Exposition Universelle of 1855: A Universal Event

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, nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte, hoped to outdo England’s famous exhibition with its Crystal Palace that was used to house that 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 the number of visitors coming to Paris to attend the exposition had newspapers reporting on the constant crowded state of Paris. Everywhere people looked there were crowds. The number of visitor was overwhelming and caused a correspondent of Scottish Guardian to report, “Anything like the crowds now flocking into Paris form all points of the compass I never saw during a residence of many years, and I am very certain that the like was never seen in all foregoing times.”[1]

To handle the immense crowds trains arrived regularly but still the railway system could not handle the crush of visitors or the quantity of luggage that accompanied these travelers. Those that did not have reservations found it impossible to locate somewhere to stay. One foreign visitor reported “vainly for two hours I tried all the by-streets that I could think of … At every door the uniform answer, ‘quite full’ was given.”[2] Moreover, hotel and lodging-keepers were exhausted from turning people away.

To count all the visitors that attend the Exposition Universelle, there was a new invention — 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.

There were other problems with the Palais de l’Industrie that London’s Morning Post noted stating:

“The main building itself is ill adapted for the purpose; you have four stone walls, of no use but to keep out light, with a structure of iron and glass, wholly independent of the walls, put down within them. The unnecessary quantity of iron used would lead to the belief that the contracts were to be paid by the cwt. The galleries as so wide (85 feet), and so heavily constructed, that beneath them is in darkness; and there, in consequence, you may wander in solitude through long alleys with ranges of cases on either side — gloomy, depressing, and deserted. The staircases … are the best features of the building, and are unquestionably effective and elegant. On entering the great nave — full, by the way, of charming things … — the small size of the building surprises one. You find that from ‘out to out’ it is not very far from half the length of the building in Hyde-park (834 feet), but it does not look one-fourth the length. Why is this? A little examination will give a reason. The arched roof has gable ends at the terminations, and these ends occur not at the extremities of the building … but in line with the face of the latter; and then, to make the matter worse, these ends are glazed with stained glass, representing — one, France … Another error in judgement is shown in the great size of the stalls or cases, which are built up is the nave twice as high at they should be, or need to be. Look, again, at the shafting for the machinery in motion, in the Annex … ponderous and absurd; and with all its heaviness not without a great weakness in construction.”[3]

Despite the problems that the English may have saw with the Exposition Universelle, a catalog 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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

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

There were many well-known visitors to the Exposition Universelle, including Britain’s Queen Victoria, her husband Prince Albert, and their daughter. Of their visit the Evening Freeman reported:

“To-day, at half-past eleven o’clock, the Emperor, the Queen, Prince Albert, and the Princess Royal visited the Palais de l’Industrie. Admission was granted only to the imperial commissioners, the juries, season ticket holders, and exhibitors. The price of a season ticket is twenty-five francs, and numbers paid the sum to-day sooner than be deprived of so favourable an opportunity of seeing the Queen and the Emperor. At half-past eleven the cheers of the crowd outside, and a loud flourish of trumpets within, announced the arrival of the royal party, who were received by his Imperial Highness Prince Napoleon, president, and the other members of the Imperial commission. Her Majesty’s reception and that of the Emperor was far more enthusiastic and complimentary than on any other occasion since the arrival of the Queen at Paris. As they pass round the great halls the shouts of ‘Vive la Reine,’ ‘Vive l’Imperateur’ were frequent and warm. … His Majesty supported the Queen on his right arm. Prince Napoleon walked by the right hand side of her Majesty; Prince Albert, with the Princess Royal leaning on his arm, followed, the Prince of Wales walking at the other side of his sister. … The entire party were dressed en ville, the Queen wearing a blue bonnet and scarf, and the Emperor a black frock coat, grey trousers, light scarf, and yellow gloves. The royal party first walked round the Great Hall. On passing the glass-case containing the productions of Wm. Dargan and Co., Chapelized, her Majesty’s attention seemed at once arrested by seeing the name of that distinguished Irishman which appeared on a card over the glass-case. The Emperor directed her Majesty’s attention to the Irish fishery models, which she looked at, observing to her imperial host that she had seen them before. From the main apartment the royal party passed to the Panorama and Annex which they visited in succession.”[6]

Royal visit to Napoleon III: Queen Victoria’s entry into Paris, 18 August 1855. c.1855. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

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.”[7] Another problem was related to “paletots and outside coats of the guests.”[8] 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 center 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.'”[9]

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 because Paris became the first city to host the Olympic games outside of Greece.


  • [1] “Crowded State of Paris,” Scottish Guardian, 21 August 1855, p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “Paris in ’55,” The Morning Post, 13 October 1855, p.3.
  • [4] Paris Universal Exhibition, 1855, p. 1.
  • [5] Sanyal, Debarati, The Violence of Modernity, 2006, p. 120.
  • [6] “Paris – The Queen’s Visit – The Exposition Universelle,” The Evening Freeman, 27 August 1855, p. 1.
  • [7] “Fete to Prince Napoleon,” in Coventry Times, 24 October 1855, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] “Latest Intelligence — Paris, Sunday, 6PM,” in Morning Post, 30 October 1855, p. 5.

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