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A celebration of peace through progress

London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 helped usher in an era of optimism in the West

An artist’s sketch of exhibits at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. Associated Press

A celebration of peace through progress

As the debate about free trade vs. Trump protectionism intensifies, Ben Wilson’s Heyday—a runner-up for WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the history and ideology categoryis worth reading. In this fact-filled but fluidly written history of mid-19th century Europe and America—“Dawn of the Global Age,” as the subtitle argues—Wilson shows how the 1850s were years of economic advance via international trade and tells how the decade’s cotton boom enriched Southern plantation owners and hurt slaves. He connects technological developments with wars and rumors of war in China, Japan, India, Australia, and Nicaragua, largely omitting religious influences and showing in the process that capitalism without Christianity makes us go fast but not straight. In the following excerpt, Wilson notes how London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 “gave birth to thousands of articles and books that proclaimed the dawn of a new era of peace, prosperity, and unlimited growth.”Marvin Olasky

When the Pyramids of Egypt crumble to dust, people will still remember the Great Exhibition. That was one of the least hyperbolic predictions floating around the British press in the sum­mer of 1851.

The Pyramids have existed for millennia; the prefabricated glass-and-iron Crystal Palace housed the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Hyde Park for less than five months. One newspaper called the Palace a monument to human progress and the Exhibition “the most remarkable event in the modern history of man­kind”; it represented not merely the dawn of a new era but the “reali­sation of Utopia” itself. The Times wrote of the opening ceremony on May 1, in suitably millennial language, that it was “the first morning since the creation that all peoples have assembled from all parts of the world and done a common act.”1

The Crystal Palace resembled a mighty cathedral: the great nave, more than half a kilometer in length, was intersected by a transept where the immense barrel-vaulted glass roof dwarfed the elm trees enclosed by it. This was the heart of the Exhibition. The elms extenu­ated the height of the building for first-time visitors when they entered through the south entrance. As they progressed through the transept their senses were assaulted. An enormous fountain played in the cen­ter, and its murmur was joined by numerous other fountains. One dispensed eau de cologne. Another provided tourists with an endless stream of Schweppes mineral water. (A representation of the Exhibi­tion fountain can still be seen on bottles of Schweppes tonic water.) Among the fountains and trees were tropical plants and flowers from every part of the globe; the effect was enhanced by statues interspersed in the transept and the nave.

The Exhibition was arranged so that the visitor could make his or her progress along the central nave, the aisles and courts, and up to the first-floor galleries and not tread the same ground twice. A sin­gle daylong visit would give the visitor only the barest impression of the whole. The effect was deliberately overwhelming. There were over 100,000 exhibits provided by 14,000 individuals and organizations from almost all countries on the planet. As a guidebook put it, “One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Great Exhibition was its vast comprehensiveness. Nothing was too stupendous, too rare, too costly for its acquisition; nothing too minute or apparently too insignificant for its consideration.”2

It was inevitable that the Exhibition itself would become a blur. How could it not, with so much stuff on display and so many peo­ple to gawp at? A day at the Exhibition meant sensory overload. This reflected the gargantuan ambitions of the organizers. Just a few of the Great Exhibition’s many goals were to educate the public, ignite ingenuity and competition by comparing British and foreign manu­factures, stimulate domestic industry, promote world peace, showcase colonial goods, and develop international markets.

The exhibits were divided into raw materials, machinery and mechanical inventions, manufactures, and fine art, and these four broad headings were subdivided into thirty categories. The profusion of artifacts and materials made it impossible for the visitor to hold on to anything in particular; it was the totality of the spectacle that made it great rather than any individual exhibit. There were gorgeous fab­rics, furs, and silks; intricate clocks and microscopes; lumps of coal, bales of wheat, and samples of wool from around the world; exotic Asian artifacts and modern Western sculpture; medicines and surgi­cal instruments; scissors, Sheffield cutlery, and porcelain; state-of-the-art agricultural machinery, gardening equipment, and futuristic tools; foodstuffs, minerals, chemicals, resins, and dyes; fire engines and lifeboats; and furniture, household appliances, and decorations. The industrial competed for space with the domestic, the showy with the mundane, the luxurious with the practical. Next to the ultramodern were the handicrafts and costumes of indigenous people from remote parts of the globe. Even a very long list would scarcely scratch the sur­face. A week in London in 1851, one Frenchman said, was a “tour of the world”: “The observer is, as it were, carried away by magic from country to country, from east to west, from iron to cotton, from silk to wool, from machines to manufactures, from implements to produce.”3

The point of the event was to revel in modernity.

