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    

Antq Pan-american Exposition Worlds Fair Ny 1901 Match Safe Holder Vesta #28 Yqz1893 Isabella Quarter/columbian Exposition Quarter Dollar 90% Silver Dollar1915-s * Pcgs Ms64 * Cac * Panama-pacific Half Dollar 50c Commemorative Pan-pac1905 Lewis & Clark Expo, Portland, Oregon, Government Bldg Sterling Silver SpoonVintage 1939-1940 New York Worlds Fair Champleve Enameled Powder Compact!Antq Pan-american Exposition Worlds Fair Ny 1901 Match Safe Holder Vesta #27 Yqz1962 Seattle World's Fair Century 21 Exposition Official 9-pc Medal Set Mr Fancy Cancel St Louis Worlds Fair France 1904 Missouri State Bldg Cvr #1451894 San Francisco California Midwinter Intnl. Exposition Admission TicketAntique 1893 Silver Christmas Chicago Worlds Fair Exposition Souvenir Coin PurseMr Fancy Cancel Used Pan-american Expo Buffalo Top Hat Cvr #1051893 Worlds Fair Columbian Expo Columbus Whitehead & Hoag Medal & Ribbon1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition Expo "festival Hall" Sterling Silver Spoon1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Hk-478, Ngc Ms64, R-5Sinclair Dinosaur 1964 Ny Worlds FairMr Fancy Cancel The Inside Inn St Louis Worlds Fair 1904 Cvr #140Vintage Art Deco 1939 New York World's Fair Green Saturn Lamp - Works1905 Lewis And Clark Centennial Exposition, Hk-331a, Ngc Ms62 Dpl, R-51893 Columbian Exposition "casino & Pier" Alvin Sterling Silver Souvenir SpoonVintage 1900 Paris Exposition Sterling Silver Thimble Hallmarked Excellent1939-1940 New York World's Fair Bakelite Pencil Sharpener Ball & PyramidVintage Art Deco 1939 New York World's Fair Green Saturn Lamp - Works (2)Worlds Fair Us Royal Tires Toy From 1964-65 Mint Condition1939 New York World's Fair Vintage Elgin American Ladies CompactNew York 1964 World's Fair Sinclair Mold A Rama Plastic Brontosaurus Dinosaur Elvis Presley It Happened At The Worlds Fair Original Vintage Lobby CardsVintage 1939 - 40 New York World's Fair Metal Souvenir Box.Lot Of 3 Souvenir Bookmark/clips - 1933 Chicago World's Fair Vintage New York World's Fair 1939 Auto Transport Building PinMr Fancy Cancel Used Pan-american Expo Us Government Building 1901 Cvr #106Colorful Tin 1939 New York World's Fair - 0041915 Panama-pacific International Exposition, Hk-421, Ngc Au58, R-6Ill-wce-1 Columbian Exposition 1893 Elongated On Sweden 1/16 Riksdaler 1848Commemorative Elongated Nickel - 1893 World's Columbian Exposition Chicago1893 World’s Columbian Exposition So-called Dollar Hk-189 Ngc Ms-61 1893 Columbian Expo Chicago World's Fair Landing Of Columbus Stevengraph Ribbon1939 New York Worlds Fair CompactMr Fancy Cancel Used California Midwinter Int'l Exo San Francisco 1894 Card #9610 General Electric Progressland Matchbook Covers - 1964 New York World's Fair1915 Panama-california Exposition, Hk-432a, Ngc Ms62, R-61939 New York World's Fair Vintage Ladies Compact, Suitcase ShapeNew York 1964 World's Fair Sinclair Mold A Rama Plastic Trachodon Dinosaur Mr Fancy Cancel Hotel Zenobia Buffalo Ny Pan Am Expo 1901 Cvr #1131909 Alaska-yukon Pacific Expo Aype Dangling Logo Stick PinVintage 1900 Exposition France Sterling Silver Thimble Made In France1904 The Official History Of The Fair St. Luis Worlds Fair Book No ReserveScd Hk-289 Official Medfal Pan-american Expo 1901 Us Mint Medal Buffalo R-3The American Potter - New York World's Fair 1939/1940 - George Washington Mug1901 Indian Encased - Night View Of The Tower, I Am Never Broke, Lucky SouvenirParker Jotter 1964 New York World's Fair Pen-blue Enameled & Engraved - Rare!1913 Panama Canal Opening First Ship On The Canal Hk398 R-4 So-called DollarVintage 1889 Paris Exposition Sterling Silver Thimble Made In FranceLouisville Ky Industrial Exposition 1870's Token - Preuser & Wellenvoss Hatters 1893 Columbian Exposition "columbus At Barcelona" Sterling Silver Souvenir SpoonNew York 1964 World's Fair Sinclair Mold A Rama Plastic Stegasaurus Dinosaur Mr Fancy Cancel World Columbian Expo Wrapper For Cards #1311893 Chicago World's Fair Columbian Expo Goldsmith Postal Cards Souvenir Wrapper11- 1940s-60s Sawyers Viewmaster Reels Disney Christmas Flintstones Worlds FairMr Fancy Cancel Unused California Midwinter Int'l Exo San Francisco '94 Card #97Mr Fancy Cancel St Louis Worlds Fair Transportation Bldg 1904 Cvr #148