See here, and here for good discussions.
See also Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (Batsford, 1998); Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (HarperPerennial, 2007), especially chapter 1.
Is the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ on 1 May 1851 the great symbolic Victorian event? Certainly this is how the queen seemed to see it in her letter to King Leopold. Palmerston:
‘a glorious day for England’.The prayers uttered by the archbishop of Canterbury at the opening were the prayers of a successful people, whose God had multiplied blessings on them. His prayer was appropriately followed by the Hallelujah Chorus.
The Exhibition came at a useful time for the government of Lord John Russell, as it was in crisis over ecclesiastical policy and would have fallen if the Conservative Protectionists had been able to present a convincing alternative government. Disraeli saw the Exhibition as
‘a godsend to the Government ... diverting public attention from their blunders’.But the very idea of the Exhibition was controversial. There was no national funding and Prince Albert (right) had to seek private sponsorship. The Hyde Park site was fiercely attacked and there were complaints that Paxton’s structure was not only high enough to enclose vast elm tress in full summer leaf but that it obstructed the riders in Rotten Row. Protectonists attacked its free trade ideology. Colonel Sibthorpe:
‘an industrial exhibition in the heart of fashionable Belgravia to enable foreigners to rob us of our honour’.Many prophesied public indifference and financial failure.
The Exhibition lasted from May to October 1851 and received 6 million visitors (out of a population of 27m.). It was a tribute to the country that had created the Industrial Revolution. By coincidence it took place in the same year as the census which revealed that for the first time more people were living in the town than the country. At this period, Britain was the world’s shipbuilder, the world’s carrier, the world’s banker, and the world’s clearing-house.
But the title showed that the Exhibition was not intended to be a chauvinist display of British prowess alone. It was intended to celebrate free trade - so it looked back with thankfulness to the repeal of 1846. Peel was the posthumous hero. It has a moral as well as an industrial purpose.
Two themes were repeated more than the rest: the gospel of work and the gospel of peace. The two predominant metaphors and symbols were the working bees in the hive and the gigantic olive tree planted in the centre of the Palace. It was believed that out of the honest rivalry of industry and skill, countries would find a new brotherhood.
Albert set out the philosophy of the Exhibition at a gargantuan Mansion House banquet on March 21 1850. It was a symbol of free trade, the division of labour, and human brotherhood.
The ambitious project of a Great Exhibition developed out of very humble origins. The Royal Society of Arts, which had exhibited its prize awards for agricultural and industrial machinery since 1761, held two special tiny exhibitions in 1844 and 1845; it was interested in the possibility of ‘wedding high art with mechanical skill’. Henry Cole, a civil servant with a taste for administrative centralization, submitted a model for a tea set, and not only won the silver medal but became a leading member of the Society. (Cole was also the inventor of the Christmas card.) It was Cole’s idea that there should be a Royal Commission to prepare the Exhibition. When the Commissioners for the Exhibition met for the first time in January 1850, Albert was President and Cole the chief organizer.
The centrepiece of the Exhibition was an enormous glass and cast-iron edifice, more than a third of a mile long, 408 feet broad, and 66 feet high - with transepts 108 feet high, perhaps the world’s first, and certainly the world’s largest prefabricated building.
The designer was Joseph Paxton (1803-65), gardener of Chatsworth, who had taught himself biology and engineering. He produced the design on what quickly became the most famous piece of blotting paper in history. It triumphed over 233 designs, and was completed in nine days. He had in mind the glass lily house in the Chatsworth garden over which he presided, built at a time when glass was still heavily taxed; his great lily, introduced into Britain in 1837 had been named Victoria Regia. (Click to enlarge; the child standing on the lily is his daughter, Annie.) He had already planned Birkenhead New Park in 1843 and he had devised the much-admired Coventry Cemetery in 1846. He had begun work in 1850 on the great Rothschild house, Mentmore.
