The French Exposition Universelle of 1867

Panorama of the main exposition building and grounds

Panorama of the main exposition building and grounds



Arthur Chandler

Revised and expanded from World's Fair magazine, Volume VI, Number 3, 1986


In 1867, seven million people came to see Emperor Napoléon's answer to the challenge of the 1862 London International Exhibition. Eleven years after the first Great Exhibition of 1851, the British had proved to the world that it was no easy matter to repeat a resounding success. Napoleon decided, seven years after the first French exposition universelle, that the French could and should again surpass the efforts of their ancient rival and sometime ally. In a letter addressed to Emperor Napoleon, Eugène Rouher, one of the French commissioners to the London Exhibition of 1862, set forth the first proposal for the 1867 exposition:


Sir: After the closure of the London Exposition, and before the distribution of awards, on the 25 of January, the principal exhibitors manifested their desire for a universal exposition to be opened in Paris in the year 1867. Many among this group will meet together to propose to the Imperial Commission a subscription by which the government may share the costs of this enterprise.1

It was time for the French people to proclaim once again that Great Britain was not the only nation capable of showing off its national resources of industrial and artistic talent. The second British exposition, held in 1862, was a failure for a number of reasons.2 Now was the chance, many French leaders felt, not just to match, but to beat the English at the enterprise of staging expositions.

Visitors would see more than just a bigger and better show in 1867. In its attempt to classify and organize every branch of human activity, and to invest that activity with moral purpose, the second exposition universelle symbolized the encyclopedic ambitions of the Second Empire. Every aspect of the Parisian exposition, from the overall plan for exhibits to the final awarding of medals, would proceed from a single conviction: the bounty of nature could be transformed into universal harmony for the human race.

To spread this message, the Empire enlisted the some of best talent in France to proclaim Paris not only the host of the exposition, but the seat of a new order for the human race. Victor Hugo was commissioned to write the introduction to the Paris Guide for 1867; Theophile Gautier, to introduce visitors to the treasures of the Louvre; Alphonse Viollet-le-Duc to show the proud heritage of the cathedrals of Paris. Hippolyte Taine, Alexandre Dumas fils, Ernest Renan, Sainte-Beuve — all contributed the powers of their pens to promote the glory of La France. The Paris Guide that year was a showcase for the intellectual power of France's writers, just as the great oval palace on the Champ de Mars would be the showcase for her industrialists and artists. It is possible that the Paris Guide was meant as a response of Renan’s earlier criticisms in his stinging 1855 essay, "The Poetry of the Exposition." The literary world was now included in the grand exposition, and some of France’s best writers had their chance to speak to the world.

Perhaps most surprising was the appearance of Victor Hugo, whose long-time opposition of the regime of Napoleon III was well-known. But the opportunity for the grand old man of French literature was too great to resist. In the closing words of his Paris Guide essay, Hugo rang out the most noble aspiration of the age:

Down with war! Let there be alliance! Concord! Unity!..

O France, adieu! Thou art too great to remain merely a fatherland. To become a goddess, thou must be separated from motherhood. Soon thou shalt vanish in a transfiguration.

Thou shalt no longer be France: thou shalt be Humanity! No longer a nation, thou shalt be Ubiquity. Thou art destined to dissolve utterly, radiating outward, transcending thy frontiers. Resign thyself to thy immensity. Adieu, O people! Hail, Humankind! Submit to thy sublime and fateful enlargement, O my country; and as Athens became Greece, as Rome became Christianity, thou, France, become the world! 3


For Hugo, the cosmic drama was unfolding toward a glorious transcendence. It is the mission civilisatrice writ large: France brings the world to her hearth, and the visitors depart with the blessings and faith of Peace and Progress. A Greek city enlarged, by the fulfillment of its destiny, into the voice and conscience of all Greek culture. A Roman city became the vessel of a religion that encompassed even more of the inhabited world. Now France (with Paris as her capital) becomes the seat and agent of a truly world-wide transformation: the emergence of a global civilization under the cultural and spiritual leadership of France.

It was a noble vision of a cosmic human drama. But later witnesses have seen the play from start to finish:

Opening act: the restoration of the Bonaparte line, and a revival of all the old hopes and fears that accompanied the First Empire.

Second act: victory in the Crimean War and the first exposition universelle of 1855, and a confirmation of the hope that the Second Empire could surpass the First.

Third act: the expansion of French industry and finance, and the remaking of the streets of Paris under the aegis of Baron Haussmann.

Fourth act: the first stirrings of serious troubles for France muffled momentarily in the brilliant eclat of the exposition universelle of 1867.

Fifth act: defeat and disgrace.

Hugo was a great visionary, but no prophet. He could not foresee the coming of the Franco-Prussian War, the brutal siege and capitulation of Paris and France, the capture and exile of Napoleon III, the Prussian troops marching down the Champs Elysées, the massacres of the Commune Revolt during what historians call l'année terrible — the terrible year of 1870-71. Dazzled by the brilliance of a revitalized Paris and the splendors of the world's fair, Hugo was temporarily blinded to the old blood rivalries between nations — antagonisms that could not be banished by words or expositions.

