With Britain enjoying prosperity and relative peace, Prince Albert wanted to create the largest exhibition in history to show the range of technological and aesthetic innovations from around the world. (Not to mention, he wanted to top the French exhibition of 1844.) In 1850 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in tandem with Henry Cole, established the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Their dream resulted in the first world trade fair. It became one of the defining events of the Victorian Era. It was so successful that profits from The Great Exhibition 1851 fund research today.
Named The Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it ran May 1to October 15, 1851. More than 6 million people visited. That was nearly half the population of Britain at the time. Even with reduced ticket prices for the working class, the show profited the equivalent of roughly 12 million pounds today.
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition 1851 purchased land in South Kensington that was developed into “Albertopolis.” The complex eventually included the museums of Science, Natural History and Victoria and Albert as well as Albert Hall and the Royal Colleges of Art, Music and the Imperial College of Science.
The complex was sold to the British government in the late 19th century, but the Commission continues to operate to this day. Each year it awards up to 25 grants and scholarships in science and technology. These Research Fellowships are awarded to promising recipients around the world. They have so far produced thirteen Nobel Laureates. It’s a fitting legacy for Prince Albert who wanted to show that life could be improved through technology.
As plans for the Great Exhibition 1851 developed, it soon became clear to the Commission that a hall of standard construction would be time consuming and costly to build. Instead, Prince Albert and Henry Cole engaged Joseph Paxton, the famous greenhouse designer. In two days he sketched a vision that was quickly approved by the commission.
Paxton had been head gardener at Chatworth House in Derbyshire. The Crystal Palace was a much larger version of the greenhouses he had built there. The modular structure would allow them to build quickly, then dismantle and rebuild the palace after the Great Exhibition.
It took only nine months to build The Crystal Palace on the edge of Hyde Park in London. Glass had become relatively inexpensive thanks to the Cylinder Sheet glass manufacturing process of 1834. The Crystal Palace was made from a wrought iron frame and roughly one million square feet of glass. The floor was wood with spaces between the planks so it would be relatively easy to sweep.
The Great Exhibition 1851 was the cultural event of the day with people visiting from all around the world. Ticket prices were lowered on May 24th so the working classes could also attend. Railways had been expanding, so the working class could enjoy short trips thanks to affordable tickets. People flocked to London from all over Britain. The Thomas Cook travel agency arranged special expeditions to the Exhibit. Throngs of school children, families, factory workers and farmers attended.
The upper classes arrived in elegant carriages that were “valet parked” at special entrances. It seems nothing has changed in 165 years.
Countless famous Victorians attended. Among them: Emily Bronte, Samuel Colt, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Queen Victoria herself visited multiple times.
From Queen Victoria’s Diary, May 1, 1851
‘This day is one of the greatest and most glorious of our lives… It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness… The Park presented a wonderful spectacle, crowds streaming through it, – carriages and troops passing… The Green Park and Hyde Park were one mass of densely crowded human beings, in the highest good humour… before we neared the Crystal Palace, the sun shone and gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying… The sight as we came to the centre where the steps and chair (on which I did not sit) was placed, facing the beautiful crystal fountain was magic and impressive. The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decoration and exhibits, the sound of the organ… all this was indeed moving.’
Following is from Emily Bronte’s first person account in The Brontes’ Life and Letters, by Clement Shorter (1907),
“It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. … It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it, with such a blaze and contrast of colors and marvelous power of effect. “
Regarding the crowd Bronte said:
“The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.”
The Crystal Palace housed more than 100,000 objects in more than ten miles of space (20,000 square meters.) About half of these were from Britain, with the rest from 60 nations.
Among the exhibits:
-massive hydraulic press
-counting machines that people feared would put clerks out of work.
-prototype bicycles (velocipedes)
-prototype of a FAX machine
-an early submarine
-revolving lighthouse light
-“pocket” knife with 80 blades
-even the world famous Koh-i-Noor diamond (xx karats)
The Great Exhibition 1851 also featured the first public toilets. They were invented by George Jennings. The cost to use: one penny.
Satirical magazine, Punch could not resist shooting its satirical humor at the Great Exhibit. Punch editors published cartoons harpooning various aspects of the Great Exhibition. Among them was the overriding theme of harmony among nations. Punch used its usual wit and irreverence to show that the competition was anything but friendly at times.
America’s contribution to the Great Exhibition 1841 got off to a shaky start. The bad news: Exhibitors did not receive government sponsorship. The good news: they lucked out with the loan of a ship to transport their wares. The bad news: When the ship arrived, they did not have enough money to unload their exhibits. More good news: George Peabody, an American banker, foot the bill to the tune of $15,000 and they were off to the Great Exhibit of 1851.
American displays included: the Virginia grain reaper by Cyrus McCormick, a patent double grand piano that accommodated four pianists, Colt’s “formidable revolving charge pistols.”
The American display was so empty initially that Punch suggested we should make our extra space available for tired visitors to sleep.
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