The heaviest pieces of cast iron were the girders, which were 24 feet in length and none of which weighed more than a ton. The wrought iron consisted chiefly of round and flat bars, angle irons, bolts, screws, and rivets. The panes of glass produced by Charles Brothers of Birmingham were the biggest yet manufactured. The cast-iron columns were painted blue, red and yellow – which the Times feared would be ‘a huge vulgarity.’ Other novel features were the use of standard sign boards and standard lettering throughout the building, the uniform crimson colour proscribed for hangings and stall coverings, an the vertical rather than horizontal displays.
The speed with which it was erected was remarkable. From the first flash of the idea it took Paxton just a month to draw up the blueprints (11 June - 15 July 1850). The ground was handed over to the contractors on 30 July. The first column was raised on 26 September. The building was completed in six months. The secret was prefabrication. All the material was interchangeable: girders, columns, gutters, and sash bars were identical throughout the whole building.
The building was immediately thought of as a palace. It was thought to offer a solution to the difficult problem of finding a distinctive 19th century architectural style. Glass was one of the newly freed commodities from which a prohibitive tax had been lifted; it was also the substance which more than any other dazzled, and sparkled, and glittered. The term ‘crystal palace’ was coined by Douglas Jerrold, former editor of Punch. But it was also seen as a people’s palace open to all. Dostoevsky:
'You gasp for breath. It is like a biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy ... coming to pass before your eyes’.Even the grudging Disraeli called it ‘that enchanted pile’.
There were over 13,000 exhibitors, one half of the total Exhibition being occupied by Great Britain, the other half by foreign states, of which France and Germany were the most important. The foreign exhibits were placed in the eastern half of the building and classed under their respective countries. British exhibits filled the western end.
The Commissioners had accepted and modified a suggestion from the young scientist, Lyon Playfair, and agreed on five major divisions of exhibits: Raw Materials: Machinery; Manufactures - textile fabrics; Manufactures - metallic, vitreous and ceramic; Miscellaneous; Fine Arts. Within this broad classification there were to be thirty classes, each of them with a separate jury not only to award prizes but to report on the state and prospects of the class in question. The Machinery Court was the noisiest and most popular spectacle.
The whole business of how to classify the objects was complicated and involved some philosophical controversy. Did the French commissioner’s handsome walking stick fit into ‘Miscellaneous Objects’ or ‘Articles of Clothing’? Or ‘Machines for Direct Use’ which included landaus, broughams and sledges? What about the pocket umbrella submitted by Samuel Plimsoll? One wig-maker was annoyed that his exhibits were placed under ‘Miscellaneous Manufactures’ rather than ‘Art’. ‘Nature’ included a remarkable stuffed elk from the zoological museum at Turin.
The Indian section, assembled by the East India Company was much admired by the queen. However, in retrospect, it seemed backward looking and against the spirit of the Exhibition.
The United States section, on the other hand, seemed disappointing to many visitors. The Americans had commissioned too much space and had difficulty filling it. Among their exhibits were stuffed black-eyed squirrels and 6,000 fossils. But for those with eyes to the future there was a McCormick reaper, a Hobbs lock, a Colt revolver, and two tiny sewing machines, worked by one small girl, who could turn 600 stitches a minute.
France produced an impressive display. In one of the five French courts was a sewing machine adapted for coarse cloth; there were cameras and a calculating machine. However, such was the pull of the stereotype that reports concentrated on ornamental furniture, carpets and jewels.
The presence of paper was ubiquitous - in the form of catalogues and tickets, most of them to be thrown away, as well as exhibits designed to be permanent. One of the queen’s favourites was the De La Rue envelope-making machine, folding and gumming 60 envelopes a minute. There were also wallpapers, some of them since 1841 machine printed, papier-mâché chairs and tables, trays and boxes.
In the Austrian section, as a special gift from the Emperor to the Queen, there was a huge carved-oak Gothic book-case.
Many of the objects were more clever than useful. One of the most bizarre was a garden seat for Osborne made from coal. Other gadgets included ‘an alarm bedstead, causing a person to arise at any given hour’, and a ‘cricket catapulta, for propelling the ball in the absence of a first-rate bowler’.
I. K. Brunel’s huge hydraulic press was on display, locating the Exhibition symbolically in the steam age. Brunel wished to keep out all electrical machines on the grounds that as yet they were just ‘toys’.
