Exposition Universelle of 1855

Paris hosted five World Fairs. The first of these World Fair’s occurred in 1855 and was called the Exposition Universelle. It came about after Britain hosted the 1851 Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations. Napoleon III hoped to outdo England’s famous exhibition with its Crystal Palace that was used to house the exhibition. He also hoped to increase France’s reputation and popularize his political role in the world. Although Paris’s Exposition Universelle was not a financial success, it did become a political success in that it legitimized the Second French Empire and put Paris on the map as an international city.

Exposition Universelle: Palais de l'Industrie, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Palais de l’Industrie. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Exposition Universelle ran from May 15 to November 15, 1855, and a new invention counted the guests — the turnstile. Official reports stated that 5,162,330 visitors attended. Moreover, for the first time visitors paid an entrance fee, which generated complaints and created controversy throughout Paris. That may have been part of the reason why the exhibition was not a financial success: It generated about one-tenth of its actual cost, which has been estimated to be upwards of $5,000,000 dollars.

The center of the exposition was its main building known as the Palais de l’Industrie. It was located on the Champs Elysées, and construction of this grand building began in 1852. It was argued that a massive building was needed so that future exhibitions could be accommodated, and, for that reason, a stone structure 850 feet long and 350 feet wide was built. Unfortunately, despite the building’s massive size, the Palais de l’Industrie still could not house all the industrial products and two other temporary structures were also erected — the Galerie des Machines and the Palais des Beaux-Arts.

Inauguration Ceremonies, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Inauguration ceremonies. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A catalog of the Exposition Universelle described how Frenchmen viewed the exposition:

“We wished that the Universal Exhibition should not be exclusively an attraction for the curious, but a great school for agriculture, industry, and commerce, and for the arts of the whole world.”[1]

Because of this there were a large variety of exhibits related to mining and metals, pharmacy and medicines, manufacturing and industry, furniture and decorations, and naval and military arts. The exposition also allowed visitors to see large-scale exhibitions and view the operation of such things as steamships and steam locomotives. Further, it “distinguish[ed] itself from the English model by integrating spiritual as well as material accomplishments.”[2]


Some of the Items on Display at the Exposition, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Some of the items on display at the exposition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides the exposition itself, there were also several associated events. At least one of these associated events was deemed “dreadfully mismanaged.” It was a fete given by the exhibitors to honor Napoleon III and the members of the Imperial Commission. Besides too few chairs for participants, the orchestra played “Vive l’Empereur” several times before Napoleon III actually appeared. There were also drunken young people who began dancing strangely having been “unusually excited by the champagne [poured] … with a most liberal hand.”[3] Another problem was related to “paletots and outside coats of the guests.”[4] These items became so mingled together it was impossible to know who owned which item and guests became so unruly trying to sort it out that police were called. This resulted in guests having to return the following day to claim their belongings.

At the end of the exposition, medals were awarded for the best exhibited items. The medals were presented on November 15 when the winning objects were brought into the centre nave making it easy for spectators to view the winning objects. There were 500 gold medals awarded that were valued at £40 each. There were also a proportionate number of silver and bronze medals. On one side of these medals was the “profile of the Emperor, with the words, ‘Napoleon III-Empereur.’ On the reverse … the Imperial arms ornamented with palms and wreaths, surrounded by the arms of the different nations, and surmounted by a scroll, bearing the inscription, Éxposition Universelle, Agriculture, Industrie, Beaux Arts — Paris, 1855.'”[5]

Medal, Public Domain

Medal given to winners. Public domain.

With the first Exposition Universelle being deemed a success, more Exposition Universelle’s followed. The second exposition was held in 1867 and Napoleon III was able to more effectively exploit this exposition. By the time the third exposition was held in 1878, the Third Republic was in power, and, they, similar to Napoleon III, wanted to assert their dominance in the world. The next exposition occurred in 1889. It was also held under the Third Republic, as was the last exposition in 1900. However, the exposition of 1900 was much grander than previous expositions partly due to the fact that Paris became the first city to host the Olympic games outside of Greece.


  • [1] Paris Universal Exhibition, 1855, p. 1.
  • [2] Sanyal, Debarati, The Violence of Modernity, 2006, p. 120.
  • [3] “Fete to Prince Napoleon,” in Coventry Times, 24 October 1855, p. 2.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Latest Intelligence—Paris, Sunday, 6PM,” in Morning Post, 30 October 1855, p. 5.

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