibits were the latest in automobiles, flying machines, talking films, escalators and the first magnetic audio recorder. Simultaneously it hosted the first Olympics ever held outside of Greece.
Paris had hosted Exposition Universelle roughly every eleven years — 1855, 1867, 1878, and 1889. When rumors started that Germany wanted to host the new century’s expo, Parisians began planning Paris Expo 1900 as early as 1892.
Volumes have been written about this historical event. Following are just a few eye-openers from the Paris Expo 1900.
America Wanted More Square Footage
Square footage was a problem from the very beginning of the Paris Expo 1900. Several countries complained that they did not get their share. Among them, America protested when they learned they were not given a spot on the Quai des Nations with other first-rank nations.
According to Arthur Chandler, Author and Humanities Professor at San Francisco State University:
“The American Commission then began to apply strong direct and indirect pressure to the French government. … Ferdinand Peck, Commissioner-General of the United States, wished to “establish the fact that the United States have so developed as to entitle them not only to an exalted place among the nations of the earth, but to the foremost rank of all in advanced civilization.” The French, no doubt, politely demurred from this colossal presumption. But the United States pavilion was finally squeezed in between those of Austria and Turkey on the Quai des Nations, and every other country had to give up a small portion of their own space to make room for this upstart nation.”
Ferdinand Peck’s Report of the commissioner-general for the United States to the International universal exposition, Paris, 1900 can be read here.
Magnificent Structures, Both Permanent and Temporary, Were Built
Many pavilions erected for world expositions and fairs were meant to be temporary. But several for the Paris Expo 1900 were built to last. Among them the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais are the most magnificent. Other sites were expanded, including the Esplanade des Invalides.
One structure that was demolished after the Paris Expo 1900 was the controversial main entrance. The Porte Monumentale designed in the popular Art Nouveau style had 56 ticket offices to accept visitors.
Arthur Chandler writes:
“Imagine that you are one of the 60,000 visitors per hour that pass through the turnstile of the Porte Monumentale in the lovely Parisian summer of the years 1900 — the first summer of the twentieth century. You pause to admire the graceful sweep of Binet’s monumental dome, a delicate bonnet of perforated ironwork that rises gracefully over an area of 770 square feet, capable of sheltering 2,000 in the event of rain.
Once passed beneath La Parisienne, you behold what many lovers of Paris, then and now, as the most elegantly powerful vista in the world: from the Petit and Grand Palais, across the Alexander Bridge, culminating at the Dome of Les Invalides — built by the Sun King but sacred as the repose of Napoleon’s tomb. The exposition committee has pronounced this new complex of buildings and its accompanying vista the “spike of the exposition.” And it is grand — if not quite so grand or appropriate as the spike of the 1889 exposition.”
The Eiffel Tower Received A Makeover For The Event
Officials received a wave of proposals for a centerpiece for the Paris Expo 1900. The Iron Lady had divided Paris when she was first proposed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Protestors, including prominent artists, believed the design of the tower was nothing short of an assault on Paris. They said she was too tall, too metallic too awkward and downright homely. But she soon had a global fan club.
In the end the Committee decided that the Eiffel Tower could not be outdone. She did, however, receive a new coat of yellow paint.
The Palace of Electricity Lit The Night
The Palais de l’Electricité sat opposite the Eiffel Tower at the far end of the Champ de Mars. Many considered it the star of the Paris Expo 1900. Its designer, architect and theoretician Eugène Hénard was known for his plans to transform Paris. According to musee-orsay.fr, his steel and glass hall demonstrated various applications for electricity. Many had been shown at the Columbian World Fair in Chicago in 1893 where exhibitors included Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.
The Palais was decorated and lit entirely with electric bulbs. The Hachette Guide book to the Exposition wrote:
“At night the entire facade is illuminated by 5,000 multicolored incandescent light bulbs, eight monumental lamps of colored glass, and lanterns sparkling on the pinnacles and along the upper ramps. In the evening this openwork frieze a a veritable luminous embroidery of light and shifting colors. Crowning the Palace is a chariot drawn by hippogryphs, The Spirit of Electricity, which projects showers of multicolored flames.”
Like the Electricity Building at the Columbian Expo, the Palais doubled as a power supply for the other pavilions.
