Since time immemorial, people have gathered together to buy, sell, trade, gossip and amuse themselves. Usually these gatherings took place in locales especially dedicated to the event. Sometimes the primary motivation for such occasions were economic, sometimes religious. In all cases, though, what was at stake for all participants — buyers, sellers, or casual visitors — was the exchange of goods and information. These exchanges are so universal in human culture that the impulse to participate in such events seems to be endemic to the human genetic code. The movements of goods and information, and the varieties of entertainment that have accompanied them, have taken a variety of shapes in the course of history: markets, fairs, and festivals of every kind. Since the great industrial expositions held Paris inherited them all, it would be well to glance briefly at the nature of these exchanges, and to say a few words about their development in the course of world history. 

To begin with a definition: a market, in a strictly geographical sense, is any meeting of people — usually local inhabitants — for the purpose of buying and selling in a specific place set aside for the activity. Traditionally, the market implied the existence of its counterpart, the marketplace.(1) As we shall see, the great Parisian expositions were also marketplaces, albeit temporary ones, because local people gathered there to buy and sell.

A fair (French foire) is a special kind of market, and the fairground a unique kind of marketplace. The fair, too, is a world-wide phenomenon. It differs from the marketplace principally in its frequency of occurrence and the national origins of the buyers and sellers who attend the event. The market occurs frequently - at least once a week, sometimes every day. A fair draws on people from outside the locale of origin. As Helen Augur succinctly notes, "A market is regular small trade between neighbors; a fair is regular large trade between neighbors.”(2)

Because of this participation by foreign merchants, the fair necessarily takes place at less frequent, though still regularly scheduled, intervals. The critical element here is regularity. When travel is expensive and dangerous, merchants must be certain that there will be a booth and customers for them at journey's end. In France, fairs were scheduled to coincide with saints' festivals, and often took their name from the patron saint in whose honor the fair was staged. Both the English word"fair" and the French foire derive from the Latin feria, the term used by the Church for saints' festivals.

These events, like the markets, were primarily opportunities to buy, sell, and trade. But the fairs added one more element to their array of merchant booths: the entertainer. Jugglers, bear-trainers, sword swallowers, street performers of every stripe — these new merchants (after all, they too were selling wares) added gaiety and variety to the events; and, as the merchants soon discovered, they attracted more customers to the fairgrounds. In English, the clear relationship between the word "holiday" and "holy day" preserves the double sense of both the serious and festive nature of these gatherings.

Street Performers at the Saint Laurent Fair

Keep the entertainers and let the merchants go, and you have a festival. Festivals can be regularly scheduled events, or they can be ad hoc, conjured up on the spur of the moment to celebrate some unexpected happiness or triumph. In France, tournaments and jousts were types of festivals, as were the later spectacles — elaborate shows combining theatrics, music, and fireworks - that reached their zenith under Louis XIV. During the Revolution, France cultivated these fêtes in an attempt to displace and replace the older feast and fair days dedicated to the saints. Display, either for its own sake or the sake of some externally conceived social or political program, was at the core of these events.

Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794

Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794

The national and universal expositions held in Paris between 1798 and 1937 derive in part from the form and spirit of the market, the fair, and the festival. But these expositions represented both the confluence of the older traditions and the emergence of new ones. The national expositions of Paris were gatherings of peoples from many nations into the host city for four major purposes:

1) To encourage technical innovation and application to all phases of society;

2) To encourage the interchange of ideas among exhibitors and visitors;

3) To educate and elevate public taste;

4) To promote trade.

The universal expositions added three more elements:

5) To provide entertainment;

6) To make France the sovereign arbiter of taste and genius in the world;

7) To pay homage to Peace and Progress.

Such ambitious goals were not achieved in a year or a decade. Indeed, the earliest organizers of both the national and industrial expositions began with no such grandiose aims. But it is fair to say that these aims could not have been achieved without the bedrock of tradition to build upon. This tradition reached back into the Middle Ages, and back beyond into Greek and Roman times, and even further into Biblical antiquity. To trace this lineage would require a book by itself. For our purposes, it will be sufficient to glance briefly at the earliest recorded markets, fairs, and festivals, then turn to the French traditions, including a look at spectacles and the salon insofar as these institutions provided at least a partial reservoir of tradition for the exposition organizers to draw upon.

Markets, Fairs, and Festivals of Antiquity

Festival of Opet, Egypt

Festival of Opet, Egypt


As long as people have congregated together to celebrate or to trade, there have been festivals and fairs. At the Festival of Opet in ancient Egypt, the solemnity of the processions honoring Amon in Karnak and Thebes gave way to three weeks of trading and merrymaking.3 In China, the tradition of festivals goes back to the very earliest of recorded times, and probably beyond. The most thoroughly developed of these festivals was probably the "Hundred Entertainments" of the Han Dynasty. These events took place over many days, and featured a variety of acrobatic, juggling, and trained animal acts. The Hundred Entertainments proved so popular that the festival outlived the fall of the dynasty and lasted, through many permutations, until the twentieth century.4

Aztec Mexico also fostered popular fairs and festivals. W.H. Prescott depicts the Aztec fairs as huge events that took place under strict supervision: "Officers patrolled the square [in Mexico City], whose business it was to keep the peace, to collect dues imposed on the various kinds of merchandise, to see that no false measures or fraud of any kind were used, and to bring offenders at once to justice."5

Probably the most prosperous of ancient fairs was held in Tyre. The author of the Biblical Book of Ezekiel addresses the city of Tyre in envious detail:

12 Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kind of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded in thy fairs.

