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Copyright: Revue de l'Exposition universelle de 1889, S. 377

When, on May 6th 1889, the “Exposition universelle” was opened by the French President, Sidi Carnot, it followed the old world exhibition tradition in that not all the buildings were finished and not all the exhibits were in place. As to be expected, not many people came during the first few days. While in May there were often not more than 36,000 visitors on the “Champs de Mars” site this figure had, however, multiplied ten times by October. The illustrated press, with its accounts of the exhibition accompanied by opulent pictures, made a big contribution to the exhibition’s growing popularity.

However, there were not many inventions or new discoveries for visitors to see. Only Thomas Edison presented one outstanding new invention, the phonograph. Edison had already explored the possibility of recording sounds in 1877 but since he had not been able to develop a dictating machine from his invention as he had wanted, he put it on one side and only returned to it when he began searching for things which would appeal to the public at the Paris World Exhibition. Crowds thronged around the stand with the machines from which sounds were emitted and the fascinated visitors were particularly delighted to be given recordings of their own voices.

In the Art Exhibition, in addition to the shows packed with genre-paintings, the profitable use of new technologies was demonstrated. The “Paris Fountain”, for example, which gave the Paris coat of arms – a ship displaying numerous allegories – a three-dimensional appearance, was illuminated by electric arc lamps. Particularly ingenious was the effect of the “underground” lamps whose beams of light passed through colourful glass plates and were then reflected by mirrors on to jets of water coming out of sculptures of dolphins. Every night at nine o’ clock, all the fountains in the exhibition were lit up like colourful jewels and this was followed by a spectacular show of fireworks, which seemed to make the Eiffel Tower, with the floodlights at its top, “explode”.

The “History of Work” exhibition can be regarded as the predecessor of the “theme” shows, which became obligatory features of later world exhibitions. In dioramas and small model landscapes, visitors could see what the first human beings on the earth did and how trades and professions developed from the advanced civilisations of the Greeks and Romans up to the present day. Work, as a decisive factor which shaped and changed people’s lives, was made graphic and conceptually defined. The optimistic belief in progress that was widespread at that time found its justification here. The aim of the show, which was presented in a most
down-to-earth manner uncharacteristic of the times, was to promote the peaceful co-existence of the different classes of society.

Much more popular was the exhibition of the French colonies and the countries of Asia. Life and cultural activities in these countries was presented in a colourful mixture of temples, pavilions and other buildings. The exotic had a great attraction. Apart from the Eiffel Tower,
the “Cairo Street” aroused the most curiosity. Here it was possible to see genuine belly dancing for the first time in Paris. This was so “scandalous” that the authorities thought about closing the establishment – which led to even more people going to see it ! Just as popular were the Javanese dances in the Dutch pavilion. Until that time, the little that was known about cultural life in China and other oriental countries had been brought to Europe only by writers and artists. Now, at the Exposition universelle, these foreign nations were seen in the flesh. Only slowly at first did Europeans become aware that other advanced cultures actually existed. From now on, the values of other civilisations forced their way into the authoritarian European mentality.

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The Paris World Exposition 1889
Work and the Exotic
Year: 1889City: ParisCountry: France
Duration: 6th May - 31st October 1889



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