The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or The Great Exhibition was also referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, as that was the name of temporary structure where the exhibition was housed. The exhibition was an international event (essentially a world’s fair) and the first in a series of popular exhibitions that occurred worldwide throughout the nineteenth century. It was organized by Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, and Henry Cole, who was an inventor and English civil servant. Thousands of people attended this celebration of modern technology and design, and it was more talked of than the wax figures at Madame Tussaud‘s.
The Great Exhibition took place at Hyde Park in London from 1 May 1851 to 11 October 1851. There were certain entrances for those entering by foot versus those traveling in carriages, and the hours of operation varied. Doors opened at 10 a.m. (except on Saturdays, when they opened at noon) and the exhibition closed at 7 p.m. Depending on the day or date, admission could be paid at all the entrances. The price form admission ranged from one guinea on the 2nd and 3rd of May but from the 5th to the 25th of May, the price was five shillings. Beginning 26 May and thereafter, admission lowered to one shilling, except on Fridays when the charge was half-a crown and on Saturdays five shillings.
The Crystal Palace, which was a monstrous 990,000 square feet — 1851 feet long by 454 feet wide — and made from cast iron and plate glass, was an adventure in architecture with its flat roof and rectangular hall. A huge open gallery was constructed from which long wings extended on either side. The main space was two stories high and had an upper floor that stepped in from the lower floor. It was divided into several areas with letters at the end and numbers along the side. The areas were also divided into Classes and Nations, and the Names of the Classes and Nations were marked on iron girders of the building.
The western half of the building was occupied with exhibits by Great Britain and her dependencies, and the articles of the U.K. and its colonies were arranged in classes, each indicated by a red banner. The eastern half of the building was filled with exhibits from foreign countries, and their names were similarly inscribed and displayed on banners suspended over the various divisions. China, Mexico, Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey, as well as numerous other countries, along with India and colonies, such as Gibraltar, Ceylon, Bermuda, New Zealand, and Jamaica were just a few of those who exhibited articles.
Exhibits included everything from gems and minerals to furniture and from ceilings to fabrics and leather goods. There were also papier maché, bookbinding, naval ships, military firearms, and agricultural implements.
There were also many remarkable exhibits at the time. One was the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was originally 793 carats before it was cut and the world’s largest diamond at the time. There was also a barometer invented by George Merryweather that used leeches, known as the Tempest prognosticator, and there was a single-cast iron framed piano, the first made in Europe. Two other unique exhibits included a recently discovered eighth century Tara Brooch displayed by the jeweler George Waterhouse, and, Samuel Colt, an American firearms manufacturer, showed several old revolvers alongside his prototype for the 1851 Colt Navy.
In order to prevent confusion when viewing the 13,000 exhibits, instructions were provided for the 6 million visitors “to follow as much as possible the course of the sun, i.e, to go from the left towards the right in the passage and courts.” Besides, the rule to avoid confusion, people were not allowed to bring dogs, sticks, or umbrellas, and if someone lost something, a lost and found was established at the Police Office at the Prince’s Gate. Additionally, no visitor could “on no account whatever … touch any article [on exhibit].”
Besides the exhibits, there were other amenities. For instance, light refreshments were available for a price, with the first-class room in the center transept. Water closets and waiting rooms were adjacent to these refreshment centers, but a moderate charge was assessed to use them. Additionally, there were locations available to purchase one of several printed catalogs or maps, which were also printed in French and German. There was an official exhibition catalog, another catalog that was descriptive and illustrated, a synopsis of the contents of the Great Exhibition, an official catalog of the Saxon section, and a map of the exhibition itself.
Before the Great Exhibition was held, great controversy had ensued about the wisdom of such an exhibition. Luckily, organizers were careful to address and resolve public anxiety and concerns, but this did not quell all the controversy. Some people feared riotous mobs would erupt and others worried it would be viewed as flamboyant vanity in the face of grinding poverty. Still, others, such as King Ernest August I of Hanover believed:
“The folly and absurdity of the Queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind … I am astonished the ministers themselves do not insist on her at least going to Osborne during the Exhibition, as no human being can possibly answer for what may occur on the occasion … But it seems everything is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.”
For all the controversy, the Great Exhibition was a resounding monetary success, and it accomplished a variety of purposes. Daily attendance averaged 42,831 with a peak of 109,915 visitors on 7 October. This resulted in a surplus of £186,000 (equivalent to £17,240,000 as of 2013). This surplus was used to create the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, and the National History Museum, which were built south of the original 1851 exhibit and nicknamed the Albertopolis. In addition, the discussions, controversies, and exhibit’s popularity shined a light on bigotry and class distinctions, created internationalism, defined British values, advocated peace, and established a consensus of what was truly “British.”
-  Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851, 1851, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  The Parliamentary Debates, 1888, p. 1443.