13 Javan, Tubal, and Mesech, they were thy merchants: they traded the persons of men and vessels of brass in thy market.

15 The men of Dedan were thy merchants; many isles were the merchandise of thy hand: they brought thee for a present horns of ivory and ebony.

21 Arabia, and all the princes of Kedar, they occupied thee in lambs, and rams, and goats: in these were they thy merchants....6

Since many of the merchants at the fairs recited by the Ezekiel author were the reputed grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Noah, the author clearly perceived these fairs to be of great antiquity and authority. The fact that the Ezekiel author predicts that the ruin of Tyre will coincide with the ruin of the merchants of the great fairs demonstrates a comprehension of the fundamental importance of such events to the life of a great city.

Given the widespread prevalence of fairs in the ancient Near East, it should come as no surprise that the Greek city states held similar events. Annual fairs were held at Delphi and Delos, Corinth and Nemea, Thermopylae and Athens. As was the case in the later fairs of the Christian Middle Ages, the Greek fairs were usually held under the auspices of priests. These pious men lent money to responsible merchants, appointed strongarm police to keep peace at the fairgrounds, and collected a percentage of the profits as their right and due. These events would begin with a formal procession led by the priests. Following came the traders with their herbs and slaves, wheat and precious woods, setting up booths and displaying their wares for sale or barter. In the wake of the traders came the carnival crowd, with fortune tellers and conjurors, tiger trainers and tightrope walkers.

One highly significant Greek addition to the repertoire of fair ceremonies was the Olympic Games. These renowned events were not only athletic contests: they were the occasion for mercantile fairs as well. Cicero recounts how, as early as the sixth century B.C., people came to the games expressly for the purpose of buying and selling. This association of athletic and other spectacle with expositions is significant. It is interesting to note that, after the revival of the ancient Greek games at the end of the nineteenth century, the first Olympics ever to be held outside Greece was staged in Paris as an adjunct to the exposition universelle of 1900.

In Rome, too, the ancient fairs grew out of religious rites. The Feria Latina, or Latin Fair, dates back to the tribal beginnings of Rome itself, and lasted until the end of the Empire. For centuries Romans met in April on the Alban Hill, poured a libation of milk in honor of Jupiter, sacrificed a white heifer, then settled down to enjoy the games and trade with foreign visitors. Peace was declared between Rome and her sometimes rival cities, and no violence of any sort, no matter what the provocation, was tolerated at the Feria Latina.

Marcus Aurelius prepares the sacrifice at the Feria Latina

The nature of Roman commerce was such that, by the second century A.D., international fairs had all but ceased within the precincts of Rome itself. "Whoever wishes to see all the goods of the world," observed Aelius Aristides,"must either journey throughout the world or else stay in Rome."7 All the varied wealth of Europe, Africa, the Near East, India and China flowed into Rome. There is no need of trading fairs in a city when the products of the world are available there every day. The failure of many recent international expositions in the major cities of the twentieth century are a testimony to this blunt reality of economic life.

Just as exotic goods became everyday business in the Rome, so too did the carnival element detach itself from the fairs and set up shop on its own. The chariot races, gladitorial matches, and hundreds of other amusements no longer needed to depend on fairs to provide them with a paying audience. As in twentieth-century America, entertainers of the Roman republic and empire became famous and wealthy. Even foreigners, like the master knife-thrower Mastex who hailed from India, were lionized by a populace hungry for amusements and heroes.

Outside of the Eternal City, however, local fairs continued to survive and thrive. More than local market places, these European fairs encouraged trade among bordering principalities. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it would be these local fairs, under the protection and guidance of the Church, that would keep alive the tradition of trade and amusement. One of the direct lines of lineal descent leads from these fairs down through the centuries to the expositions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The Fairs of France


In 629 A.D., King Dagobert granted to the monks of Saint Denis a charter allowing them to hold a fair "for the glory of God and the honor of Saint Denis his festival." This event, held close to Paris in the fields just outside the township of Saint Denis, was repeated annually for over a thousand years. The fair opened on the ninth of October -- the official festival-day of Saint Denis -- and lasted for one month.


The charter of the Saint Denis fair was drawn up in such a way that no other fair could be held in the environs of Paris during this time. This guaranteed monopoly on international trade for an entire month served as one of the many incentives for merchants to travel to Saint Denis in October. Merchants from Aquitaine brought wine, men from Provence their oils. Jews and Syrians braved the treacheries of the caravan route to offer rare metals and perfumes from the Orient. Slaves and spices, children and perfumes -- all the products and the very flesh of humanity was offered for sale at Saint Denis. Other, smaller fairs grew up throughout France during the Middle Ages. But the "October Lendit," as it was officially named, was by far the most famous of the early fairs in or near Paris.


