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    

Working Rca Trk-12 Prewar 1939 Worlds Fair Television John Vassos 12ap4 Tube Antique Nickel Silver 1904 St Louis Worlds Fair Match Holder Vesta Case Safe YqzStunning 1915 Panama Pacific Ruby NovagemLovely 1915 Panama Pacific Small Diamond Novagem Beautiful Pink 1915 Ppie Novagem1915 Worlds Fair Panama-pacific Expo Clear Novagem From Tower Of Jewels1915 Panama Pacific Money Clip With Novagem1915-s U.s. Panama-pacific $1 One Dollar Gold Coin - Ngc Au 58 - Rare Proof 1893 Columbian Exposition Medal Christopher Columbus Aluminum Eglit 55Orig 1893 Columbian Exposition Liberty Head So Called Dollar Uncirculated Look!Vintage 1934 Century Of Progress Buck Rogers Pinback1893 Maryland Worlds Columbian Exposition White Metal Participation MedalPanama Pacific Int'l Expo 1915 Sweden Medal Arbetet Adlar San Francisco Ca 1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago Souvenir Repousse Match Stick Holder 1915-s Panama-pacific Commemorative Half Dollar, Key Date Commem, ** Free S/h!1962 Sales Sample By Unitran To Compete/alweg Monorail For Seattle Worlds FairFrance 1928 - Surcharge Exposition Philatélique Philatelic Exhibition On Cover1904 World's Fair St. Louis Souvenir Ink Well On Tray W/ Stamp Holder1915 Panama Pacific Ladies's Sterling Ring2 Antique Match Safe's One Sterling .925 Silver Art Nouveau St Louis Worlds FairLouisiana Purchase Exposition Bronze Award Medal 1904 St Louis Hendershott 30-40Rare 1904 St Louis World's Fair Thimble Holder, Leather1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago H. Boker Germany 3-blade Folding KnifeAntique 1895 Perfecscope Stereoscope Viewer 1900 Paris Worlds Fair Expo Hc WhiteCentennial Exposition Of American 1876 Tin Celebration 10 1/2" Horn - Exc PlusVintage Herme Clear Vinyl Plastic Jelly Hand Bag Souvenir De L'exposition 19971892 Columbian Expo " Ny Celebration " Eglit-205 - Ngc Ms-63 Ex: Virgil BrandScott#404 10c Panama-pacific Exposition 1915 Mint Lh Og Little Crease $700Us Columbian Exposition 1893 Official Postal Cards Ngai1901 Pan American Exposition – Buffalo, New York1893 Chicago World's Columbian Expo European Coat Of Arms Pin No ReserveAntique 1904 St.louis World's Fair Silk Ribbon Calendar - Stevengraph1847 Spurgeon Recommended! Charles Bridges An Exposition Of The Book Of ProverbsVintage Original 1964 New York Worlds Fair Car License Plate1915 California Exposition Panama Canal Completion San Diego Pinback ButtonUncirculated 1892 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping*    Antique Gillinder Eapg Satin Glass 1876 Centennial Shoe In Silverplate FrameU S Weather Bureau Dept Of Agriculture Souvenir Card 1893 Chicago World's Fair1893 United States Columbian Exposition Copper Oval. Rare. 2015 Niue Silver Gilt Panama Pacific $2 Ngc Pf70 - Original Government Packaging1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition Quarter Fractional Gold Token Ngc Ms61 1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago Souvenir Coin Holder Dispenser With CoinsAntique 1915 World's Fair Panama-pacific Exposition Ppie Opening Day Pin BadgeScott#298 8c Pan-american Exposition 1901 Mint Nh Og Never Hinged $2301905 Lewis & Clark Exposition Commemorative Gold One Dollar1934 Official Chicago Worlds Fair Brass Souvenir Ring A Century Of Progress NearUncirculated 1893 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free ShippingState Officer, Dept. Of Public Safety Exposition Park + Chp Patches - Calif1915 Panama-pacific International Expostion Official Hk-400 So Called Dollar CaAnt. 1904 St.louis World's Fair Reverse Painted Picture Standing Frame CascadeColumbian Exposition 1893 Brass Perpetual Calendar Advertising Chicago Best!!Vtg 1962 Seattle Seafair Skipper Pin World's Fair Washington Boosters Century 211939 New York Worlds Fair Hohner #39 Harmonica Factory Box Of 12 Miniature's Two Miniature Stanhope Charms, Binoculars, French Exposition De 1900, & KettleAntique 1915 Exposition Preservation League San Francisco 1915 Pin Badge1876 U. S. Centennial Exposition, Main Building And Art Gallery - 51.5mm1893 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Nice High Grade1895 Cotton States And International Exposition, Hk-268, So-called Dollar1901 Pan-am Postcard Lot Antique Late 1800's Worlds Fair / Expo - Coin Purse Locket, Looks Like Watch