In 1867 Paris was a harvest banquet, a rich repast where all the fruits of autumn were there on the Champ de Mars for all to enjoy. But by the end of the fifth act in 1871, Parisians were reduced to trapping rats for food.


PARIS, 1867

In the years before the calamities of l'année terrible, Paris was a marvel to behold. Visitors who had not been to Paris in a decade or more were astonished to experience the dramatic transformations in the look and life of the city. The will of the emperor and the ésprit de géometrie of Baron Haussmann had demolished many a slum, and many venerable but inconveniently situated old buildings; broadened streets and converged them into central focal points; and created an extensive municipal park system. Beneath the streets, gas lines for lighting and heating and new water and sewer pipes for home and industry brought the benefits of technology into the lives of every Parisian. The technological progress and "greatest good for the greatest number," so heralded at the first exposition universelle in 1855, was coming into being at last.

Progress with Pipes during the Second Empire

On the refurbished avenues, new enterprises abounded. Mass merchandising was in evidence at Victor Baltard's gigantic food market, Les Halles — whose huge iron and glass vaulting may have been inspired by the Palais d'Industrie of the 1855 fair. The great department stores — Le Printemps (founded 1865), La Samartaine (1869), Le Bon Marché — displayed inexpensive but well-crafted wares that fulfilled the "bargain store" idea of the first French exposition. The new railroad stations (Gare de l'Est, Gare du Nord) connected Paris to the ever-expanding webwork of railways (including the first railroad bridge designed by the young Gustave Eiffel). New banks, such as the Crédit Lyonnais (founded 1863) and the Société Général (1864), attested to the growth of the French economy. The optimistic views of the 1855 exposition universelle seemed to have been vindicated: French industry and finance could compete freely, without protective tariff laws, against any other nation in the world.

To many visitors looking back on their experiences of Paris in the 1860s, the intellectual and artistic climate glowed with the luminescence of a sparkling autumn afternoon. French painters were among the most respected and best-rewarded in the world. The salon shows were events of serious festivity, where titled and wealthy patrons mingled with successful artists in a high-fashion ritual of beauty worship. In 1862 the first stone had been laid for Charles Garnier's Opera House, consecrating in full splendor the ritual of music in Paris. The Bibliothèque Nationale was newly-housed in Labrouste's iron and glass "palace of learning." Theaters thrived, and the exposition itself contributed to a sizable increase in theater revenues during the year.5

In the cafés of the boulevards and Montmartre, artists and aesthetes discussed the Meaning Of It All. There, at the Moulin de la Galette, Manet and Zola could be seen at one table, sharing wine and visions of color and character, while at a solitary table in the rear, Baudelaire penned his absinthine lament over the passing of the old Paris. From the café windows in the evening, they could look down on the Champ de Mars and see the gaslights of the international restaurants, glowing with exotic allure in the mile-around ellipse of the exposition palace.


Imagine yourself a traveler to the exposition universelle of 1867.

Even before entering the fairgrounds you get a taste of the excitement of Second Empire Paris. On clear weekend days, throngs of fairgoers shoulder each other in front of the ticket booths on the Quai d'Orsay. a one-legged cocoa vendor, veteran of the Crimean campaign, pours you a paper cup of rich chocolate from the urn strapped to his back. The municipal carriage line stops, and several citizens of the British Empire disembark, uttering cries of "Shocking!" as they survey the exhibits:



"Oh! Shocking! Oh! Beautiful!" -- French caricature of English visitors at the 1867 exposition


Several young men, sporting moustaches in the manner of the Emperor, discuss in amused accents the peculiar paintings by a ridiculous young man named Edouard Manet, who has presumed, as Gustave Courbet did a dozen years before, to open his own one-man show directly across from the exposition grounds.

Standing patiently in line is a well-known industrialist. He hopes to catch glimpses of his German competitors' newest products in iron. He has already been favorably impressed by the advances in electroplating, which have saved the many cast iron fountains of Paris from rusting away into nothingness, and looks forward to inspecting the "galvanoplasty" exhibits of all the industrial nations. His wife, a member of the newly-formed Croix Rouge (Red Cross), looks forward to the American exhibit, whose new devices for aiding the wounded in war have received a grand prize. The children, too, should enjoy another American exhibit, the "planetarium," invented by a Mr. Barlow of Lexington, Kentucky.5 But the eldest daughter has other ambitions: she hopes to catch a glimpse of the Empress Eugènie, and to be noticed by the dashing cavalry officer who danced with her last evening in the Chinese pavilion. The young son has eyes only for the gigantic cannon exhibited by the Krupp Company, and for the immense working model of the Suez canal that all his friends are talking about.