In 1109, a second fair was born at Saint Denis. In order to honor the newly-acquired fragments of the true cross of Christ, the bishops and students of Notre Dame in Paris proceeded with great pomp to the plain of Saint Denis, so that all might behold and marvel at the sacred relics. The procession was followed by a fair patterned closely on the October Lendit model. At first, the new fair was placed under the aegis of Notre Dame in Paris, much to the distress of authorities at Saint Denis, who regarded the right to stage such a fair as theirs by hallowed custom and the terms of their charter. When Suger became abbot of Saint Denis in 1122, he called on Louis IX to revoke the charter of the Notre Dame fair. After two years of lobbying the king, Suger succeeded in his efforts, and the new fair was placed under the directorship of Saint Denis.

Twelfthcentury mosaic depicting wine merchandising at the Foire Saint-Denis

Twelfthcentury mosaic depicting wine merchandising at the Foire Saint-Denis


The struggle to gain control over this "Second Lendit" dramatizes the importance of these events. In some significant ways, the competition between the parish of Saint Denis and the parish of Notre Dame to sponsor the second Parisian fair anticipates later events. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cities throughout France often resented the hegemony of Paris in all matters pertaining to the hosting of expositions. The right to stage the fair itself, the clear economic advantages the fair would give to the surrounding community, the prestige accruing to the host of such important events — the motives of the Abbot Suger of Saint Denis were not so very different from those of the Parisians who fought to snatch from Berlin the privilege of hosting the 1900 international exposition, or San Francisco's triumph over New Orleans for the honor of hosting the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915.

Though the Bishop of Notre Dame lost control of the Second Lendit fair, the University of Paris, which grew out of the original cathedral schools of Notre Dame, retained an honorific place at the fair. At the opening day ceremony on June 12, the Rector of the University of Paris, followed by a host of students, would formally present himself to the authorities of the fair and demand his due: a year's supply of parchment for use by the University, plus a "tip" in cash, drawn from "donations" contributed by the merchants. After this high point in dignity, however, the fair quickly took on the character of a student rampage as the scholars rushed to the strong waters and boisterous entertainments at the fair. So much blood was shed at the second Lendit fairs that the French parliament had to pass measures forbidding the wearing of arms, or even the carrying of sticks, within the precincts of the fairgrounds.



IV. The Champagne Fairs


It was one of the strange imbalances of medieval France that Paris, the leader in intellectual culture and the political seat of power for the whole Ile de France, should not yet be a stage for any great international marketplace. Not only had Saint Denis successfully warded off the attempt to place a major fair under the sponsorship of Paris: other towns in the Champagne district of France — Provins, Bar-Sur-L'Auve, Lagny (itself only a short distance from Paris), and Troyes — began to develop their own fairs.


The main focus the the Saint Denis fairs seems to have been agricultural products. At the great fairs that developed under the protection of local counts in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Champagne region, it was primarily the cloth trade that drew merchants thither. These fairs were immemorially old, even by the era of their flourishing in the 1100s. Sidonius Apollonaris refers to fairs in the Champagne district as early as 427 A.D. But only in the 12th and 13th centuries did these events assume their full economic and cultural importance.8


The nobility of Champagne - and, later, the kings of France - found that these fairs could fill their own coffers and stimulate local trade considerably. Recognizing the considerable advantages these events brought to their communities, the municipal authorities of Troyes and Provins, authorized the construction of permanent stone booths for their annual fairs. The counts of the Champagne guaranteed safe conduct to and from the fairs -- at least as far as their jurisdiction held -- and gave both merchants and entertainers special privileges within the space of the fairgrounds. Bans on usury were temporarily lifted, card games and dicing were allowed, and the different nationalities were granted some measure of autonomy to govern the behavior of their own countrymen without interference from the authorities of Champagne.

Anonymous nineteenth century engraving depicting the Champagne Fair in the thirteenth century


In return for these freedoms, the local rulers derived considerable revenues from numerous sources: sales taxes, entry and exit fees from the fairs, conduit des foires (right of safe-conduct) charges, especially for Italians and Jews.9 If, as was the case at Provins, Italian or German cities set up their own lodgings or consulates, these residences were subject to a property tax.

One of the most striking parallels between the Champagne fairs and the international expositions of later centuries was their cultural and ethnic diversity. The Medieval fairs were much less representative of a truly world-wide population than the later world's fairs, of course. With rare exceptions, the merchants who came to the Champagne region in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were Europeans: all the regions of present-day France, Belgium, Holland, England, Germany, and Spain.


The Italian merchants, however, gave the Champagne fairs a truly multicultural flavor. Almost all the other European countries came to trade goods produced by their own people: cloth from Flanders, wine from the south of France, linen from Chalons and Troyes, ironwork and toys from Germany, wool from England, leather and goatskin from Spain and Portugal. Italian merchants also brought goods from their own cities — Lucca linen was especially prized — but it was the goods they brought from the Near and Far East that gave them the edge in all markets for exotic goods. The Italians sold alum, an essential agent in the preparation of cloth, and alluring new dyes procured from Arabia. Imported spices, and above all pepper, were in great demand, bringing the Italian merchants sizable profits at all the fairs. And finally, the Italian traders brought that wonderfully light and smooth new material called silk to the European luxury trade. Occasionally, but in diminishing numbers as the years wore on, Saracen slaves were available to Christian buyers.


