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]

Plan 59

Plan 59

From the Nostlagia Factory in Virginia comes this celebration of 'mid-century automotive advertising illustrations'… [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    

Rare Arcade - Great Lakes Exposition 1936 - Cast Iron 2 Piece Bus - 6 3/4"" 1939 New York Worlds Fair Lamp Art Deco Planet Saturn Satin Glass Hauze Works Hard To Find Vintage Hall 1939 World's Fair Star Cobalt Blue With Gold Teapot!!! Vtg. Kodak Bullet N,y. Worlds Fair 1939 Art Deco Face Black & Silver Camera1892/3 Wce World's Columbian Exposition Eglit-40b Admission Pass Medal 1915 Panama - Pacific International Exposition San-francisco Award Medal 1915-s Panama-pacific Exposition Commemorative Silver Half Dollar. Free ShippingCast Iron Arcade Century Of Progress 1933 *vintage Greyhound Toy Truck/bus1904 Louisiana Purchase St. Louis E.c. Simmons Hardware Co. Keen Kutter Postcard1901 Pan Am Exposition Buffalo Worlds Fair Souvenir Inkwell 1915 San Francisco Ppie World Fair RibbonArcade 1939-40 New York World Fair Greyhound Tractor Train Parking Lot ShuttleChicago Worlds Fair 1893 Admit The Bearer Original Ticket Columbian ExpositionElvis Presley Lp "at The Worlds Fair" Original Living Stereo W Rare Photo Vg+/++1893 Columbian Exposition ~ Sc#245 ($5) ~ F/vfJoyful In Japan Poppy Parker - World's Fair 2013 Collection - NrfbArcade 1933 Century Of Progress Bus - Large SizeUncirculated 1892 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping!1928 Elongated Wheat Cent From 1933 Worlds FairSouvenir Of 1939 Ny World's Fair Small BankLarge Group Of 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition Felt Pennants - P.p.i.e.Antique Victorian Trade Card Die Cuts Album Scrapbook Burpee Worlds Fair 250 PcsPanama Pacific Exposition 1915 Match Safe1892 Chicago Columbian Exposition Official Program Arcade 1934 Century Of Progress Worlds Fair Gmc Greyhound Bus Rare 6" One PieceMilk Glass Vase Palace Liberal Arts 1904 St Louis Worlds Fair Exposition Vintage1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition Token Seal Of The City Of Seattle1934 Greyhound Lines Bus Century Of Progress Chicago Cast Iron Toy1904 St. Louis World's Fair Aluminum Playing Cards1900 Olympic Games & Exposition Universelle Gold Plated Chaplain Medal - Rare!1933 Chicago Century Of Progress Expo Greenbuck Dollar So-called Dollar Or MedalSt Louis World's Fair Palace Of Mines & Metallurgy & Palace Of Machinery 1904Vintage Playing Cards Pan-american Exposition ~ 19014 Sheets Brazil Stamps ~ Mnh~ Scott # 496-497-498 &612 ~1940 Worlds Fair1936-d Pcgs San Diego California Pacific Exposition .900 Silver Half Dollar Ms65Us Scott #293 - 299 1901 Pan-american Exposition Nh Og MintChicago Worlds Fair 1893 Admit The Bearer Original Ticket Columbian Exposition1915 Hk-401 Gilt Panama Pacific Expo Official Medal Sc$1 Pan PacVintage Chicago World's Fair 1933 Century Of Progress Small Black Compact 1915 Ppie San Francisco, Ca & Panama California Expo, San Diego Token Bear 18mm1904 St Louis Worlds Fair Stereoview Photo Lot Farris Wheel & American Flag1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition Capitol Stock Shares Certificate / ScarceColumbian Exposition Postcard Fair Postmark #231 To Germany Shortpaid 18931935-s Ngc San Diego California Pacific Exposition .900 Silver Half Dollar Ms-65Antique 1933 Radio Flyer Wagon Miniature Worlds Fair Chicago Toy Tin Lithograph1965 Worlds Fair 16mm Color Film Reel Amateur Home Movie Family Vacation Travel1893 Chicago World's Fair Columbian Exposition MedalPenn Valley Miss Worlds Fair Oldtime Large Cabin Model Kit With 50" Wingspan1904 World's Fair Thomas Jefferson Rowland & Marsellus Flow Blue Plate R&m - N/rUs Sesquicentennial Exposition " Official Medal " Hk-453 Unc No ReserveAntique "box Only" Columbia Phonograph / Graphophone Paris Exposition 1900 Nr1893 Columbian Exposition ~ Sc#244 ($4) ~ F/vf1933 Arcade Cast Iron Century Of Progress Greyhound Gmc Bus Chicago Worlds FairSterling Silver Souvenir Travel Enamel Charm Bracelet Worlds Fair Vintage.Lot Of 2 1 Wm & 1 Bronze 1893 Colombian Exposition Lg. Medals Il Eglit 36a 58mm1893 Chicago World's Fair Souvenir Glass Paperweight Barnes & Abrams +portfolioAntique 1901 Pan American Exposition 5 1/2 Inch Souvenir Tray W Charging BuffaloReal Nice Big Lot Of 21 Antique Advertising Tins, Remedy's, Tobacco Worlds FairChicago Worlds Fair 1893 Admit The Bearer Original Ticket Columbian ExpositionChicago Worlds Fair 1893 Admit The Bearer Original Ticket Columbian Exposition