As you are about to enter the Palais du Champ de Mars, you see the famous American humorist, Mark Twain, emerging from the building in haste to see the Emperor reviewing the troops at the Arc de Triomphe. You ask him what he thought of the show. With a wave of his cheroot, he informs you that he was there "nearly two hours," and goes on to say:

It was a wonderful show, but the moving masses of people of all nations we saw there were a still more wonderful show. I discovered that if I were to stay there a month, I would still find myself looking at the people instead of the inanimate objects on exhibition. I got a little interested in some curious old tapestries of the thirteenth century, but a party of Arabs came by, and their dusky faces and quaint costumes called my attention away at once.6

Arab workmen in the Tunisian pavilion of the 1867 exposition

Twain departs by the exit at the quay. At the gate itself, the toll-takers are steadily collecting the entrance fees that will make the 1867 exposition universelle a most profitable event for the government.


Few visitors to the exposition of 1867 went directly to the central exhibit hall. Surrounding the main building was a vast, four-sectioned park. The area was originally meant to be a continuation of the interior exhibition space: a place where nations could erect large pavilions or displays that would not conveniently be housed inside.

Such was the plan. In reality, the effect of the park was "picturesque confusion," if one found it charming and amusing to visit, or "a trivial game," if one thought it contrary in spirit to the tone of high seriousness espoused by the Imperial Exposition Commission.

Most visitors apparently wandered among the wonders of the park without too much thought for deeper meanings. One could amble contentedly from a rustic American one-room schoolhouse — representative of the ideal of free education for everybody — to the replica of the Tunisian "Bardo of the Bey" (king's palace),7 pass through the underground grottoes of the aquarium, then relax beneath an ornate kiosk with its novel zinc roofing, iron railings, and curiously carved wood. From this vantage point, one could admire the series of trophy vases awarded to medal winners at previous expositions, placed along the path that led to the "galvanoplastic" exhibit in the French section of the park.

The Aquarium

But Victor Fournel, a contemporary critic and merciless deflator of what he considered the pretensions of the exposition, could see little value in the entire park:

From the Trocadero you can see the colossal amusement park, installed by the city of Paris for the diversion of everyone. The distractions of this park are a stumbling block for most visitors. Only the most stoic characters can resist the seductions they find here. . . In their desire to complete the grand Exposition, the planners have risked watering it down, or turning it from a serious lesson into a trivial game. In spite of the number of serious and useful exhibits that make up a true supplement to the Exposition, the double character of a bazaar and a pedlar's festival dominate the mood of the park.

All the exhibits that border the grand avenue summarize, in a striking manner, everything incoherent, sloppy and fantastic in this decorative ensemble, where it seems as though a gigantic fairy has jumbled and dumped all his theatrical sets. 8

Even writers such as François Ducuing, who found pleasure in the variety of the park, also found much to object to in the individual exhibits. He especially despised the English lighthouse — which to our eyes so strangely presages the Eiffel Tower. "The English have put up their electrical tower," Ducuing wrote, "and it dishonors the Champ de Mars with its fleshless skeleton." 9

The English Lighthouse

But perhaps Ducuing was only writing patriotically. The French, too, had erected a lighthouse in the park. Almost fifty meters in height, the towering structure illuminated the Parisian sky every night for the duration of the exposition. Possibly it was the memory of this sky-reaching illumination that inspired the commissioners of the 1889 world's fair to propose a 300-meter tower as the “spike” for the exposition of that year.

The Exposition Park: English Lighthouse, Egyptian temple (upper right), Tunisian Bardo of the Bey (lower right) and more

The Exposition Park: English Lighthouse, Egyptian temple (upper right), Tunisian Bardo of the Bey (lower right) and more

One of the strangest additions to the park was a full-size Gothic cathedral, designed by Charles Leveque of Amiens. Its intent was to afford suitable exhibition space for a number of arts connected with such a setting. There was a collection of altars, representing styles from the twelfth century onwards; a grand organ by the master organ builder of the nineteenth century, Cavaillé-Coll; painted glass, chandeliers, candelabra, ivory figurines and wax images of saints. The total effect, all writers agreed, was quite lovely. But the unintentional symbolism of the placement of this cathedral equated it with the Egyptian temples and cast-iron light houses which surrounded it. The Catholic religion, as embodied in its most venerable form, the Gothic cathedral, is thus reduced to the level of one exhibit among many. The profane setting of the building in the park thereby replaced its sacred connotations with historical ones. Visitors entered Leveque's edifice, not to worship, but to study. Appreciation of styles took precedence over worship. The church, once the sponsor of fairs, now itself becomes a fair exhibit.

The journalist Paul Bellet commented on the irony of a Catholic Church standing on the Field of Mars ( Champ de Mars ) at an industrial  exposition.

The journalist Paul Bellet commented on the irony of a Catholic Church standing on the Field of Mars (Champ de Mars) at an industrial  exposition.

Once past the fairyland setting of the park itself, the stoic visitors had still another round of temptations to brave before actually entering the exhibit hall. The series of international restaurants ringed the palace of industry were the special favorites of fairgoers, who could linger until 11 p.m. (the main hall closed at 6 o'clock), hear evening concerts, and dine in the glow of gaslight.