In many respects, the fairgrounds of Champagne were almost like independent countries. The counts of the Champagne region, in an effort to encourage attendance, decreed participating nations free from many of the local laws and customs. In return, participating nations or cities were expected to control the conduct of their nationals, and to insure that "quality control" of goods was maintained. Each fair had its own wardens to keep the peace and assure that events proceeded smoothly and in an orderly fashion. But if, say, a merchant from Genoa was discovered to have swindled a Flemish cloth trader, it was up to the rest of the community of Genoese at the fair to reprimand the wrongdoer, and to make amends to the offended party. If they did not comply, not only the offender himself, but all Genoese merchants could be excluded from subsequent fairs.


This system of quality control at the Champagne fairs seems, in one respect, like the medieval guild system raised to the next highest power: whole cities or nations act as supervisors over all the merchandise emanating from their domain. This notion of the prestige (or disgrace) of a community participating in a fair anticipates the status system of later international expositions, where exhibitors participated, not only as individual companies or artists, but as representatives of the nation as a whole. In both cases, reward or disgrace for the individual meant triumph or defeat for the nation as well.


Information about entertainment at the Champagne fairs is scant; but enough remains to indicate that the kinds of amusements offered were, in type and variety, as easily recognizable today as a thousand years ago. Strolling musicians, jugglers, bear trainers and dancing girls, astrologers and "hot bath" salespeople all plied their trade at the outskirts of the fairs, benefiting from the same immunity from municipal prosecution as the Jewish moneylenders. Puppet shows and miracle plays were special favorites; and the improvised platforms where sacred history was played out before the merchants of the world was one of the most heavily attended sections of the entire fair. At times the town itself would enter into the spirit of the fair, putting aside for a few hours thoughts of profit and loss, heaven and hell:


Lords would dress as swineherds, and swineherds would trick themselves out in ragged silks and velvets as cavaliers. There were pages and majordomos and queens with longs robes and crowns, and merry monks and Crusaders and humble apprentices trying to look like guildsmen. The streets were thronged with the crowds that danced and joked and sang with the troubadours. At the end of the revelry the armed sergeants of the fair, as on every evening, marched through the streets with flaring torches, followed by bands of fiddlers.10


The decline of the Champagne fairs had numerous causes; but the main ones bear a striking resemblance to the reasons for the decline in importance of the international expositions: the establishment of permanent businesses that carried fair goods on a year-round basis, growth of rival fairs in other French cities, the devastations of war and, finally, the rise and dominance of the city of Paris over all other cities in France.


When silk and spice became the stuff of common commerce, there was far much less to be gained by going to all the trouble and expense of attending a fair — just as there was less reason to wait for the next universal exposition to taste Algerian cuisine or admire Japanese laquerwork when these could be sampled in Paris at any time after the 1890s. This internationalizing of commerce had taken place in the Roman Empire place in Rome, and is taking place in our own times. The net result, then and now, is that small locales or events that specialize in "exotic commerce" lose whatever preeminence they once possessed as major cities become centers of international trade.


The Champagne fairs, at their peak, enriched the merchants, the nobility, and local businesses considerably. But success breeds emulation. In 1419, the city of Lyon, with a longing glance at the prosperity of Provins and Lagny, instituted two fairs which succeeded so well that a third was added in 1444. Lyon was better situated than her Champagne rivals to profit from the new routes from Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and the Bourgogne and Auvergne regions of France. As Lyons waxed, Provins and Lagny waned.

A silk caravan coming to the Lyons fair


It was the further good fortune of Lyon to be situated far from the fields of battle during the terrible Hundred Years War. Successful fairs and expositions depend on peace. Even if the early fairs did not unfurl the banners of universal peace and brotherhood as icons of faith, they nevertheless were well aware that war meant the disruption of interregional international trade. The fatal blow to the Champagne fairs — and to many others throughout Europe — was the Hundred Years War between France and Germany. Local fairs still continued in their immemorial manner to foster agricultural exchange. But war mortally wounded international trade in the Champagne that flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries. Similarly, it could be argued that the two world wars in our century helped hasten the end of the international exposition -- or, more precisely, ended the era in which these events were of first-rank importance in the affairs of nations.



The First Great Parisian Fair


As far as written records reveal, the Foire Saint-Germain is the longest-lived of Parisian fairs. It first opened tentatively at the end of the thirteenth century. But the lethal combination the Hundred Years War and bad commercial times forced the closure of the Saint-Germain fair in the 15th century. It was reopened by Louis the XI in 1482, and has flourished continually since its reopening. Today, the Foire Saint-Germain holds forth in the Place Saint-Sulpice, beneath the sober eyes of the immense four cardinals, sculpted in stone atop the Fontaine des Quatre Points Cardinaux in the center of the square. The permanent wooden structures of the old fair are gone; the fair itself has moved two streets east from its original habitat; and the goods offered for sale have changed considerably over the centuries. But, for all the changes, the Foire Saint-Germain remains the oldest such institution in France.

