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    

1915 Ppie Tower Of Jewels Novagem 1" Green Crystal San Francisco Panama Pacific1893 Columbian Exposition ~ Columbus & Queen Isabella Decorated Metal Box ~ Nice1936 D California Pacific International Exposition Half Dollar 90% Silver Coin1904 St Louis Worlds Fair Hanging Badge Sterling Silver Columbian Exposition Souvenir Spoon 1492 - 18921893 Chicago World's Fair Columbian Exposition Ticket Washington Crisp Unc.1915-s Panama-pacific Commemorative Half Dollar, Tough Choice Bu++ Better Date!St. Louis Exposition 1904 World's Fair Coin Purse1893 Columbian Exposition ~ Reverse Painted Glass- Pie Crust Floral Plaque- RareM707 Vintage "let's Go" Chicago World's Fair Tin Litho Pinback Button (1933) [1915-s Panama-pacific Commemorative Half Dollar, Popular Key Date, ** Free S/h!1893 Columbian Exposition Tickets - Complete Set Of 6 With 3 Special TicketsOld 1904 World's Fair Brass Commemorative Padlock Lock Missouri Seal. W/key. N/rUncirculated 1893 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping! George Washington Commemorative Medal 1939 Ny Worlds FairVintage Printing Letterpress Block Columbian Exposition 1893 ChicagoUncirculated 1892 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Extreme Tone1915 S Panama Pacific Exposition Commemorative. Half Dollar - Silver - Nice1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition Flanagan 70 Mm Bronze Medal In Case1893 Columbian Exposition Medal Christopher Columbus Bronze Metal Eglit 551907 Jamestown Exhibition / World's Fair Tin Lithograph Vienna Art Plate / TrayAntique 1904 St Louis Worlds Fair Glass & Tin Litho Liquor Decanter Bottle Flask1893 Columbian Exposition ~ Jewelry Box ~ Brass & Beveled Glass ~ Rare !1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition Electrical Building Paperweight Worlds FairAntique St Louis 1904 World's Fair Polvo Delos Amores French Advertising Tin1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition Award Medal Bronze W/ Original BoxAntique Old Framed Columbian Exposition 1893 Landing Of Columbus Bronze Plaque1915 S Panama Pacific Commemorative Half Dollar Pcgs Au Detail Cleaned Rare M708 Vintage Lot Of 5 New York World's Fair Pins & Celluloid Buttons (1939) [1915-s Panama-pacific Commemorative Silver 50 Cents Near Gem UncirculatedAn Original 1893 Black Silk Mourning Ribbon In Honor Of Mayor Carter H. Harrison1893 Columbian Exposition ~ A.d. Hillegas Advertising Paperweight ~ Nice !1901 Aluminum Bookmark Pan-american Expo Exposition Buffalo, Ny1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition Isabella Quarter@@ Must See@@1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar Pcgs 63 Ogh Toned!!Antique St Louis World Fair Stoneware 1904 Palace Electricity Beer Stein GermanySilverplated Trans-mississippi Exposition Omaha 1898 Match Safe Amer. Biscuit CoAntique 1904 Worlds Fair St. Louis Pocket KnifeForesters Elongated 1904 Cent - M&d Socaof-1. - St Louis World's Fair?1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition Worlds Fair Michigan Building Paperweight 1892 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar Ms-63 Toned!!!Scd Hk-407 Maryland State Fund $ Badge Panama Pacific Int'l Expo 1915 Rarity-5Uncirculated 1892 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping Antique Worlds Fair Baseball Clock With Key Not Working 1933 Century Of Progress Exposition, Obverse Of Hk-470aPanama-pacific-international Expo So-called Dollar - San Fran Cal 1915 - H&k 401 1901 Pan-american Expo Buffalo World's Fair So-called Dollar Medal Hk-289Antique 1904 St Louis World's Fair Napkin Ring Electricity Manufacturer CascadesVintage Rare 1964-65 New York Worlds Fair Official Souvenir Powder Compact. Nib.Us 1914-15 10c Panama-pacific, Perf 10 Nh Sc 404 Cat $17001915-s $1 Panama-pacific Gold Commemorative, Highly Collectible Gold Piece!Uncirculated 1892 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping! 1892 Columbian Exposition So-called Dollar, Hinged "box Dollar", RareScd Hk-463 Official Medal Century Of Progress Us Mint Medal In Box & Papers1888 Cincinnati Ohio Valley Centennial Exposition Medal/coin/token No Reserve1915 Ppie Exposition San Francisco Royal Copenhagen Commemorative Plate 7 1/8"Jamestown Exposition Fob 1907 W Indian ChiefOriginal 1904 St. Louis Exposition In A Nutshell; Walnut W/ Worlds Fair PhotosA Trio Of Rare Fobs 1907 Jamestown Exposition VirginiaUncirculated 1893 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free Shipping