Two views of the American Bar in the ring of restaurants of the exposition. Fairgoers would have appreciated the symbolism of the American Civil War; but the rye grass straws made the strange American drinks -- such as the Brandy Smash and Mint Julep -- taste even more bizarre.

Two views of the American Bar in the ring of restaurants of the exposition. Fairgoers would have appreciated the symbolism of the American Civil War; but the rye grass straws made the strange American drinks -- such as the Brandy Smash and Mint Julep -- taste even more bizarre.


As always, the critic Fournel was offended:

"No matter where you enter, the long line of refreshment stands embraces the main building with a belt of bottles, hams, and lobsters, and gives the whole affair the vulgar air of a marketplace." 10

The innovations of the park would be copied in virtually every subsequent world's fair. All previous international exposition in Europe had been thoroughly serious affairs, or at least festive in a sober manner. The park and the ring of restaurants brought a carnival atmosphere to the 1867 exposition — an atmosphere that would be present, in varying degrees, at all world's fairs thereafter. Since many entrepreneurs were beginning to see international expositions as golden opportunities to make money, it should come as no surprise that enterprising speculators began to offer inside the gates the kinds of popular entertainment of Parisian cafés and cabarets — many of which had grown up in conjunction with the old medieval fairs of Paris.

Even so, the park was not so vulgar or inappropriate as Fournel would have us believe. The park did help fulfill the grander and more noble goals of the exposition by allowing exhibitors to build on a larger and more innovative scale than they could within the strict confines of the main exhibit hall. Lovely or logical as the exhibit palace was, it could not hold everything. And the park structures — lighthouses, school buildings, palaces and all — could not distract from the overwhelming presence of the main exhibit hall. In many subsequent world's fairs, the park structures would come to dominate all others and often remained in the host city as permanent monuments.


Once past the attractions of Tunisian palaces and spiced hams, the visitor confronted the Palais du Champ de Mars, the main exhibit hall: a vast iron-and-glass ellipse a mile in circumference. From the first, its architecture was heavily criticized by contemporary observers. Eugène Rimmel, himself an exhibitor at the exposition, gave voice the prevailing opinion:

The external appearance of the structure is far from attractive; much as the [British] Exhibition of 1862 was open to criticism, its two noble domes atoned for the heaviness of the edifice, whilst in this instance the monotony of the grey dull building is but poorly relieved by the meager flagstaffs which form its only ornament.

The interior of the palace is not more striking than the exterior; its continual curves so fatiguing to the eye, do not offer at any point those long vistas which usually form the beauty of this species of building; the only spot which really presents a pretty aspect, is the central garden, whence the different courts radiate11

The report of the American commissioners echoed this sentiment, but went on to point out the reason why the palace departed so radically from traditional architectural practice:

The buildings erected for previous great exhibitions are generally known as palaces, but the structure on the Champ de Mars had nothing in its appearance, as our previous remarks have hinted, suggestive of the name. In its plan and construction architectural effects were subordinated to the great end in view — the exhibition of the objects of all nations in such a manner as to invite and facilitate comparison and study.12


The Palais du Champ de Mars was conceived by Frédéric Le Play, General Commissioner for the 1867 Universal Exposition. But the task of design was given to Jean-Baptiste- Sébastien Kranz, an experienced engineer, who in turn contracted Gustave Eiffel to carry out his plans. The Palace did indeed defy tradition insofar as it did not try of be a church, a city hall, or an aristocratic chateau in the accepted historical styles. Nor did it attempt to be a greenhouse or a railway station — the two most common types of structure that employed glass and iron. It was a structure designed first and foremost as an exposition building, whose dimension would be determined solely by the requirement of its contents. The domes, interior barrel vaulting, and incidental ornamentation of all previous exposition palaces had drawn their models and inspiration from past structures, as the very term palace indicates. But the 1867 “palace” turns its back on tradition, and resolutely faces the necessity of rational classification in an exposition. Hear the voice of Chief Commissioner Le Play:

The Imperial Commission had, as its point of departure, a methodical classification, at whose base there is a double grouping of products: by the nature of the objects, and by their nationality. This condition has been achieved by a circular arrangement with two systems of division. The first is formed by concentric zones, which will house similar products of all nations; the second, of radiating sections, each one given over to a particular nation. 13

The Palace design represents a serious effort by thoughtful people to classify and bewildering variety of the products of human ingenuity. All previous — and subsequent — expositions have had to deal with the problem of organizing its offerings in such as way as to help visitors find and understand what they were seeing. During the fairs of the middle ages and later, it was the nature of the product alone that mattered: one visited the cloth section or the toys section of the fair, where members of all nations displayed their wares. Since the time of the first world's fair at London in 1851, the guiding principal was exhibition of products by nation. Within the confines of the space allotted to them, nations could display whatever they wanted, and wherever they pleased. In the Palais du Champ de Mars in 1867, however, the first effort was made to integrate these two organizing principals — nations and products — into one coherent system. As such as system, it represents more than a convenient arrangement of products. It is a philosophy, realized in architectural space,  concerning the nature and purpose of human achievement.

