This Day in History: “The End of an Age”

November 30, 1936 – Crystal Palace burns down

“This is the end of an age,” remarked Winston Churchill as he joined tens of thousands of other Londoners to watch the blaze.

Crystal Palace on Fire
Crystal Palace on fire - Wikimedia

Though it had long since fallen into disrepair, the Crystal Palace was the crowning achievement of the British Industrial Revolution, built out of cast iron and glass to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Over 14,000 exhibitors filled the nearly million square feet of Crystal Palace, which was a third of a mile a long and 128 feet high. It was originally designed by a gardener named Joseph Paxton, who included full-sized elm trees within the structure.

Here’s how novelist Charlotte Brontë, four years removed from the publication of Jane Eyre, described her second visit to the Great Exhibition:

Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)

Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from a distance.

In addition to the marvels of manufacturing that were the centerpieces of the Exhibition, it also featured six lectures on 18th century humor by William Makepeace Thackeray and a new novel by the American writer Herman Melville.

Others viewed the spectacle less with astonishment than amusement. Here’s a cartoon from the time capturing the international character of the exhibition with a parade of national caricatures (led, of course, by John Bull).

Great Exhibition Cartoon, "Overland Journey to the Great Exhibition"
Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

This image cuts off before the procession of people ends and that of national animals begins. But according to the University of Kansas library’s caption, the parade also included “Liberty leading two African slaves, followed by a group of U.S. Southerners carrying an enormous cat of five tails.”

While some observers, then, found much to satirize in the Exhibition, the self-celebratory bent of the Victorians was parroted by other nations eager to claim their own place at the center of the modern age. After an 1867 event drew 50,000 exhibitors and over 9 million visitors, the French topped themselves in 1889, when the Universal Exposition attracted over 32 million people on the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. The centerpiece of that exhibition outdid even the Crystal Palace — it certainly endured longer as a marvel of engineering, as millions annually still gaze up at the iron tower designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Eiffel Tower under construction
The Eiffel Tower, under construction in July 1888, ten months before the Universal Exposition opened - Wikimedia

Then a few years later Chicago attempted to surpass both London and Paris with the World’s Columbian Exposition. Intended to open on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World, the opening of this “World’s Fair” was delayed until 1893 by the sheer scope of construction — an entire city was built in Jackson Park, almost all of it temporary. Rather than attempting to build something taller than Eiffel’s tower, the Chicago exposition planners opted for a structure that emphasized another hallmark of the modern age: its fascination with motion.

The Original Ferris Wheel
The original "Ferris Wheel" - Wikimedia

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