The Champagne fairs were international events during which the locals participated and prospered in the intensity of world trade. The Saint Germain fair was from the outset a strictly Parisian event which, because of its location in the heart of a great capital, brought people from many lands both to buy and sell and to enjoy the allurements of the capital. The Foire Saint-Germain was sponsored by monks, who originally allowed the fairs to flourish as adjuncts to special days during the year when holy relics were on display. In the course of time, these monks built and rented booths to merchants, and platforms to performers. The monks in turn gave over a part of their fees to the king in return for royal protection and sponsorship of the fair.

At the Champagne fairs, the commerce in goods was the chief attraction for participants; at Saint Germain, the sideshows and amusements seem to have figured equally with the necessities of commerce. Sellers and buyers came to deal, but vast numbers of people came simply to enjoy themselves. King Henry IV adored the Foire Saint-Germain, and ordered for himself a special loge box on a raised platform, adorned with fine tapestries, chairs, and a table laden with food and drink. Accompanied by gentlemen and ladies of the court, the king and peers of the realm surveyed their subjects amusing themselves in the first fair of summer.

The Foire Saint-Germain was an urban fair through and through. The odor of the fields did not mingle in the fair of Saint Germain, where perfumes were sold to mask the smell of open sewers and the stench of crowded humanity. Visitors traveled down long byways, where hundreds of merchants had moved into the wooden booths constructed especially for the fair. Flanking the interior courtyard of booths was an immense wooden roof, built on the orders of the Abbé of Saint Germain in the sixteenth century, and was accounted "one of the marvels of Paris."11 Bold, large-scale construction had been a feature of Parisian fairs for centuries antecedent to the industrial expositions.

Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe, "The Saint Germain Fair," 1763 (Click the image for a larger view)

Here, during the Ancien Régime, the collector of China could purchase his wares in one of the Marchandise de la Chine shops. Tapestries, fine papers, chocolates, toys and watches, powdered wigs and old parchment books could be found in one block or the next of this immense fair. Coffee was introduced to Parisians at the Saint Germain Fair in the 1670s. One contemporary observer, Charles Sorel, noted that the Saint Germain Fair in his day was a "scene of delight and wickedness, where everything sold served either self-indulgence or vanity." 12

But few came to the Saint Germain for chocolates or chimes alone. The numerous taverns and cabarets of the Left Bank were not simple businesses of the area: they too were part of the ambience of the fair. As with some church fairs today, gambling was permitted. Local ordinances were passed several times during the eighteenth century in an attempt to curtail dicing and card-playing for money. But the urge to play proved too strong for the law; and when banished from the open booths, gamblers, professional and amateur, took to the side streets. Today, at the Clignancourt Flea market, one can still see the scions of these fleeting and furtive gamblers, with their shell games spread out on small collapsible tables, scooping in and dishing out francs as the venturesome passers-by place their bets.

On the streets around the fairgrounds a throng of entertainers competed for the attention and tips of the strolling audience. In 1651, the crowds marveled at a man who drank water and regurgitated wine, liqueurs, and eau-de-vie. A dozen years later, one charlatan amazed the fairgoers with a kind of clavichord that automatically played popular tunes without apparent human aid.13 It was here, too, that the historical Cyrano de Bergerac, feeling menaced, impaled a rapier-wielding monkey. In 1749, a rhinoceros went on display on the Rue des Quatre-Vents at the fair. Fairgoers gaped at the armored behemoth as it was fed huge amounts of bread, water, and beer (14 buckets a day). Parisian women were so taken with its horn that they began a fad of hair arrangement à la rhinocéros. In just this fashion, later visitor to the international exposition would come to gape at, and occasionally imitate, exotic marvels from foreign shores.

Present logo of the Saint Germain Fair

Present logo of the Saint Germain Fair


Festivals of Royalty and Revolution


International expositions are not only fairs: they are spectacles: elaborate shows conducted to demonstrate the ceremonial taste and power of the ruling regime. Seen as spectacles, these later expositions were the heirs to a long and continuous traditions of official spectacles and triumphal processions that had existed in France for centuries. Grand courtly spectacles were initiated in full splendor during the late Renaissance years in Italy and France, and were, as one contemporary theorist put it, allegories de l'Estat des Temps. There were three basic types of spectacle in France dating from the Renaissance: the royal triumphal entry, the tournament, and public entertainment.


When a king took formal procession of a town, he was greeted by a procession of dignitaries and illustrious personages, the foremost of whom would present the key to the city's gates to the monarch. Though such events were often the result of war, they could also be conducted under peaceful auspices, as a public manner of honoring a visit from the king. The nineteenth century gave a strange twist to this tradition. When Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate his armies' victories, he was consciously drawing upon this tradition. He himself had led several such triumphal entries, the most spectacular of which was the ceremonial importation of stolen Italian artworks brought to Paris after a successful campaign in Italy. Louis-Philippe approved the completion of the Arc de Triomphe to honor French greatness; but he lived to see its first use as a triumphal procession when Napoleon's ashes were brought back for internment at Les Invalides. Many of the nineteenth century universal expositions featured a triumphal arch as part of the entranceway to the event itself. The first official act of these expositions was a formal procession of Emperor or President through the archway and into the main hall for the inaugural ceremonies.