The classification system of the 1867 exposition universelle recognized ten fundamental divisions of human endeavor. Each of these ten groups was further divided into classes, or subgroups:

Group I — works of art (subdivided into five classes)

Group II — apparatus and application of the liberal arts (eight classes)

Group III — furniture and other objects for use in dwellings (thirteen classes)

Group IV — clothing, including fabrics and other objects worn upon the person (thirteen classes)

Group V — industrial products, raw and manufactured, of mining forestry, etc. (seven classes)

Group VI — apparatus and processes used in the common arts (twenty classes)

Group VII — food, fresh or preserved, in various states of preparation (seven classes)

Group VIII — livestock and specimens of agricultural buildings (nine classes)

Group IX — live produce and specimens of horticultural works (six classes)

Group X — articles whose special purpose was meant to improve the physical and moral conditions of the people (seven classes)

1867 exposition plan.jpg

In general, the classification scheme worked well. Thoughtful people might pause, though, at seeing grouped together, in the Industrial Products section, India-rubber baths and corkscrews, fishing tackle and pills. Guns were classified as types of clothing, and housed in Group IV — a fact that reveals much about the nature of life in nineteenth century Western civilization. Perfumers were surprised to find themselves in the section devotes to "Furniture and Other Objects for Use in Dwellings" — a classifications that reveals the vision, held by the Imperial Commission, that attractive fragrances were domestic in the their location and domesticating in their purpose.

All entries were on display for the general public and for the judges who would award prizes in all ten groups.14 Agricultural and horticultural exhibits were located on Billancourt Island in the Seine. Exhibits too large to fit into the main exhibition hall were erected in the park. Groups I through VII were housed in the palace. The innermost ring of the ellipse contained a special exhibit, the "History of Labor." In the courtyard at the very center of the palace was a garden and two pavilions devoted to a display of weights, measures, and monetary currencies of the world.

The most striking feature of the classification system was Group X. Products in this category were arranged not by national origin or nature of material, but by the intentions of their creators. Emperor Napoleon himself entered a design for a workers' housing project in the competition, and was (of course) awarded a grand prize:

1867 #5A Worker Housing.jpg

That the Emperor should win a grand prize surprised no one; but it was a matter of universal comment that the Emperor had deigned to enter at all. Such an act clearly gave the signal that France, though the personage of the Emperor, set great store by this "physical and moral improvement" category. Group X represents the bon marché (bargain) classification of the 1855 exposition carried to the next higher power. These special categories clearly represent the legacy of Bonapartist reform, and the conviction of the exposition commissioners that international exhibitions should do more than promote rivalry between businesses, nations, or cultures, do more than educate or entertain. If future expositions could persuade the nations of the world to dedicate themselves to the physical and moral improvement of the human race, one of the major ideals of the Emperor and his commissioners would be fulfilled.


If Group X represented the peaceful universal aspirations of the Second Empire, the outer ring of the Palais du Champ de Mars represented the realities of Europe in the nineteenth century. Here, in the highest, widest, and longest section, the great machines loomed over fairgoers, and the setting perfectly matched the nature of the exhibits.

Industrialists still labored under a sense of inferiority to the fine arts, as seen in this attempt to dress up a machine with fluted Doric columns.

Industrialists still labored under a sense of inferiority to the fine arts, as seen in this attempt to dress up a machine with fluted Doric columns.

Since it was here, in the heavy machinery section, that each nation put forth its largest and technologically most impressive inventions for the control and application of mechanical force, this gallery constituted the main arena of the 1867 exposition universelle. It was here that the United States made its first truly impressive showing as a force to be contended with in future industrial development. Among the Americans' proudest achievements was the telegraphy exhibit, under the supervision of Samuel F.B. Morse, and Chicago's "Lake Water Tunnel" display. In previous world's fairs, the United States had little serious attention from the leading European nations. In 1867, though, American manufacturers were determined to make their presence felt, even though they knew they ranked below France, Prussia, and England as major industrial forces. Grand prizes went to Cyrus Field and the Anglo-American Transatlantic Telegraph Company; David Hughes, for his novel printing telegraph; C.H. McCormick for his reaping machines; and to the United States Sanitary Commission, for the exhibit of ambulances and other materials used for the relief of those wounded in war.15

The most impressive French display was the Suez Maritime Canal exhibit. A large working-model showed the details of this monumental engineering feat. The success of French engineers, particularly with the colossal dredging machines, promised a great future for the construction of canals in the years ahead and concomitant improvements of maritime commerce. (Smaller versions of the hydraulic machinery were being used to bring water and ventilation to the exposition building itself.)

Fairgoers stood in line to try out a new invention: the elevator

Fairgoers stood in line to try out a new invention: the elevator

One of the strangest machines in the French section was a contraption that turned rabbit skins into felt hats. One observer reported (humorously, we hope): "They put in a live rabbit at one end of the machine, and it emerged at the other end as a trimmed, embellished, and garnished hat."16

The exhibit that most forcibly captured popular attention was the one mounted by the Krupp ironworks of Prussia. The Krupp company was awarded a grand prize for its innovative methods of steel production — methods so far in advance of previous procedures that this company alone produced more steel in 1861 than the entire world had produced by the time of the first English international exposition of 1851. At the Krupp display in the outer gallery visitors could see a single 80,000-pound cast-steel ingot, whose fracture at the exposed end showed a flawlessly uniform grain.