The point of the event was to revel in modernity. And sure enough, one of the most popular parts of the Exhibition was the machinery court, which was “indicated by its deep and heavy murmur, like the distant roar of the torrent.” There were always great crowds around the 700-horsepower engines, steam hammers, hydraulic presses, pile driv­ers, Thomas Russell Crampton’s locomotive (capable of a top speed of seventy-two miles an hour), and other wonders of the age.4

The large display of telegraphic apparatus was one of the first things that visitors saw when they walked through the enormous entrance. It told the short history of modern telegraphs, from William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone’s pioneering telegraph of 1838 to the more sophisticated versions of recent years. Well-heeled visitors were able to summon their carriages to the exit of their choosing by electric means. The venue had a private line direct to Scotland Yard in case of disturbance, and it was connected to the entire national network, allowing visitors to telegraph any of the hundreds of offices in the country. There were maps of the networks and daily weather reports from around the kingdom. “We went to the Exhibition and had the electric telegraph show explained and demonstrated before us,” Queen Victoria noted in her diary. “It is the most wonderful thing and the boy who works it does so with great ease and rapidity. Messages were sent out to Manchester, Edinburgh, etc. and answers received in a few seconds—truly marvellous!”5

Here were the machines, precision instruments, raw materials, and technologies that would revolutionize the world. Here modern science was on full display; the Exhibition hummed and purred to the sound of steam power and electricity. Prefabricated in factories around Brit­ain and assembled by mechanical means, the iron-and-glass Crystal Palace was a physical monument to modern mass production and a wonder of the age. The great American journalist Horace Greeley said that the building was more impressive than any one thing it housed: “It is really a fairy wonder, and it is a work of inestimable value as a suggestion for future architecture. … Depend on it, stone and timber will have to stand back for iron and glass.” Greeley advocated a Crys­tal Palace for New York, which he imagined presciently as a colossal shopping mall.6

The Great Exhibition has never been rivaled as a world fair. The event caught imaginations all over the world and set the euphoric mood that characterized the 1850s. Under the immense barrel-vaulted glass ceiling the modern world was imagined and arranged in microcosm: the raw materials, manufactures, and inventions of all nations were placed side by side for comparison and education. The event was pro­moted as the first ever international “Peace Congress.” In a world united by trade and commerce and unfettered information—exemplified by the juxtaposing displays at the Crystal Palace—“gain is gain to all … the achievements of human intellect are common property.” Comment­ing upon the opening ceremony, The Times said that Queen Victoria sat “enthroned … amid the spoils of the world” like a mighty conqueror, except that unlike other conquerors in human history the booty was there by the uncompelled good graces of their owners.7

According to a French writer, the Exhibition had “inaugurated a new era” in the history of the world: the “peaceful struggle of the nations.”

In the past international peace congresses represented the tri­umphalism of the victors of bloody wars. But in this case it was a celebration of peace through progress. According to a French writer, the Exhibition had “inaugurated a new era” in the history of the world: the “peaceful struggle of the nations.”8

Throughout the world, people read about or saw pictures of the event. As one American journalist put it: “The accounts published from day to day in the newspapers, the woodcuts in the illustrated papers, the pictures and panoramas, and the endless list of articles on the subject in the magazines, have made most people familiar even to weariness with all the details.” According to Thomas Hardy, “None of the younger generation can realise the sense of novelty it produced in us who were then in our prime. A noun substantive went so far as to become an adjective in honour of the occasion. It was ‘exhibition’ hat, ‘exhibition’ razor-strop, ‘exhibition’ watch; nay, even ‘exhibition’ weather, ‘exhibition’ spirits, sweethearts, babies, wives.”9

By an accident of history, the Great Exhibition coincided with the beginning of the long midcentury boom. The physical manifestation of the optimism that was beginning to build in the West, it gave birth to thousands of articles and books that proclaimed the dawn of a new era of peace, prosperity, and unlimited growth. This burst of euphoria was all the more remarkable because it erupted so suddenly after a long period of gloom.

Excerpted from Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age by Ben Wilson. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc. Available at your favorite retail or independent bookseller.



1. Tallis, Tallis’s History, vol. I, p. iii; Illustrated London News, May 10, 1851; Times, May 1, 1851.

2. Tallis, Tallis’s History, vol. I, p. 207.

3. Ibid., p. 199.

4. Ibid., pp. 159–160.

5. Queen Victoria’s diary entry for September 6, 1851, available at Queen Victoria’s Journals, http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org.

6. Horace Greeley, Glances at Europe (New York, 1851), pp. 19, 24.

7. Tallis, Tallis’s History, vol. III, pp. 69–70; Times, May 1, 1851.

8. Tallis, Tallis’s History, vol. I, p. 196.

9. Anon., “The Great Exhibition,” The North American Review, vol. LXXV, no. 157 (October 1852), p. 358; Hardy, “The Fiddler of the Reels.”


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