Tournaments are well-known features of medieval and Renaissance life. What strikes the student of world's fairs, though, is the analogy between the feats of arms and awards at the earlier tournaments and the pacific competition for medals at the national and international expositions. In both cases, prowess was the dominant feature in the competition. At the Parisian expositions, individuals competed with each other, départements of France vied for aggregations of honors, and, later, entire nations entered the exhibit judging in a tournament spirit. Perhaps the epitome of this marriage of industrial exhibition and competitive enterprise came in 1900, when the first Olympic games ever to be held outside of Greece were staged in conjunction with the exposition universelle in Paris that year.


Though not staged with the same military elan as the tournaments, the court spectacles of the Renaissance and Baroque furnished lavish entertainment for spectators and participants alike. The court spectacle has a long and venerable tradition in France; but the unquestioned peak came during the reign of Louis XIV. Hundreds of dancers, singers, actors, fireworks displays, and even mock naval battles took place over a several day period for the amusement of Louis and his court. The tradition was continued in an only slightly less opulent manner, until the Revolution put a stop to these royal extravaganzas. But the revolutionary leaders themselves realized the potential inherent in these displays: the potential to both entertain and instruct a populace that sorely needed both diversion from contemporary troubles and a visible sign that the new government, too, was capable of mounting important festivals for the benefit of all citizens.14


In that brief interlude between the fall of the Bastille and the overthrow of the monarchy, the National Assembly declared, on June 5, 1790, that a Fête de la Federation would be held in the Champ de Mars to celebrate the fall of the Bastille and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The terrain of the Champ de Mars was hilly and irregular, and seemed at first an inhospitable site for such an event. But, in the course of the following month, some 30,000 men, women and children labored day and night, singing "Ça ira! Ça ira!" On Bastille Day, 1790, all was ready. Three hundred thousand Parisians greeted fifty thousand French troops who had journeyed to the capital for the occasion. Bands played, speeches were intoned, banners waved, and an atmosphere of confidence and high spirits prevailed. Bishop Talleyrand said mass, and King Louis XVI pledged to uphold the new regime. After the king's speech, the cannons roared, and all over Paris, citizens who had not been able to attend the festivities at the Champ de Mars raised their salute to the new regime.

Fête de la Fédération

Fête de la Fédération

We should note that, from 1867 onward, all the universal expositions held in Paris took place on the very ground prepared by workers who had cleared the site for the first formal ceremonies of the Revolution. The Field of Mars, dominated today by one of the most revolutionary structures in the history of architecture, has become more of a tourist mecca than a site hallowed to the memory of French military action. But, situated as it is across from the Ecole Militaire, the Champ de Mars has for two centuries been symbolic to the Parisian mind as the site of festivals celebrating the triumph of revolution.

Even after the overthrow of the monarchy, Parisians could not or would not do without these elaborate ceremonies. With the banishment or execution of nobility and priesthood, the citizens of France gloried in their new freedom from the ancient oppressors. But the leaders of the Revolution realized that the old institutions could not be swept away without leaving a void in the hearts and traditions of the people. In a gesture partly spontaneous and partly calculated, the leaders of the new regime encouraged the establishment of new rituals: festivities that would celebrate and solidify the achievements of the revolution.

The first of the major new festivals was another Fête de la Fédération, held on July 14, 1790. Laborers and shop-owners, men and women from virtually all walks of Parisian life, assisted in the labors of constructing the grandstands and platforms on the Champ de Mars, and decorating the Place de la Bastille and the Champs-Elysées with banners and lanterns, pavilions and swags that would brighten and dignify the ceremonies. There were speeches, military exercises, music and balls that lasted far into the next morning.

During the next decade, the changing governments of France sponsored a dozen major, and dozens of lesser festivals: the Festival of Law (1792), the Festival of Unity (1793), the Festival of Reason (1793), the Festival of the Supreme Being (1794), the Festival of Victory (1796), the Festival of the Foundation of the Republic (1796), the Festival of Liberty (1798). To the cynic's eye, all these contrived ceremonies might appear to be no more than the entertainment program of the government's panem et circenses for the unruly Parisian mobs. But subsequent historians have seen a good deal of wisdom in these ad hoc rites. Each of the festivals gave those in power an opportunity to reinforce the new values that they were trying to teach. In a land where there were still many royalists and royalist sympathizers, a festival that celebrated the virtues of the republic could serve as a powerful restorative elixir for those whose revolutionary fervor might be on the wane. A ceremony commemorating the fall of the Bastille — the one ceremony of this period that is still observed in France today — united all the people in a rejoicing over the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the republic. The event also reminded them that they, as a people, had killed their king and queen to make this republic a reality, and that a spirited celebration of the Republic was better than a fearful remorse over regicide.

Festival of the Supreme Being

Festival of the Supreme Being

The suppression of the church presented the revolutionary government with a more difficult problem. Kings and nobles might be guillotined or exiled in a spirit of self-righteous wrath. But the hold of the church on the morals and conscience of the French nation was far stronger, much more difficult to root out and replace. It was Robespierre who made the most vigorous attempt to replace the old faith with a new creed, one more consonant with the dictates of reason and the needs of the republic. He proclaimed a festival in honor of the Supreme Being, and called upon Jacques-Louis David, the greatest living French artist, to design and organize the spectacle.

