Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Sharf Associate Librarian Rochelle Pienn. While processing and cataloging some rare international exposition guides, and other printed ephemera recently donated to the Wolfsonian library collection by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, Ms. Pienn reflects on and writes about her personal and familial impressions of fairs past, and writes about the public and historical significance of these once ground-breaking gatherings and venues for cultural exchange. Here is her report:

Last year I bought a gold “Unisphere” charm on Ebay. I’d been searching for one for a long time. The original structure made its debut as the enormous centerpiece for the 1964 World’s Fair of New York.

Photo by NYC & Co. 

The piece of jewelry, I discovered, is a perfect little three-dimensional replica of the Flushing Meadows landmark.


My mother worked in the Alaska Pavilion at the fair back then; to commemorate this, my grandparents bought my mom a mini Unisphere for her charm bracelet. Unfortunately, the bracelet, with the tiny globe dangling on it, was stolen a few years later when criminals burglarized my parents’ apartment in Queens. The fair, the Unisphere, and New York City at the time represented the best of everything to my mother—new-fangled inventions, an international community, possibility for peace, career opportunities. Even Bobby Kennedy, suspected carpetbagger, brought a brand of hope and excitement to the city in his pull-out-all-the-stops Senatorial campaign.

The fair’s extensive food vendors, souvenir stations and exhibits might strike us modern urbanites as naively constructed. Kitschy though the “It’s A Small World” ride may seem to those of us who’ve been to Disney World and slowly floated past the musical arrangements dozens of times, the display was first seen at my mother’s fair. The animation of characters in the traditional costumes of their countries made a positive impression on her as a young college woman. Likewise, in world’s fairs from the past, the host country embraced the seemingly stereotypical expressions of the exhibited culture with unabated pleasure and open hearts.


Photo by Aguilas

The Wolfsonian Library’s holdings contain an extensive selection of world’s fair and international exhibition materials. A recent donation by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf includes a rare assortment of guidebooks for Japanese fairs from the early twentieth century. While perhaps these days we remain blasé about far-away countries and cultures in our everything-on-the-Net society, citizens of the past descended upon sprawling foreign exhibitions with excitement and delight. Especially during the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the Industrial Revolution provided a backdrop for a plethora of clever inventions showcased in these expositions from the unexpected sources of their origins.

The Fifth National Industrial Exhibition took place in Japan in 1903. The city of Osaka accommodated over four million patrons who filled the area hotels and boosted the local economy. Hosted just a few years after Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War, the exhibition constituted a mix of themed buildings and amusement areas, some of which became so popular—such as the Fine Art building–that they remained a permanent part of the landscape long after the event.

A city within the city, the exhibition complex of themed buildings boasted all the major industries of the day: agriculture and horticulture, mining, chemistry, textiles, manufacturing and machinery, and fine arts, to name a few.

Another point of pride for the host country was its extensive railway system. Convenient maps peppered souvenir guide-books, encouraging visitors to board the trains and explore their surroundings.

These guidebooks focused on the beauty and uniqueness of Japan’s people and products.

The allure of fascinating activities and sites extended travelers’ agendas beyond the exhibition grounds.

Still, a ticket to the exhibition guaranteed plenty of distractions. Participants could enter the Hall of Marvels, filled with x-rays, mirrors, microscopes, photographic lenses, and the like. The comforts of Japanese hospitality were offered in the Tea House. Professional dancers and “flower girls” wove in and out of appreciative crowds. Most importantly, products of every industry imaginable filled the themed buildings: grains, medicinal plants, silkworms, animals, sugar, hemp–-with all methods of processing and manufacturing demonstrated. Watches, sculpture, pearls, lacquer-work, electrical inventions–-everything of interest and on the cutting edge of development made for a display. Finally, a glow-in-the-dark fountain shooting colorful sprays of water into the night sky impressed Westerners and Easterners alike.

While the Fifth National Industrial Exhibition of 1903 brought visitors East to experience Japanese life in its own territory, the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 brandished Japanese products and culture in Shepherd’s Bush, White City, London.

Although Great Britain allied with Japan on matters of international relations, the English and Japanese still suffered from unease in the midst of each others’ politics and cultures. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 sought to create a “friendly” relationship, within the bounds of each country’s limitations of understanding. Thus the Japan-British Exhibition, held right in the heart of London, exposed any formerly construed “eccentricities” of the East as shrewd, inventive talents to the Brits.

Held in the same fairgrounds as its predecessor, The Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, the Japan-British Exhibition sported the usual amusement park rides, such as the “Flip-Flap.”

English presentation of Japanese exhibits often emphasized manicured gardens and attractive girls in native costume.

The British strove for authenticity when recreating these scenes. Although proud of their heritage, the Japanese wished to be perceived not just as one-dimensionally serenely bucolic, but as complex, forward-thinking and modern, too. Specializations such as fabric-dyeing and pottery-making set Japan apart both stylistically and in artistic prowess.

Kyoto Dyers



Overall, the exhibition succeeded in leaving positive impressions of Japan on the European audience. The fair did not only showcase Japanese ingenuity, however. While it was called the Japan-British Exhibition to recognize a combination of both countries’ accomplishments, more emphasis was placed on Japan, as the lesser-known culture by Western standards.  Yet English industry of note made a splash at the fair as well.

The industrial acumen of the early twentieth century also brought advances in chemical manufacturing and medicine. Assembly line production benefited the pharmaceutical industry, where the British outfit of  Burroughs Wellcome & Company (BW&C) excelled in a newly trademarked form of “tabloid” (compactly administered) medications. The BW&C displays at the Japan-British Exhibition consisted of everything from portable first-aid kits manufactured for military use to Kepler malt beverages.

This guide to the company’s specialty exhibits also acts as a vendor catalogue for its products. A mini-brochure for “Hazeline Snow,” slipped into the guide, advertises a winter face-cream for wind-chapped skin.

Chemical manufacture began in the fields, with farming. Belladonna, the potent narcotic, went through several processing stages before becoming a “tabloid” medication.

These quirky guides give us a glimpse into the colossal exhibitions of the past during a time when two opposing societies sought to meet on equal ground. While heavily laden with propaganda and promotional opportunities for the hosting countries, the exhibits and entertainment thoroughly engaged the populace. People bought tickets and enthusiastically roamed through the fanfare. Ultimately, fair-goers gained a sense of hope for the future and a new, growing awareness of a significant, more peaceful connection to an international community.

~ by "The Chief" on November 4, 2011.


  1. What a great blog! I’m to read that you found the charm you wanted. Thank you for the history about the fairs! 🙂

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