The Exposition Almost Featured The First 360-Degree Film
Early French film pioneer, Raoul Grimoin-Sanson, shot footage with ten cameras in a balloon over the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. His plan was to have visitors sit in an improvised hot-air balloon basket surrounded by ten synchronized movie projectors. With this enormous panoramic scene, people would experience a simulated ride over Paris like Henri Giffard gave for real at the Paris Expo in 1878,
According to Who’s Who In Victorian Cinema:
“Cinéorama was installed at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, the ten projectors arranged in a circle in a cabin so that the films all joined together on the circular screen. But the ten arc lamps created such a heat that this installation never functioned, despite the inventor’s later claims. The Cinéorama company went bankrupt and all its equipment was sold in 1901. Grimoin-Sanson gave up cinema and entered the cork industry.”
The Mareorama Both Entertained And Sickened Riders
It was located inside a building in the amusement section, on the Champ de Mars. Riders experienced a simulated sea voyage from Marseille to Yokohama, Algiers, Naples, Istanbul, the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka, and Singapore.
Created by painter of advertising posters, Hugo d’Alesi combined moving panoramic paintings and a large motion platform. According to MIT Libraries, It is regarded as one of the last major developments in the technology of panoramas. Shortly after the fair, the medium became obsolete.
“It consisted of a 70 m (230 foot) long replica of a steamship and 2 panoramas (one for the port side, one for the starboard) on large rollers. It could accommodate up to 700 passengers at a time. The two paintings were continuous images of the sea and shoreline from the trip. They were each 750 m (2,460 feet) long and 13 m (42.5 feet) tall.”
The simulated deck of the steamship where “passengers” stood included smoking funnels, steam whistles, ocean breezes, and smells like seaweed and tar. There were also simulated storms complete with lightning. And of course, the ship rocked enough to make some riders seasick.
These sensory rides were already popular and growing more sophisticated. By the 1890s, the era of high-concept amusement parks was in full swing. They could hold their own today with the likes of Disneyland, Sea World and Universal Studios. One of the shortest lived but most astonishing developed in 1904 was Coney Island Dreamland.
Visitors Could Hop On A Moving Sidewalk
A favorite attraction at the Paris Expo 1900 was the moving sidewalk. It ran around the perimeter of the fair grounds, with nine separate stations for passengers to board and exit. Is anyone thinking of Disneyland?
The1893 Chicago Fair featured a 4,500-foot moving sidewalk with benches for its passengers. The sidewalk was designed primarily to carry passengers who arrived by steamboats. It was capable of moving up to 6,000 people at a time, up to six miles per hour. The ticket to ride cost one nickel.
An electric train also ran around the edge of the Paris expo, traveling up to 11 mph.
Early Female Olympians Struggled For Their Chance In 1900
The Games of the II Olympiad were part of the Paris Exposition Universelle–the World’s Fair. The games were held between May 14 and October 28, 1900. Twenty-two brave women stepped up to the plate in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, France although several were unaware they were in the Olympics due to a lack of communication. Out of 997 athletes, they represented 2.2%. They competed in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf.
The Du Bois Exhibit Won Gold
William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois, esteemed author and sociologist, won a gold medal. Collaborating with Thomas Calloway, a lawyer and primary organizer of the exhibit and Daniel Murray, the Assistant Librarian of Congress, Du Bois designed the extensive multimedia exhibit, using factual information to shatter racist stereotypes of the day. The exhibit included approximately 500 photographs of black Americans at work, leisure, worship, home, and school. It also featured close to 60 leading edge infographics charting African American advancement, along with bound volumes of nearly 400 patents by Black Americans and a bibliography of 1,400 titles.
Art Nouveau Made A Big Splash In 1900
We know it when we see it. Art Nouveau movement began in 1890 with the goal of modernizing design and abandoning the classical, historical styles. Its artists drew inspiration from nature, with her curves, asymmetrical forms, and intense colors. Artists of all disciplines embraced the style. By the Paris Universelle it influenced everything from painting to fashion to architecture. The very entrances to the Expo and the metro reflected Art Nouveau.
But according to Lang Antiques, the Exposition was the beginning of the end. With nearly 50 million visitors, the movement gained a wide audience. That increased demand for the pieces and ultimately lowered manufacturing, and design standards. Originality and artistic care that had been central to the movement soon eroded.
“By 1910, Art Nouveau had all but died. The Exposition of 1900 thereafter has been seen as the movement’s greatest moment and, at the same time, the start of a precipitous and unfortunate decline.”
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Clara Driscoll parlayed her passion for nature and artistic training into a stellar career at Tiffany Studios in the late 1800s. At a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote and to wear pants, she lead the Tiffany Girls who were the creative force behind many of the company’s greatest works.
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