On a lovely spring day in June, 1794, Parisians waved tricolor flags and bedecked themselves with garlands of fresh flowers as they marched in parade from their quartiers to the gardens of the Tuileries, close by the Louvre. Robespierre and other dignitaries were seated on a grandstand labeled "the Pavilion of Unity," before which stood a huge oakum statue labeled "Atheism" and four smaller ones representing Ambition, Discord, Egotism, and False Simplicity, on which the sign "Sole Foreign Hope" was displayed. Robespierre delivered a fiery speech, comparing the perversion of atheism with the enslaving superstitions fostered by priestly religion. The orchestra then played a joyful symphony, after which Robespierre, armed with a Flame of Truth, approached the monument representing the monster of Atheism and set fire to it. Godlessness went up in flames, revealing a fireproof statue of Wisdom beneath (This last touch did not come off quite as planned, since Wisdom emerged with a face blackened with soot and ashes). After this rousing combustion, the crowd and the leaders separated into divisions, each person joining his or her neighbors from their home quartier. As the procession moved to the Champ de Mars, thirty six maidens danced around the parade, led by members of the Convention carrying the "Fruits of Nature," and concluded by a host of singing blind children. Here the participants found an artificial mountain surmounted by the Tree of Liberty. At the very top of the tree were the Tricolor flag and Phyrgian cap of Liberty, the two most evocative symbols of the Revolution. More military music, anthems, and artillery firing punctuated the festivities. Observers called the Festival of the Supreme Being "a very beautiful fete," "grand," and even "sublime." Some historians consider this event the peak from which later festivals declined.15

There was one other event held during this time that might have had a direct influence on the decision of the government to begin hosting its national industrial expositions. In 1797, three of the national manufacturing units —Sèvres porcelain, Gobelin tapestries, and Savonnerie carpets — had been faring poorly. France's belligerent position with respect to the rest of Europe had seriously curtailed the sales of these products in continental markets, and the British blockade of French ports was stifling maritime trade. The Marquis d'Avèze, commissioner in charge of national industries, conceived the idea of mounting an exhibition to display the wealth of surplus carpets to potential buyers. Other trades were also invited to participate and show their wares for sale.

The 1797 exhibition was really more of a bazaar or marketplace. Products were on display, not to receive medals, nor to be touted as the French genius struggling against foreign competition. They were there to be sold. The motive was governmental profit, not prestige, and more nearly resembled a large scale garage sale than an exposition. But the very success of the venture may have planted the idea of hosting such an event under more ceremonial auspices to the organizers of the first national industrial exposition a year later.

VII. The Salon

Though the participants themselves would have denied it vehemently, a fine arts salon is another kind of fair - or, more properly, an exposition, since the element of prestige is at least equal to the profit motive for their participants and audiences. Staged at irregular intervals by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture from 1648 onward, these public art shows were sponsored as part of Louis XIV's extensive policy for controlling standards in the arts and sciences. His motives, which remained the predominant principles of the Salon for the following two centuries, were threefold: to strengthen the national reputation of France as a leader in artistic creativity, to provide a marketplace for France's best artists, and to improve public taste.16

A Paris Salon, 1787

A Paris Salon, 1787

The Academy itself was slow to recognize the prestige and power inherent in the Salon. In the first place, academicians felt that it was somewhat demeaning to exhibit their wares for sale like coopers or fishmongers in their stalls. Painters and sculptors had for many years pressed to have their profession considered as one of the liberals arts, and not a branch of handicrafts subject to the "taint" commercialism inherent in the guild structure. Earlier theoreticians had classified painting and sculpture as handicrafts: works produced primarily by manual labor, such as navigation, hunting, and woodworking. These so-called "mechanical arts" were contrasted with the "liberal arts" of grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. These arts were conceived as undertakings worthy free people — i.e., those not subject to guild restrictions.

Once Louis XIV had legitimated this superiority of the fine arts to the mechanical arts, it is not surprising that painters fought strenuously against any activity that would tend to regroup them with the mechanical arts. Such was their opposition to placing their painting on exhibit for public sale that it was not until after Louis XIV's death that a second exhibit held took place, in 1725. Once the artists felt secure enough of their rank and merit, the advantages of holding annual expositions became clear. The events were high-toned affairs, attended by the wealthy and the titled, and allowed the artists to mingle at social gatherings with their patrons. After 1737, the Salon became a more or less regular event, beginning on the Feast of Saint Louis (August 25) and lasting from three to six weeks. Only members of the Academy were permitted to exhibit works in the Salon.

With the Revolution came the temporary extinction of the traditional Salon and the Academy. Jacques-Louis David, the most prominent painter in France at the time, was instrumental in dismembering the Academy, which had so often spurned his talents, and robbed him of the directorship of the French Academy at Rome. David tried to re-establish the Salon on more democratic principles by allowing anyone who wished to exhibit, with no awards given and no juries presiding over entrance standards or prizes. The result, predictably, was chaos.

