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    

1939 New York Worlds Fair Rca Victor Trylon & Perisphere Novelty Tube Radio 1964-65 New York Worlds Fair Architectural Model Of The Gm Futurama PavillionArcade Cast Iron Century Of Progress 1933 Greyhound Lines Gmc Bus-white Tires 1964 New York World’s Fair Unisphere Souvenir License Plate Unused W/ PaperCollection New York World's Fair Memorabilia S & P Catalin Thermometer & PerfumeRare Antique Century Progress 1933 Chicago World's Fair Book Bank Lincoln Cabin1904 St. Louis Missouri Louisiana Purchase Exposition Souvenir Token1933 A Century Of Progress Chicago World's Fair Cast Iron Toy Greyhound Bus Gmc1893 Columbian Exposition Brass I.d, Pin With Info Slot...medal, Badge, TokenAbraham Lincoln Brenner Plaque Medal (wgn - 1964 Ny World's Fair)1964 1965 New York World's Fair Welcome Banner Unisphere Fringed Tasseled1876 Centennial Exposition Register With Fantastic Chromolithograph CoverVintage Antique Pan American Exposition 1901 Spelter Metal Crab Inkwell Rag Ragtime Sheet Music 1904 The Cascades Scott Joplin St Louis World's Fair1893 Columbian Exposition World's Fair Brass Antique Souvenir Walnut Nut Locket1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition Christopher Columbus Medal, Token, Or Coin1964-65 Ny World's Fair Us Royal Tires Toy Ferris Wheel (still Works!) With BoxImpossibly Rare Vtg 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair Ivory Soap Sample Bars Lot Of 18!1915 Panama Canal California Exposition Souvenir With Original Envelope1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago Day Admission Ticket Indian Chief Chicago Worlds Fair 1893 Admission Ticket Columbian Exposition Mint Condition1893 Columbian Exposition Chicago Worlds Fair Admission Ticket #122835*lot Of 2* 1893 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollars Old Us Coin .99 Start!1893 Elongated Chicago Columbian Exposition World's Fair 1868 Shield Nickel1893 Columbian Exposition World's Fair Brass Antique Souvenir Chestnut LocketFerris Wheel; Litho Tin 1904 World's Fair St. Louis Souvenir Egg1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar Silver Coin.25 L Stein Whites Of Utica "world's Fair Chicago 1893"Two 1915 Worlds Fair Ppie " Participant "and "closing Day" Badges San Francisco1933 Chicago Illinois World's Fair Souvenir Token Swastika Elephant1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Hk-306, R-4, So-called DollarS559. Vintage: Meet Me At The Fair San Fransisco Fair Ppie Pinback (1915) Rare [1933 Chicago Worlds Fair Black Enamel Double Vanity CompactAntique 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair Leather Metal Coin Purse And Watch Fob1893 Columbian Exposition & 1952 Washington/carver Silver Half Dollars .99 StartCorgi # Us54316 N.y. Worlds Fair Bus--destination:subway System 1:50 # 1031893 Worlds Columbian Exposition Fair Wisconsin Souvenir Pinback Badge1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago Single Day Admission Ticket LincolnArt Deco 1939 New York World's Fair Trylon & Perishpere Bakelite SouvenirAntique Vtg 1915 San Francisco Pan Pacific Expo Ppie World's Fair Souvenir Pan1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago Single Admission Ticket WashingtonCase Xx Knives Mint Pair Of 1982 Worlds Fair Mop Knives!!peanut And Pen Knives!!1892 Silver Chicago World's Fair Souvenir Postage Stamp Case1939 New York Worlds Fair Trylon & Perisphere Green Bakelite Desk Thermometer1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago Day Admission Ticket Oct 9 With Stub1904 St Louis Worlds Fair MatchsafeAntique Theosophy Key Exposition Madame H P Blavatsky Ethics Philosophy Book1876 U.s. Centennial Exposition, Hk-25 - Rounded 6, R-5, So-called DollarAntique 1901 Pan American Exposition Buffalo Clam Shell Coin Purse Souvenir Original 1939 New York Worlds Fair Nywf Embossed Souvenir Auto License PlateChicago Worlds Fair 1893 Glass Salt Shaker Womans Bldg Columbian Exposition Chicago Worlds Fair 1893 Glass Salt Shaker Womans Bldg Columbian Exposition 1Antique Amethyst Glass Ax Axe Hatchet, 1893 Chicago World's Fair, G. Washington1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo. World's Fair Souvenir St. Louis So-called Dollar1892 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping               1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago Single Day Admission Ticket Columbus1934 Ford Exposition Token Century Of Progress MedalBelgium Belgian 1898 Blankenberge Exposition Beauty!Encased 1904 Indian Cent - 1904 World's Fair - St. Louis - $2.75 S&h1939 New York World's Fair Leather Pin On Card With Trylon And Perisphere