Q. What do Paris’s Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle and Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building all have in common?

A. They were all built as part of their country’s world fair.

State Library Victoria members can access hundreds of databases from home (if your home is in Victoria). That’s millions of articles, magazines, archives, ebooks, videos, songs, audiobooks and more, available anytime. We’re taking a look at new and/or interesting databases as well as hidden gems from our collections.

Today we’re looking at Adam Matthew’s World’s fairs: a global history of exposition database.

Promotional banner for Adam Matthew World's Fairs database.

Although still going today, in the late Victorian to early Edwardian era (1880-1920), world’s fairs (also known as international expositions) were a really big deal. They were a showcase of inventions and creativity from across the globe, giving visitors an insight into what the future might hold – a temporary grand gathering of entertainment, innovation and culture.

What makes this database so great?

The World’s Fairs database gathers together a comprehensive collection of digitised resources from over 200 world’s fairs, starting with what is generally considered to be the first official world fair – 1851 Great exhibition of the works of industry of all nations, London (more commonly known as the World Fair at Crystal Palace) – up to the 2015 world expo held in Milan. 

The database allows you to search by fair, country and document type and holds something for everyone. Whether you are interested in architecture, technology, art, international relations, historical documents or event planning, you are sure to find something that will captivate you within this collection.

Collection items include maps, artifacts, programs, postcards, official records, planning documents, personal accounts, scrapbooks, and even sheet music.

This resource is suitable for people with specific research questions as well as those who just feel like browsing.

Some highlights

Want to know what was on the mind of Henry Cole, one of the chief organisers of London’s 1851 world fair during its opening days? You can read Cole’s diaries from 1841-1854. Take a look:

Image of Henry Cole's diary entries from May 1 to May 6, 1851
Henry Cole diary 1851, 1851, © Used with permission of Elizabeth Bonython

What of our own moment in the spotlight? The Australian International Exhibitions: 1879/80 Sydney, 1880/81 Melbourne and 1888/89 Melbourne are well represented within this database. You can view images of Carlton’s Exhibition Building, inside and out, and even see how the fair was laid out.

Illustration of the exterior of the Melbourne International Exhibition
Official record containing introduction, history of exhibition, description of exhibition and exhibits, official awards of commissioners and catalogue of exhibits, 1882, © State Library of New South Wales
Illustration of Interior of the Melbourne International Exhibition showing a crowd gathered in the British Court.
Official record containing introduction, history of exhibition, description of exhibition and exhibits, official awards of commissioners and catalogue of exhibits, 1882, © State Library of New South Wales
Plan showing the allotment of space for the Melbourne International Exhibition 1880
Official record containing introduction, history of exhibition, description of exhibition and exhibits, official awards of commissioners and catalogue of exhibits, 1882, © State Library of New South Wales

Also featured is the Federal Coffee Palace visitors’ guide to Melbourne which gives a suburb by suburb account of the city’s main attractions in 1880, and includes a picture of State Library Victoria (known at that time as Melbourne Public Library). It also provides this beautiful description of our city:

Melbourne is in a transition stage at present, and may be compared to an insect which has become a chrysalis, and is now bursting its bands and emerging into its perfect stage of beauty

The Federal Coffee Palace visitors’ guide to Melbourne, 1880, p 26-27
Title page and preface of the Federal Coffee Palace visitors' guide to Melbourne, 1880.
The Federal Coffee Palace visitors’ guide to Melbourne, 1880, © State Library of New South Wales
Illustration of the front of the Melbourne Public Library building.
The Federal Coffee Palace visitors’ guide to Melbourne, 1880, © State Library of New South Wales

Now to the first world fair to be held in Asia. The theme? “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”. This world fair was one of the largest and incorporated both a monorail and miles of moving sidewalk to help visitors traverse the 815-acre expo site.

Colour guide map of expo site
EXPO ’70 all color guide, [1970], © Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno

Overlooking it all was the “Tower of the Sun”, designed by artist Taro Okamoto, the huge face of which can be seen in this photo being lifted up the building while a Shinto ceremony takes place in the foreground.

Photo: a Shinto ceremony preceded the raising of the saucer-llike "face" to the top of the 195-foot-high Tower of the Sun.
Countdown for EXPO ’70, c.1970, © Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno

So, if you’re up for a bit of historical armchair travel, grab your SLV membership and get ready to explore the wonders of world’s fairs across the ages.

We hope you enjoy exploring the World’s fairs: a global history of exposition database.

We always welcome your recommendations for database trials – let us know what you’d like to see.  Have a research query or questions on how to use our online collections? Ask a Librarian.

This article has 2 comments

  1. That’s a great blog post Jodi! a terrific array of content and beautifully illustrated too.

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