Great Exhibitions of the 1850s

Great Exhibitions

In the past, world-renowned exhibitions were called “expositions.” Today we have shortened the name to simply “expos.”  One of the most successful expositions in the mid-1850s had been the Great Exhibition of All Industries held in Great Britain in 1851. The idea prompted quite a few nations to decide to host an international exposition. A private company that had experienced the exhibition in London started organizing one to be held in New York. The State of New York, and New York City, wanted to take this opportunity to make their city and state known for an appeal to the international community.

  • Expos cost a lot of money and require a lot of local and state approvals. The company interested in an expo in New York raised $459,000 in capital stock and leased land behind what is today the New York Public Library, known as Reservoir Square. The lease from New York City extended from January 1st, 1853, through December 1857, at the cost of $1 per year.
  • The Exhibition Building was built, and organizers expected that the invitations to around 4,854 participants, half from foreign nations, would help to pay for the project. The structure was designed in a Moorish style with a look of a greenhouse. Construction was slow, and that can add a devastating element when you are planning such a momentous event. The cost ended up being more than expected, and the private company had to pay the extra. Because of slow construction and lack of staff, they missed their May 1stopening date.
  • The impressive two-story exhibition building was 365 feet in diameter and had a 100-foot high dome that was 365 feet high. The design of the building covered 170,000 square feet with an annex of 93,000 square feet. The planners included two railroads that provided visitor transportation.
  • The celebration of the grand opening included attendance by President Franklin Pierce. There was a dinner reception that included Secretary of War and the future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Total attendance for the grand opening was 3,450, with additional dignitaries that added to the pomp and circumstance. The entire exposition was privately, publicly, and state-funded with no participation by the U.S. Federal government.
  • Countries that took part in the exposition included Great Britain, Ireland, Mexico, Germany (Prussia), West Indies, Turkey, Belgium, Prince Edward Isle, France, Haiti, Nova Scotia, British Guiana, Canada, Switzerland, United States, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Newfoundland, Norway, Russia, and Germany (Zollverein).
  • With the first opening bringing less than expected, they had to prepare for the second season. Those organizing them even convinced P.T. Barnum to take over for the second season. Although Barnum brought in additional attractions, including Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind, he gave up after four months.
  • The exposition was open 119 days, with attendance reaching 1,250,000. The complete cost of the exposition was $891,070. Tickets for attendance ranged from 50 cents all the way to a $10 Season Ticket.
  • The event allowed New York City to be showcased in a competitive way so that businesses and tourists would let the world see them as a sophisticated and welcoming place.


Why did New York want to host an exposition?
To make their city and state known for an appeal to the international community

Who did the organizers ask to take charge of the second season of the exposition?
P.T. Barnum

How many invitations did the exposition organizers send out for participants?

What caused the delay in the opening of the exposition?
Slow construction and lack of staff

How many total days was the exposition open?
119 days

How many total people attended the exposition?