But it was not the gigantic ingot that gathered the largest crowds. The most awe-inspiring feature of the Krupp exhibit was the 50-ton steel cannon, capable of firing 1,000 pound shells. Notices in front of the cannon proclaimed that the titanic guns were intended primarily for coastal defense, since their shells could pierce and destroy iron-plated ships.

Imagine this scene:

Here, in the gallery of machinery, is a group of young French military men — quite dashing with their trim beards and ornate sabers — paying more attention to the young ladies in crinoline than to the latest product of Prussian ingenuity. They casually inspect the gigantic Krupp cannon, the very 50-ton monster that would, in three years, hammer Paris into the quickest, most humiliating defeat in her history, and force Emperor Napoleon III into an ignominious capture and disgraced exile. There it is, on display for all to see. But the young officers are not concerned. They still recall Victor Hugo's noble scorn of the instruments of war:

These enormous shells, hurled from the gigantic Krupp cannons, will be no more effective in stopping Progress than soap bubbles blown from the mouth of a little child.17

Krupp cannon exhibit

Krupp cannon exhibit




As visitors moved from the outer gallery through the inner circles of the palace, they beheld a collective display of ingenuity and inventiveness unequaled in the history of the human race. One visitor calculated the time it would take to make even a cursory examination of the exhibits:

The gates were opened every morning at eight o'clock and closed every evening at six. By giving a single minute to each exhibitor, and by employing faithfully all the intervening time, it would have been possible to dispose of six hundred in a day. But even at that rapid rate, it would have taken three months of unintermitted labor to complete the list. Many of these exhibitors, moreover, presented not single objects, but scores and hundreds. There is no extravagance at all in the assertion that the number of objects in the Exhibition, each individually interesting and worthy, if time allowed, of a separate examination, amounted to several million.18

The orderly two-part classification of all exhibits helped save the exposition from lapsing into a chaos of unrelated impressions. But even with this system there were problems in laying out the exhibits. France received the majority of space. The amounts allocated to other nations were in direct proportion to the esteem or respect in which the French government held each country. After France, the next six countries, judged by the exhibit space they received, ranked as follows: Great Britain, "Prussia and north Germany," Austria, Belgium, the United States, and Russia, in that order. Many countries complained of their cramped quarters. Some observers noted that the system — prestige plus the requirements of the two-fold classifications within the ellipse of the Palais — had assigned some nations far more room than they needed, others not enough. Prestige and logic were often at odds.



Though the 1867 exposition avowedly centered around the industrial arts, it was the fine arts that still held the most prestige. An atmosphere of grime still seemed to hover over even the most prodigious mechanical displays. The fine arts, as the very name suggests, exuded an aura of refinement and dignity. Beside the thoughtful and polished canvases of the painter, such metallic monsters as the Krupp cannon seemed like swaggering bullies from the iron mills.

The drama of the art exhibit at the 1867 exposition resembled surprisingly the scenario played out at the 1855 fair: two official practitioners battled for top honors while the eventual winner — in the eyes of most latter art historians, at any rate — lurked outside the fairgrounds, outside the pale of official acceptance. In 1855, it had been Ingres vs. Delacroix, with Courbet opening his own one-man show apart from the Palais des Beaux Arts. In 1867, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and Jean-Léon Gérôme contended for top honors within the gates, while across the quay in his own gallery Edouard Manet displayed the works he was sure the exposition art committee would have rejected.

Viewed more than a century after the event, the fine arts competition of the 1867 Exposition Universelle evokes yet another image of autumn: the fall of academic art. Meissonier and Gérôme were two of the most highly regarded artists of their time. The death of Ingres in 1867 left vacant the throne of "king of painters." After Meissonier won top honors at the exposition, there seemed no doubt that he was the monarch of the fine arts. His clever genre scenes and dramatically staged historical canvases brought him great wealth and international acclaim. Who — except Emile Zola, for years a champion of the cause of new and unconventional artists — could have guessed that the painter of Déjuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia, both exhibited by Manet in his gallery on the Avenue de l'Alma across the quay from the exposition, would in time utterly displace his rivals?18 In 1867, at the twilight of the Second Empire, the ancien régime of art still enjoyed its applause, its medals of honor, it wealthy patrons. In the wars and revolutions to follow, the old art and empire would fall like the last leaves of autumn.

Edouard Manet's painting of the 1867  Exposition Universelle -- Nadar's balloon visible on the upper right

Edouard Manet's painting of the 1867 Exposition Universelle --Nadar's balloon visible on the upper right



Far from the glittering restaurants, away from the banging and clanging of machines in the outer gallery, the works of art clustered close to the center of the Palais du Champ de Mars. But the innermost ellipse, surrounding the open-air garden and central pavilion, offered the visitor a novel display: the Gallery of the History of Labor. Here was yet another attempt by the Second Empire to win the hearts of the working people by granting dignity to their enterprise. The Gallery of the History of Labor gave archeological justification for the elevation of “the common man.”