Farmers could view double-action turnip cutters, horse seed dibblers and portable mills for grinding and splitting produce (all from Oxfordshire) and agricultural steam engines from Lincolnshire. A strikingly modern phenomenon was a package of lucifer matches.
The queen marvelled at the electric telegraph and sent appropriate messages to her loyal subjects in Edinburgh and Manchester.
Yet there was a philosophical dilemma running through the Exhibition. Pugin’s Medieval Court ‘for the display of the taste and art of dead men’ was set apart from the rest of the Exhibition. The massive ecclesiastical ornaments made the commissioners afraid of cries of ‘No Popery’. When the queen visited the Guild Hall in July to celebrate with the City of London the Great Exhibition, supper was served in the crypt, which was fitted up for the occasion as a baronial hall, with lights carried by figures in medieval armour.
The prime reason for the Exhibition’s success was that it took place at a time of peace and relative prosperity. But the memory of a series of disturbances going back to Peterloo led to some apprehension before it opened. Would there be mob action on the lines of the Chartist demonstration? How would criminals react, confronted with all those treasures. Government took precautions on the opening day and regiments were brought down from the provinces. 6,000 policemen were mobilized. But there was no breakdown of law and order - only a rash of pickpocketing.
When the Exhibition opened, the entry fee was 5/- , but after the first few weeks, admission prices were reduced to 2/6 on Friday and 1/- from Monday to Thursday. (There was no Sunday opening because of Sabbatarian pressure on the Prime Minister.) With the onset of the ‘shilling day’ a different sort of visitor arrived at the Exhibition. 4.5 million (three quarters of the total attendance) came on the shilling days, and behaved very well. During the whole period, there were only 25 prosecutions for offences committed inside the building. Had Britain now obtained a lasting social peace? Newspapers thought working men ‘more intelligent, more self-reliant, more energetic… ashamed of their former prejudices’. Had the ‘dangerous classes’ disappeared from the scene, to be replaced by the ‘labouring classes’? Had the working classes become respectable?
But with the admission fee of a shilling only the upper levels of the working classes – artisans and master craftsmen – could have afforded a visit. And for those who had to travel to London it would have been unthinkable to have spent what would have been the cost of one or two weeks’ entire earnings in a single day. For this reason The Times’ warning that
‘Summer excursion trains will bring the artisans and mechanics in upon London like an inundation’was ridiculous and the Duke of Wellington was being paranoid when he thought that at least 15,000 soldiers would be needed to keep order.
However, the Exhibition showed that the railway age had arrived and that cheap seats meant that the relatively poor could travel to a degree that had been impossible in previous generations. The London and North Western Railway carried three quarter of a million people to the Exhibition while the shilling days were in force. Thomas Cook negotiated with the Midland railway for reduced rail fares and accommodation in London. Some employers allowed time off work, others paid for the cost of the trip.
Of the critics, Ruskin (1819-1900) thought the Crystal Palace showed mechanical ingenuity at the expense of true art. He also deplored the division of labour which Albert had hailed as the mark of industrial progress. William Morris (1834-96) who was to turn to Marxism for his inspiration thought the Exhibition ‘wonderfully ugly’. Dickens said he had
‘an instinctive feeling against the Exhibition of a faint, inexplicable sort’.Pugin called the Crystal Palace ‘a glass monster’. But Macaulay’s optimism better reflected the mood of the times. Most people who visited were impressed. William Whiteley, aged 22, was so inspired by the glass building that he began to dream of large retail stores, ‘universal providers’ shops’, with plate-glass fronts.
The Great Exhibition spawned imitators: the Paris exhibition of 1855, the Exposition of 1867, the Exposition of 1889 (especially when viewed from the Eiffel Tower). Nearly half a million visited the Manchester Exhibition of 1857. New York had an exhibition in 1853, Philadelphia in 1876. The Chicago and Vienna Exhibitions of 1893 both had impressive domes. The Paris Exhibition of 1900 was hailed as the exhibition of the century.
The closing day of the Exhibition was wet and depressing and by the end of the year even before the contractors had begun to dismantle the fabric of the Crystal Palace, the electric telegraph should have brought the news of a coup d’état in France.