How Many World Fairs Did Paris Host in the 19th Century?

World Fairs were significant events during the 19th century, and the legendary fairs in Paris showcased artistic and industrial excellence.

Mar 15, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

19th century paris world fairs


The 19th century was a momentous period in Parisian history, when significant breakthroughs in art, industry and science were made. One of the most outward expressions of Parisian success were the Paris World Fairs, which cemented the city’s place as a world-leading political capital. These vast events spread out across the entire city and included new temporary and permanent buildings, along with displays of industrial developments and works of art from around the world. Some of the highlights of the Paris World Fairs even went on to become iconic, permanent landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, and the head of the Statue of Liberty, which later made its way to the United States. Below are the five Paris World Fairs that altered the course of history. 


1. The First Paris World Fair: 1855

The Paris World Fair Palais de l’Industrie in 1855


The very first Paris World Fair took place in 1855. It was organized by Emperor Napoleon III as a promotional tool to assert his new position in power, signifying a landmark moment in France’s history. The World Fair centered around a brand-new exhibition hall – the Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs Elysees. Two new smaller buildings also accompanied this space – the Galerie des Machines and the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Inside these exhibition rooms were a series of world-renowned exhibits dedicated to industry. Meanwhile, a temporary construction next to the Galerie des Machines was designed by the architect Hector LeFuel to house artworks from around the world. 


2. The Fair of 1867

The Palais du Champ-de-Mars in 1867


The second World Fair in Paris was also organized by Napoleon III to take place in 1867. Again, the event was a powerful strategic move, aimed at bringing attention and political gain to Paris. The main exhibition space for the 1867 Paris World Fair was the Palais du Champ-de-Mars, built by Frederic LePlay, with help from the up-and-coming engineer Gustave Eiffel. This exhibition hall was circular in design, and the fair designers took advantage of this layout, arranging industrial exhibits in the outer circles, while the inner circles were dedicated to art. In the center, a small building housed a display dedicated to currency and coins from around the world. It was a momentous event, larger than the previous one, with a series of pavilions, restaurants and amusement parks constructed around the central building to draw huge crowds.


3. Paris World Fair of 1878

The Head of the Statue of Liberty in Paris during the World Fair of 1878

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By contrast, the 1878 Paris World Fair took place in a very different political climate. Against the backdrop of the Prussian War, the Paris commune and the downfall of the empire, France was in a vulnerable and unstable state. The officials of the Third Republic decided that a World Fair could bolster France’s popularity on the international stage, even if they could barely afford it. One of the highlights of the fair was the recently completed Head of the Statue of Liberty, which went on display for a brief spell in a Parisian park before being shipped to the United States. Other highlights included the temporary construction of the Palais du Champ-du-Mars (Gustave Eiffel helped with its design!), and the permanent Palais du Trocadero, which later became a concert hall. 


4. 1889: The Year of the Eiffel Tower

The Paris World Fair of 1889, including the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower


The 1889 Paris World Fair was the second to take place in a republican regime in France. It was a historically significant year for France, marking the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, so the pressure was on to create something spectacular. The fair was larger and more ambitious than in previous years, taking place in the Palais du Trocadero and the Champ-de-Mars, while several temporary pavilions and pop-up spaces formed satellites around it. Meanwhile, East of the main site, the Esplanade des Invalides showcased a display dedicated to colonial art. But by far the greatest and most controversial aspect of the fair was the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which divided public opinions and caused an international sensation. Only meant to be temporary for 20 years, the tower is now an iconic landmark for the city. 


5. The Grand Event in 1900

The fifth Paris World Fair in 1900


The fifth World Fair in Paris was in 1900, a centenary display of epic and ambitious proportions. Paris was also hosting the Olympic Games in the same year, making the city the center of public attention around the world. A series of new buildings popped up, including the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, while the government extended the Esplanade des Invalides and Petit Palais. They even painted the Eiffel Tower bright yellow to mark the occasion! A series of visitor attractions pulled in tourists far and wide – these included moving walkways (trottoirs roulants), the Electricity Palace, and a series of night-time water and light displays to dazzle the public at the dawn of a new age.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.