The History of Labor exhibit at the 1867 exposition

The History of Labor exhibit at the 1867 exposition

The History of Labor showed, in it successive displays, the advance of the human race from the Stone Age down to the year 1800. Almost entirely French in its makeup, the exhibit could have been seen as equating the rise of civilization with the rise of France. But even patriotic foreign visitors had to admit that this retrospective, with more than 5,000 artifacts drawn from private collections around the world, was a noble undertaking. Though Franco-centric in its selection of objects, the History of Labor evinced genuine internationalism. Visitors were invited to reflect, not only on the superiority of the products of their nation or their professions, but on the aeons-long rise of human civilization.

Universal in its scope, there was one patently aristocratic assumption in this panorama of human labor: that the most worthwhile products of human labor were the applied arts. The selections in the part of the exhibit devoted to prehistoric and ancient cultures did show tools and other instruments of labor; but, in the main, the displays of objects dating from the Middle Ages to the year 1800 featured decorative works almost exclusively. Jewelry settings, book bindings, huge and ornate vases, delicate bonbon boxes, chimney ornaments and ivory fans — this view of the products of labor dominated the gallery.

Reflections and echoes of this archeological impulse could be encountered everywhere in the 1867 exposition. From kiosks in the park to the furnishings and fine arts in the palace, the past imposed its compelling fascination on the minds of artists and artisans throughout nineteenth-century Europe. It was almost as if the designers of the History of Labor, surrounded by the overwhelming feats of mechanical ingenuity at the exposition, desperately turned to the ornamental embellishments of past styles for assurance. In 1867 there was only an inchoate sense that the new world of steam and steel would some day generate its own international aesthetics and economics, immensely greater in scope than achieved by the European luxury products so proudly set forth in the Gallery of the History of Labor.

The effects of the History of Labor exhibit were profound and far-reaching. As Daniel Boorstin observed:

The exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, which purported to survey all the works of humankind, still gave no glimpse of prehistory. Then, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867, the Hall of the History of Labor showed an extensive collection of artifacts from all over Europe and from Egypt. The official guide to Prehistoric Walks at the Universal Exhibition offered three lessons from the new science: the law of the progress of humanity; the law of similar development; and the high antiquity of man. (Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers, page 610)


At the very heart of the 1867 exposition universelle was a garden. After weary visitors had wended their way past cannons and corsets, statues and stone axes, they could relax in the fragrant garden courtyard in the center of the Palais du Champ de Mars. But even here, within the garden, one final pavilion offered itself for inspection and contemplation. It featured an assemblage of money, weights and measures from various countries around the world.

Central Court

The placement of this pavilion was a masterpiece of planning. After the vast collection of objects at the exposition — gathered from all over the world, and from every era of human history — this exhibit invited the visitor to reflect on concepts and systems that bound them all together. Every country had a different kind of currency, it was true; but every country did have some medium of exchange. Every culture had its unique system of weights and measures; but all peoples used some system for weighing and measuring. The exhibition commissioners hoped that this display would prompt influential people — especially those engaged with international commerce — to formulate an international standard for money, weights, and measures. The commission's optimism was justified. Partly as a result of this exhibit, an International Bureau of Weights and Measures was constituted in Paris in 1875.

Central Garden with the Pavilion of Weights, Measures and Currencies



During the summer and autumn months of 1867, the photographer Nadar would take passengers and his camera up over the Champ de Mars in his hydrogen-filled balloon. From this spectacular overview visitors had time and space to survey the entire exposition without being overwhelmed by the sheer number and diversity of objects, the exotic attraction of the international costumes and cuisine, or the carnival concert of steam engines, carillons and street hawkers all sounding off together.

Aerial photograph of the 1867 exposition by Nadar (?)

What they saw was a Paris resplendent with new boulevards and fountains, cafés and parks. Baron Haussmann had given the city a new raiment, and Victor Hugo had envisioned a new role for the Queen City in the emerging world-nation. Paris was prosperous, the Emperor was victorious, France was the leader of the new world. From the Suez to Indochina, the new French empire seemed to reduce even the Sun King's light to a pale dawn compared to the brilliant promise of the Second Empire. As they watched Nadar snap photographs from his aerie in the heavens, it must have seemed, to oldtimers especially, that a Golden Age had truly come to pass. Paris had never seemed lovelier.

