Are World’s Fairs Worth It?

2004 — I pose in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

Some people think world’s fairs are dead, because television and the internet have made them obsolete. “Most Americans aren’t aware that there have been ten world’s fairs since the Louisiana World Exposition in 1984.” (http://www.expomuseum.com)

I became interested in the topic of world’s fairs when I started reading “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson for a Goodreads’ book club I’ve joined. I’m behind in my reading and haven’t finished the book yet, but think it is an interesting read. Larson presents two parallel story lines of historical events that occurred in the time leading up to the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago. He follows the head architect Daniel Burnham through the challenges of building this “white city” on the lake to impress the world and outdo the last world fair held in Paris in 1889. The second story line is about a serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes who sees the world’s fair as an opportunity to lure young women into his house of murder.

According to “The Devil in the White City,” the amount of money that is spent on buildings and landscaping to put on the fair is mind-boggling. I had no idea hosting a world’s fair was such a huge undertaking. And like most Americans, (according to http://www.expomuseum.com) I did not realize that world’s fairs are still being held.

My dad took our family to Expo ’67  in Montreal, Canada, when I was ten. Mainly I remember that we camped in a gravel lot where campers were lined up side-by-side, and inside the exhibit there was a large globe that today I identified as The United States of America Pavilion. I think I also bought an over-sized pencil with “Expo ’67” printed on it. I believe this same pencil may be squirreled away in one of my memory boxes that collect dust in the basement.

I remember my parents went to the world’s fair in Knoxville in 1982. Otherwise I really haven’t heard much about them.

The first world’s fair was hosted by London in 1851. The most recent one was held in 2010 in Shanghai, China. In between, the fairs were held every two, three, four, five or more years apart. The United States hosted them in New York (1853), Philadelphia (1876), New Orleans (1884), Chicago (1893), San Francisco (1894), Atlanta (1895), Buffalo (1901), St. Louis (1904), Seattle (1909), San Francisco and San Diego (1915-1916), Philadelphia (1926), Chicago (1933), New York (1939), San Antonio (1968), Spokane (1974), Knoxville (1982), and Louisiana (1984).

2000 — Seattle's Space Needle

Other years the fairs were held all over the world in places like London, Paris, Vienna, Dublin, Antwerp, Melbourne, Brussels, Montreal, and others. Most recently the fairs were hosted by Hanover, Germany in 2000, Aichi Prefecture, Japan in 2005, Zaragoza, Spain in 2008, and Shanghai, China last year. Yeosu, Korea is schedule to host the world’s fair in 2012, and Milan, Italy in 2015. The 2017 or 2018 and 2020 dates are open to bids.

“World’s Fairs are by their nature temporary events. Because of that, their buildings are among the most dynamic and ground breaking ,” (www.expomuseum.com).

London’s Crystal Palace came from the 1851 fair.

Paris’ Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 fair.

The German Pavilion (The Barcelona Pavilion) was the showpiece for the  Barcelona 1929 fair.

Seattle’s Space Needle is a result of the 1962 fair.

And the Hungarian Pavilion was built for the 2000 fair in Hanover.

Designing, planning and building world’s fairs’ venues and exhibits is not unlike Olympics for the architects, engineers, and inventors world-wide. I believe we, collectively as a civilization, have  learned and broken new frontiers in the efforts put on show-stopping events. I know the fairs are expensive, but they also make a lot of money. I hope they continue. I hope they don’t become obsolete.

What do you think? Are world’s fairs worth the trouble? Have you ever been to one?

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16 thoughts on “Are World’s Fairs Worth It?”

    1. My daughter said she heard or learned in school that Epcot took a real bite out of World Fair attendance. I find that a little hard to believe. Did you know Walt Disney’s dad worked as a carpenter on the 1893 Chicago fair and that’s where Walt heard about this wonderful city on the lake. . .

  1. I’ve never been to a World’s Fair, but I’ve always wanted to attend one! Still, I’m wondering if I did attend one if the crowds would feel overwhelming to me (since I don’t like crowds)!? Milan sounds like it would be a lovely place to go in 2015, with or without the fair!

    1. I don’t like crowds either and tend to avoid events that will put me in the middle of one.

      I agree about Milan, although I’m thinking any year besides 2015 would be a good year to go. See above.

  2. In my deceased mother’s journals is her account of the Chicago world fair in 1933 that she went to with her best friend (it was two years before she married my father). From the black and white photographs she took, it looks like she and her friend Louise had a wonderful time. I think that would have been a lovely time to have gone to a world fair.

  3. I did get to have dinner(salmon of course) on top of the space needle in 1985. The whole restaurant floor revolves and it was sunset. I got to spend 1day at the 1964 Fair in New York. I always felt these things, like the Olympics, would foster peace and cooperation among nations but not so I suppose.

    1. We were on top of the space needle as well, although we didn’t eat. I don’t remember a lot about it. I didn’t stay long because I don’t do well with heights.

  4. New York City, 1939 World’s Fair. I have dim memories of these wonderful dioramas of roads that had cloverleafs and spaghetti twirls and miniature cars riding around and around!
    Guess what?
    They’re today’s highways. Disorienting if I remember.
    New York City, 1964. Doing second-string food reviewing, trying the Indian Pavilion, the Czech Pavilion (wonderful), several others. The nations’ different pavilion were great, especially the Czech, which was at the time of the Spring Thaw. The most charming and witty ceramics and glass — and it all came to nothing shortly afterward.
    Montreal Expo: Habitat of architect Moshe Safdie (still standing) — a revelation. Sadly its possibilities weren’t really followed up commercially. Also what you remember as the American Pavilion (and it was) was actually a geodesic dome as designed by Buckminster Fuller. I remember nothing about the exhibits, but the building was a sensation.
    The only pavilion we could get in to eat at featured whale blubber and reindeer meatballs. We had a terrific 24 hours anyway!
    And that’s it, Christine. Enough’s enough!
    (But those were GREAT.)

    1. Were they models of today’s highway system? I just don’t know my history well enough. The food-reviewing job sounds like something I could get behind. And what better place to do it than at a world’s fair?

      I remember being in awe at Expo ’67, although I was really too young to fully appreciate it.

      1. Christine, they were models PREDICTING what a highway system might look like. This was back in 1939, before highways and fast cars and almost everything you’ve grown up with and thought was always there.
        I was five, and I loved the models with little cars running all around. Now the highways look exactly like that, and the cars —and TRUCKS — are life size and running all around. Oh, the featured them was World of Tomorrow —
        And now we live in it — Today.

  5. Have never been to a World’s Fair. Wasn’t in our family’s realm of possibilities…financially…or geographically. Growing up on Maui felt like the other side of the world in the 50s and 60s. My only experience with this singular event was seeing “It Happened At The World’s Fair” with Elvis Presley. Of course I loved every moment of the film, mostly because of Elvis, but also because the Seattle’s World Fair looked like a wonderland of sights, sounds, fun, food, and beautiful people. Watched it on DVD over 6 months ago, and still felt the excitement I’d felt when I first saw it.

    Would love to see another World’s Fair because so much has changed technologically. The event could only be a thousand-fold what it was in the past…unfortunately…so would the crowds have expanded to unbelievable proportions. Were I younger, I mightn’t mind. At this stage, crowds are work. Nonetheless, I opt for another. Our kids and grandkids should witness such a phenom. 🙂

    1. I’ll have to track down that movie, never seen it.

      I think it would be great fun to go to a world’s fair, too. Although I’m with you about the crowds.

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