top of page
  • Writer's pictureAhmed

Other Great Exhibitions and Grand Tours

This is an odd antique object. We came across it at a small brocante near us in Morbihan. The seller was honest- she had no idea what it was, and many other professional French antique dealers had inspected it only to move on.

It seems to be a tourist souvenir of Paris. However one of the buildings -the oval one- couldn't be identified. Also, a Paris souvenir with no Eiffel Tower? Odd. Actually, that was a clue. If there was no Eiffel tower that meant the item could be pre-1887.The oval building was a stumbling block.

But if it couldn't be identified which implied it had been demolished or destroyed. This list of lost buildings turns out to be quite small. Paris hasn't suffered from bombing or fire the same way as many European cities so the list of disappeared monuments is short and is well discussed, for example here and here. The same suspects turn up but none were the right size.

Then, a brainwave- it wasn't a destroyed or lost building but actually temporary. We immediately thought of our time researching the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale recounted in the blog last year. This clearly wasn't the 1931 exposition, or the 1887 exhibition where the Eiffel tower was built. What big expositions took place in Paris before 1887?

Et, Voilá! The International Exposition of 1867 was Napoleon III's great fair, the culmination of the Second Empire. It was his chance to show off the massive renovation of Paris by Hausmann as well as the new marvels of Industrial Revolution. Visitors included Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a brother of the emperor of Japan, King William and Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, Prince Metternich and Franz Josef of Austria, Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz, and the Khedive of Egypt. And at it's heart was this enormous temporary structure in Champs de Mars.

Almost 500 metres long, at the center was a pavilion surmounted by a dome and surrounded by a garden 166 m long. The building was filled with enormous galleries of exhibits from around the world. For the first time art and produce from the French Empire- Morocco, Algeria and beyond, were shown in a major space. The Suez Canal Company had an exhibit within the Egyptian exhibits, which it used to sell bonds for funding.

(via Paris Steam Punk)

The influence was vast. For the first time, visitors saw exhibits of art from Japan: Van Gogh and many of the post-impressionists visited and the trend for Japonism grew. Jules Verne was inspired by a giant aquarium exhibited and saw the new technology marvels - discoveries that would soon find their way into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Steinway pianos, Otis lifts, Morse telegraphs all exhibited. Ultimately over ten million people visited.

Two years later the whole exhibition was disassembled and progress rolled on. Within twenty years there would be another worlds fair on the same site and construction would begin on the Eiffel tower, and the wonders of 1867 would be forgotten.

And this souvenir would be left as an oddity, a relic of an earlier modernity. It was already an antique within 20 years. The final question- what was this object? The construction is too light for holding anything with any real mass and the orientation of the images indicated it wasn't a wall or desk decoration. There are two loops at the end indicating it was held as a tray but it lacked strength (or flatness) to be useful for food. Ultimately we figured it out- it was for calling cards. Visitors to an upper class French home would announce themselves with a card left in a small tray, which in this case displayed the owners sophistication and culture through proof of having been in Paris for what was, once, the greatest show on earth.

bottom of page