University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


Progress Made Visible:
American World's Fairs and Expositions

curated by Iris R. Snyder

February 8 - June 8, 2000

Ticket to the Columbian Exposition

Centennial Exposition

World's Columbian Exposition

Pan-American Exposition

Louisiana Purchase Exposition

Sesqui-centennial Exposition

Century of Progress Exposition

New York World's Fair

Inspired by the World's Fairs

Internet Resources



Looking backward from the millennium, no events seem to typify America from the Civil War to World War I more than the World's Fairs. The Fairs commemorated historic events--the Declaration of Independence, the voyages of Columbus, the Louisiana Purchase--but also celebrated America's industrial growth and economic power. As America moved from an insular developing nation to a player on the world stage, the fairs mirrored the Nation's growing confidence. The overriding theme of all the fairs and expositions was progress and the belief that life would inevitably get better as a result of hard work, technological advancement, and healthy living. The fairs benefitted not only the national image, but also the states and cities who sponsored them, the manufacturers who displayed their products, and the people from all social classes who were alternately amused, instructed, and diverted by them. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the United States at that time can be seen in the fairs, from creativity and ingenuity to racism and unrestrained consumerism.

Long-term benefits were wide-ranging. Cities gained buildings, parks, and planned urban centers as well as new residents and investments. The exhibitions showed off the industrial and cultural strengths of the Nation and developed markets for manufactured goods. World's Fairs became important showcases for the latest in fine arts, architecture, and design. Fairs sponsored international congresses on religion, science, labor, and other topics of contemporary concern that brought world-renowned authorities together. The world was opened up to the millions of visitors, who would never have the opportunity to travel abroad, but were able to experience the food, dress, music, and customs of many cultures.

The World's Fairs also reflected their times in more negative ways. Organizers made white supremacy and imperialism an integral part of the exposition design. Emphasis on "progress" included exhibits emphasizing "racial" advance by labeling non-Western European-based culture as primitive. People of color in so-called anthropologic exhibits were objectified and treated as spectacle. Accomplishments by women and African Americans were marginalized.

The Special Collections Department of the University of Delaware Library holds a wide variety of primary source materials relating to the World's Fairs and Expositions held in the United States between 1876 and 1939.

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Last modified:12/21/10
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