But the practiced eye could see thunderheads gathering on the horizon. Polish patriot Berezowski attempted to assassinate Czar Alexander II while he visited Paris in 1867. In June of that year, Emperor Maximilian was executed by insurgents in Mexico, and the sad presence of his widow, Charlotte, in Paris during the summer and autumn months gave a melancholy cast to some of the official ceremonies at the exposition. Victor-Emmanuel II of Italy, angered at France's attempts to intervene in Italian internal affairs, conspicuously stayed away from the exposition. Opposition to Emperor Napoleon's domestic and foreign policies grew stronger every month. Industrialists began to complain of the renewed foreign competition that followed free-trade legislation. The political ardor of the working classes soared with the impassioned speeches of republicans and revolutionaries. Opponents of the Empire began to speak out more boldly, denouncing the direction in which Napoleon was taking the country. Adolph Thiers, from the beginning the most insistent critic of the Second Empire, felt that there were no blunders left to commit. And in this year, General von Moltke of Prussia published The Campaign of 1866 in Germany, which recounted the story of his crushing defeat of the Austrians, and presaging what was in store for the French in 1870.

It was easy to ignore the distant thunder, so beguiling were the wonders of Paris in the year of her second international exposition, in the autumn months of her Second Empire. Throughout the bitter years that followed, the sweet optimism of the 1867 Exposition Universelle would haunt the memories of the millions of visitors who had tasted its vanished delights.

1867  Exposition Universelle  Medal

1867 Exposition Universelle Medal



1 Quoted in Philippe Bouin and Christian-Philippe Chanut, Histoire Française des Foires et des Expositions Universelles (Paris, 1980), page 75

2 For a good overall account of the International Exhibition of 1862 and its problems, see Thomas Prasch’s chapter in Historical Dictionary of World’s Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988, edited by John Findling and Kimberly Pelle (New York, 1990), pp. 23-30

3 Paris Guide, par les Principaux Ecrivans et Artistes de la France (Paris: 1867), Vol. I, pp. XLIII-XLIV

4 Here are the figures for theater revenues in Paris:

1866 — 9,640, 816 francs

1867 — 16,533, 365 francs

1868 — 7,189,088 francs

5  The first planetarium device was not the elaborate projection system of modern planetariums, but an elaborate mechanical apparatus that simulated the orbits and revolutions of the planets and satellites. See John Morton Blum's Yesterdays Children: An Anthology Compiled from the Pages of Our Young Folks (New York, 1959), pages 158-159

6 Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, Chapter 13

7 This copy of the Tunisian Bardo still stands today in Montsouris Park in the south of Paris.

8 Victor Fournel, The Correspondent, April, 1867, n.p.

9 François Ducuing, L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée (Paris, 1867), I, page 407

10 Op. cit., May, 1867

11 Eugene Rimmel, Recollections of the Paris Exhibition of 1867 (London, no date), page 8

12 Report of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Exposition 1867 (Washington, D.C., 1870), Volume I, page 13

13 Rapport sur l'Exposition Universelle de 1867 à Paris (Paris, 1869), page 164

14 Clever exhibitors who felt they had a better chance of winning medals in one class than another, or who had arrived too late for the judging, could judiciously switch classes if they could persuade the committees of their case. James Bowen, a United States commissioner who had personally financed the American transportation and construction of the two American buildings at the 1867 exposition, discovered that the American farmer's cottage had arrived in Paris too late for the competition in Class 93 of Group X. He managed to get the cottage entered in the agricultural buildings competition, in which it was awarded a gold medal. Then the exposition jury, discovering that the building was intended for the Group X competition, downgraded the award to a silver medal. In spite of this gesture, Bowen felt the Americans had made their point: American farmers had far better housing than their European counterparts. See Ellen Weiss, "Americans in Paris: Two Buildings," in Society of Architectural Historians Journal, Volume 45, no. 2, June, 1986.

15 Four American were created Chevaliers of the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honor of France, a title of great distinction: McCormick; Walter Wood, for his mowing machines; Elias Howe, for his sewing machines; and C.F. Chickering, for his company's widely-praised pianos. American awards, all totaled, amounted to 291 prizes, medals, and honorable mentions.

16 Quoted in Bouin and Chanut, op. cit., page 84

17 Paris Guide (Paris, 1867), page XLI

18 Report of the United States Commissioners, Volume III, page 2. Mark Twain made essentially the same observation: "To tell the truth, we saw at a glance that one would have to spend weeks — yea, even months — in that monstrous establishment to get an intelligible idea of it." — Op. Cit., Chapter 13

19 Zola acidly commented that Meissonier had a unique talent: the ability to appeal to the dull bourgeoisie who didn't like painting. Théophile Gautier, a supporter of Gérôme, was even more critical: the only thing that Meissonier was lacking was imagination. Zola rejoined that it was Gérôme who had neither "breath of life nor character nor personality" in his paintings. These word battles among the critics strikingly resemble the charges and countercharges hurled by the supporters of Delacroix and Ingres at the first exposition universelle.
















Statistical Appendix

Opening Date: April 1, 1867

Closing Date: November 3, 1867

Size of Site: 215 acres (including annexes)

Official Attendance: 9,062,965 (paid); 11 million total estimated

Exhibitors: 52, 237

Expenses: 26,254,000

Receipts: 27,000,000 - 29,150,000 (estimates vary)

Profit to Government : 746,000 - 2,896,000 francs

Top Official: Frédéric Le Play, Commissaire général


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Here is my account of the historical background for the Paris expositions