The first world’s fair recognized by the Bureau of International Expositions was the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in and around a glass structure called the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. Thirty-two countries participated in the almost six-month-long event, which attracted more than six million visitors. Few souvenirs of the event remain, and even the Crystal Palace is gone (in 1854 it was moved to Sydenham in South London, where it burned to the ground in 1936).

Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1855 at the Palais de l’Industrie. Organized by Prince Napoleon Jerome, the agriculturally focused expo is best perhaps remembered for its official classification of Bordeaux wines, a five-tiered system that persists to this day, despite the complaints of oenophiles. The United States hosted its first official exposition in 1876 to mark the country’s centennial. Held in Philadelphia, the Centennial Exposition offered visitors all sorts of keepsakes, from inkwells and sewing boxes to metal Liberty Bell paperweights and stereoviews of everything from Tiffany vases to the steel turret salvaged from the famous Civil War vessel "The Monitor." It was also the place where Alexander Graham Bell's invention, the telephone, was introduced.

Toward the end of the century, in 1893, a second U.S. exposition was presented in Chicago. Called the Columbian World’s Fair, the spectacle was timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the new world. In addition to the china, glassware, prints, postcards, badges, medals, and charms that were produced for the fair, collectors of world’s fair material seek out the official U.S. coins that were minted prior to the event to help raise money for it.

Paris held its second world’s fair in 1900; like the first, it was located around the Eiffel Tower. Souvenir plates depicted guests from all over the world attending the fair and the structures built for it, as well as lists of scheduled events, such as a performance by Sarah Bernhardt. Visitors could also take home souvenir photo portfolios, postcards, and stereoviews of the fairgrounds. The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, followed in 1901; coins, pinbacks, and shot glasses were offered at that fair. A new-fangled contraption called an x-ray machine was exhibited, but the event is infamous as the assassination site of President William McKinley, who was shot by an anarchist inside the Temple of Music.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis in 1904, offered the usual array of ceramic plates and glass and metal cups to visitors, and it gained greater notoriety in 1944 when “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland, hit movie theaters. In 1909, Seattle hosted its first world’s fair when the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was held on what is now the campus of the University of Washington. Tourists took home Staffordshire plates, aluminum cigar holders, and beribboned pinbacks.

In 1915, San Francisco and San Diego each held expos to mark the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The San Francisco event popularized the ukulele, while the San Diego expo left a lasting legacy on the city’s Balboa Park. A couple of decades later, in 1933, the city of Chicago presented A Century of Progress, an Art Deco feast of posters, beaded purses, salt-and-pepper shakers, radios, Brownie cameras, pocket watches, clocks, and model cars and trains. Jigsaw puzzles of the fairgrounds were produced, and at the Hall of Religion, you could pick up a copy of “The World’s Smallest Bible,” which fit in a teaspoon. Burlesque queen Sally Rand performed at the fair, and photos of her famously revealing fan dance are prized by collectors.

The end of the decade, 1939, saw two fairs in the United States, held simultaneously in San Francisco and New York. While the fair in San Francisco is recalled by some for its ar...

Four fairs were held in North America in the 1960s: The Century 21 Exposition in Seattle, 1962; yet another World’s Fair in New York, 1964; Expo 67 in Montreal; and HemisFair ’68 in San Antonio. Of these, the expos in Seattle and Montreal left the biggest marks. Seattle is still identified with the Space Needle that was built for the event and immediately replicated on stamps, medals, plates, glasses (the ones given away at Mobil gas stations are probably the best known), spoons, lamps, and pens. The legacy of Expo 67 can be seen in the architecture of Moshe Safdie, whose modular Habitat ’67 housing units are either an eyesore or a work of a visionary genius.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Advertising Antiques

Advertising Antiques

This classy looking British site features hundreds of high resolution photos of antique porcelain pre-war (enamel) … [read review or visit site]

Ad Access

Ad Access

Duke University's library has pulled together an impressive collection of over 7,000 ads printed in U.S. and Canadi… [read review or visit site]

American Package Museum

American Package Museum

Ian House's gallery of early 20th Century American package designs. Browse the exhibits in slide show mode or view … [read review or visit site]

Found in Moms Basement

Found in Moms Basement

Paula Zargaj-Reynolds’ blog, an extensive collection of 20th century vintage advertising, is a visual feast. Scro… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