In 1793 the Royal Academy was officially disbanded, and the Salon was made the responsibility of the Fourth Division of the newly-created Institute de France. Thereafter, both the annual Salon and the Ecole des Beaux Arts were placed under the jurisdiction of the Institute, whose members were appointed by government. When a vacancy occurred for an artist in the Institute, it was generally filled by successful Salon prizewinners. By the time of the first exposition universelle in 1855, the Academy of Fine Arts, as this division of the Institute came to be called, had become every bit as conservative and privilege-conscious as its royal predecessor.


By the end of the eighteenth century, the stage was set for all the various and venerable traditions described above to come together in Paris. The marketplace, the fair, the festival, the spectacle, and the salon would all eventually find their proper place in the evolution of the French expositions.20 The process was a gradual one. The first industrial expositions seem, at first glance, like diminutive and unworthy successors to grandiose and exalted institutions such as the salon or the royal entertainments at Versailles. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the Parisian expositions would surpass all their institutional ancestors — surpass them in sheer scope and grandeur, in the philosophical and social intentions of their organizers, and in the moral purpose with which they were staged. From a crude and very modest beginning in 1798, the Parisian expositions would become part of a movement that has inspired one twentieth century observer to assert that "of all events in recent history, only wars have had more dramatic influence than World expositions upon the expression of civilization."21


1 Today, in an age of mail order catalogues and electronic shopping, the concept of marketplace changes from a single physical space to a network with a seller (which may be a small part of a larger, multinational conglomerate) on one end and consumer nodes on the other, connected by mailing lists, credit card agreements, and phone lines.

2 Helen Augur, The Book of Fairs (New York, 1939 and Detroit, 1971), page 8.

3 The exact nature of these early Egyptian festivals is unknown; but, from the quantity of food amassed and the reliefs at Luxor, dating from the time of Tutankhamen, available evidence suggests that these events bore considerable resemblance to the fairs of medieval Europe. See especially E.O. James' splendid account of these rites in his Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, especially chapter two, "The Calendrical Festivals in Egypt."

4 For a good account of the Chinese fairs and variety shows, which may well antedate written records, see Fu Qifeng, Chinese Acrobatics Through the Ages (Beijing: Foreign language Press, 1985).

5 Prescott, quoted in Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Fair," page 127.

6 The Ezekiel author clearly includes market merchants as well as fair merchants in his litany of condemnation. But the international consequences of the fall of Tyre more directly relate to its position as a city of international commerce - in other words, as a city of fairs.

7 Quoted in L. Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners under the Roman Empire (London: 1928), Volume I, page 13.

8 More than one writer has noted the similarities between these early fairs and the international expositions of the 19th and 20th centuries. See Henri Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (New York, 1937), page 97, and Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York, 1950), pages 1083-1084.

9 These costs and taxes varied from fair to fair, and changed in the course of time. See Pirenne, op. cit., and The Cambridge Economic History of England, Volume VIII, Chapter III, "Markets and Fairs" (Cambridge, England, 1963).

10 Helen Auger, op. cit., page 134.

11 Charles Simon Favart, Mémoires et correspondance littéraires dramatiques et anecdotiques de C.S. Favart, 3 volumes (Paris, 1808), page 254.

12 Charles Sorel, Polyandre, histoire comique (Paris, 1648), page 458.

13 This tale almost had a tragic ending. The puppeteer was invited to court to repeat his trick. He succeeded so well that several members of the audience accused him of witchcraft - at which point he revealed hidden inside the spinnet's cabinetry a five-year old infant prodigy with a miniature keyboard.

14 These terms and their full meaning to the Renaissance and Baroque eras have been treated fully in two studies by Roy Strong: Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals, 1450-1650 (Suffolk, 1984) and Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Boston, 1973).

15 For a reliable, but not exhaustive, compendium of descriptions of this fête, see Marie-Louise Biver, Fêtes révolutionnaires à Paris (Paris, 1979), pages 87ff. The best interpretation of the festival of the Supreme Being is still Mona Ozouf's, in her seminal Festivals and the French Revolution(translation of La Fête Revolutionnaire, 1789-1799), Cambridge, Mass., pages 106 ff.

16 Thomas Crow has precisely captured the nature of these events: "The Salon was the first regularly repeated, open, free display of contemporary art in Europe to be offered in a completely secular setting and for the purpose of encouraging a primarily aesthetic response in large numbers of people." - Thomas Crow, Painters and Public life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven, 1985), page 3.

17 Sisley Hudddleston, Paris Salons, Cafés, and Studios (New York, 1928).

18 Mary Stranahan, History of French Painting (New York, 1888), page 474.

19 Even for the artists who had failed to win official acceptance, the international exhibitions were the rallying points for their disaffection. Gustave Courbet opened his one-man show directly across from the Palais d'Industrie in 1855. Edouard Manet did likewise in 1867, showing his canvases across the way from the immense elliptical exposition building. De Neuville and Detaille did likewise in 1878, as did Gauguin in 1889. In defiance of exposition authorities, the architect Le Corbusier put up his Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the Art Deco exposition of 1925.

20 It is possible to find other antecedents to the expositions. There were occasional displays of inventions and machines in Paris (1683), Vienna (1754), and London (1756). These events seem to be isolated instances, however, and provided no direct or continuous tradition for the national and international expositions.

21 Australian World Exposition Project Sponsors Report and Feasibility Study ( Melbourne, Australia, 1966), page 1.