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    

1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair 1846 Braided Hair Cent Elongated Coin1876 Centennial Exposition Register With Fantastic Chromolithograph Frontis1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair Engraved Colubmian Half Dollar AwardScarce Master Marble 1933 Cop Box With Bag No Reserve1933 Century Of Progress License Plate Topper Chicago Worlds Fair Ford Chevy Lewis & Clark Centennial Portland Oregon Or 1905 Encased 1905 Indian 1c Uncommon1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair Director General's Chicago Hussars Badge Medal1893 Cunard Steamship Line History & Promotional Book Columbian Exposition1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair Presidential Coin Souvenir Watch Fob1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair Monon Route Agricultural Bldg Pocket Mirror1905 Louis & Clark Centennial Expo Case Agricultural Advertising Pinback Button1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair Figural Stack Of Coins Souvenir Box1630 Exposition Of The Dominicall John Boys Engraved Title Page Vignettes Rare1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago Worlds Fair View Book In Fine Leather BindingAntique 1893 Chicago World's Fair Mount Washington Glass Salt Shaker 1893 Columbian Exposition Expo Chicago Worlds Fair Columbus Souvenir Key Ring1925 French Young Workers Industrial Exposition Art Medal Antique Paperweight 1893 Worlds Fair Warehouse Fire Chicago1876 Centennial Exposition Philadelphia Worlds Fair Portfolio W/ 50 Color Views1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair Art Gallery Mauchline Ware Needle & Spool Case1876 Centennial Excursion Philadelphia (worlds Fair Ticket Pennsylvania RailroadUs Panama-pacific, Perf 10 Sc # 404 1914-15 10c Mint Nh Cat $17001893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair "wilhelm Mayer" Bronze Medal 3 & 1/2"Orig Japanese Woodblock Print Book Travel Guide Europe W/ Exposition Prints 18851904 St. Louis World's Fair Souvenir PlatePan-american Exposition 1901 Buffalo Ny Medal Suspended From Buffalo Horn Bar1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago World's Fair Columbus Souvenir Pinback Button1893 Worlds Fair Paperweight Chicago Exposition Ferris Wheel1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago World's Fair Maine Souvenir Badge Medal1893 World’s Fair Libbey Glass Bell * Columbian Exposition Mint1893 World’s Fair Kerosene Oil Lamp Manufactures Liberal Arts Building1893 Columbian Exposition World's Fair "the Last Nail" Woman's Building SouvenirAntique Paperweight 1893 Worlds Fair Opening Day Chicago Columbian Exposition1933 World's Fair Arcade Cast Iron Plymouth Sedan Century Of Progress Chicago 1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair "ohio's Stone & Mineral Exhibit" Souvenir Medal1904 Umbrella Form Stanhope Sewing Needle Casew/ 1904 Worlds Fair Photograph1893 Umbrella Form Stanhope Needle Case - Columbian Exposition Worlds Fair Photo1934 Worlds Fair Chicago Century Progress Skyride Celludloid Girey Co Compact1630 Bible & Exposition On Thessalonians Puritan Commentary William Sclater1939 New York World's Fair Plate - American Potter - Ivory - Homer LaughlinCase Xx Usa 1984 Louisiana World Exposition Black Handles Trapper Knife1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair Souvenir Spool Thread Box Sewing Kit1893 World’s Fair Woven Silk Ribbon Government Building & CannonRare 1893 World’s Fair Double Stanhope Brass & Pearl Mini BinocularsRalph Stackpole Pacifica Vintage Rare Photograph San Francisco World's Fair 1939Keystone Chicago World's Fair 1933 Stereoscope And PhotographsElvis "world's Fair" In Baggy Lpm-2697 1st Pressing 1963 Great Shape M-/vg++1901 Pan American Exposition / Buffalo Worlds Fair Salt & Pepper Shakers #11893 World’s Fair Stanhope 6expo Views Columbian Exposition Telescope Monocle #3Fancy Foreign Commissioners Banquet Invitation 1893 World's Columbian Exposition1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition Isabella Quarter Pcgs Ms-63 @@ Must See@@R57135 Auth Hermes Clear Vinyl Kelly Souvenir De L'exposition 1997 Hand Bag Ghw1893 World’s Fair Ferris Wheel 7x9 Cabinet Photo By Arnold Columbian Exposition1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago World's Fair Alabama Souvenir Badge Medal1876 Centennial Exposition Philadelphia Worlds Fair Official Visitor Guide W/mapScd Hk-354 Official Medal Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo 1909 Seattle Us Mint R-41893 Columbian Exposition Chicago Worlds Fair Visitors Guide Book W/ Map1893 Columbian Expo World's Fair "grover Cleveland Mint Exhibit" Souvenir MedalUs Panama-pacific, Perf 12 Sc # 400a 1913 10c Mint Nh Cat $4001893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair "maine State Building" Paperweight