36 Civil War + Hard Times + World Fair Tokens & Medals & More (must See) No Rsrv1989 China Gold Panda 1/4 Oz 18th Ny Exposition Pr69 Ucam Ngc ~ Wings 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition Isabella Quarter@@ Must See@@Set Of 10 Original 1893 World's Columbian Exposition Of Chicago TicketsOriginal "japan World Exposition Osaka Expo '70 Poster Large LinenbackedMagnificent 1893 Chicago World's Fair Columbus George Washington Italian Medal!Us Panama-pacific, Perf 10 Sc # 404 1914-15 10c Mint Nh Cat $17001939 Ny World's Fair Frosted Glass Lamp--it Works! Trylon & PerisphereVintage 1932 Paris International Exposition Cat Club Show French Bronze MedalEncased Indian - Night View Of Tower, I Am Never Broke, Lucky Souvenir (b.u.)1915-s Panama Pacific Commemorative Half Dollar, Rainbow Obv, Solid Gem Bu++!1892-93 Columbian Exposition Worlds Fair Silk Ribbon Souvenir-excellent1904 Louisiana Purchase Universal Exposition Worlds Fair Award Bronze Medal1928 - (first) Merit Badge Exposition - Winning Troop - President's Award Medal1939 New York World's Fair Greyhound Arcade Cast Iron Tram Toy1999 China 10 Yuan 2 Pc. Kunming Exposition Proof Set1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair 1887 Norwegian 1 Ore Elongated Coin1893 Silk Woven Bookmark World Columbian Exposition Pope Leo Xiii By John Best Les Maitres De L'affiche By Grasset - Exposition. 98 - 1897 Poster LithographRare 1878 Paris Universal Exposition Snow Globe Glass Dome & Ceramic Base1893 Chicago Worlds Fair Columbian Exposition CoinRare Vtg 1959 Revelle * Westinghouse Atomic Power Plant Model * & Instructions 1933 Arcade Gmc Century Of Progress Greyhound Lines Bus Truck Trailer 10 Inch1933 Colorado’s Century Of Progress Silver So-called Dollar Hk-870 Ftgs Ms 62 1893 Souvenir Silk Woven Bookmark World Columbian Exposition Cleveland PhoenixSilk Woven Bookmark 'banner Of Free Enterprise' 1893 World Columbian Exposition 1904 St.louis World's Fair ~ Gold Medal Flour ~ Washburn Crosby ~howard Rossen1939 Arcade Grey Hound Bus Worlds Fair Original Arcade Sticker Great ExampleThe Electric Tower Pan-american Souvenir, Maine Steel Souvenir, W.f.doll Co. Ny1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair "kentucky State Building" Souvenir Paperweight1893 Columbian Exposition Java Theater Ticket Admit One Chicago Worlds Fair2016 China 1 Oz Pf Silver Panda Berlin World Fair Ngc Pf69 (great Wall) Sku40589Louisiana Purchase Exposition St Louis Mo 1904 Souvenir Match Box Holder Stand 1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair "columbus & Admin Building" Silver Box Medal1893 Chicago Worlds Fair Cranberry Glass Enameled Toothpick HolderMini Oriental Rug Century Of Progress 1933 Chicago World's Fair TapestryWorlds Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893 Fair Pass Ticket Photo Id BookletCristopher Columbus Worlds Fair Token 1492-1892 Hk-210b1893 Chicago Illinois World's Fair 69mm Medal Rambler Bicycle Ferris Wheel1900 French Medal For The International Exposition,in Case, By J.c. Chaplain1893 Columbian Exposition Old Vienna Ticket Con. 182 Chicago Worlds FairBuffalo Brewing Company Tip Tray~san Francisco Exposition Estate Lot 4 Jack Burnley Signed Original Art Ny World's Fair Comics 1940 Design1893 Columbian Exposition The World's Fair Steamship Co. Ticket Chicago Columbian Exposition Press Pass 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair1892 Worlds Colombian Exposition Chicago Etched Coin Money ClipVtg Complete 1962 Stalco Century 21 Space Needle Model Kit Seattle World's Fair1876 Hk-22 Sc$1- Us Centennial Exposition - Ms62 NgcArcade Cast Iron Plymouth Century Of Progress Chicago 1933 - Original Condition1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair Gar Grand Army Of Republic Stevengraph RibbonRare Atlanta Georgia Usa Cotton States International Exposition Gold Medal 1895So-called Dollar: Type Iv Colorado Dollar From 1933 Century Of Progress Expo1893 Columbian Exposition Wild East 25 Cent. Con. 257 Ticket Chicago Worlds FairAntique 1/8l Miniature Pewter German Beer 1904 St. Louis World's FairEstate Lot 5 Burnley Original Art Ny World's Fair Comics 1940 Design Framed Nr1960's World’s Fair Sinclair Oil & Gas Company Wax Dinosaur Lot1893 World's Columbian Exposition - Vienna Bakery Concession Ticket - 5 Cents1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair French Exhibitor Bronze Plaque Medal Antique Advertising Figural Bottle Opener #16 **1934 Worlds Fair** President Teddy Roosevelt,st.louis World's Fair Souvenir Weller Plate,1904