The Great Exhibition of 1851

Digital Scholarship from English 480/580 at Oregon State University

International Competition

     The Great Exhibition was an important social movement because it gathered nearly all nations under one roof where they shared their industrial techniques; something that was under strict secrecy before the exhibition. One important perception about the Great Exhibition is that it was attempting to create unity between all nations, as well as an opportunity for attendees to learn about other nations. The images below show how The Great Exhibition was marketed as a platform for unity and learning between the countries involved by displaying their flags, languages, people, cultures, etc. side by side. The countries that participated brought with them the best they had; from their best materials and fabrics to animals that competed in games held at The Great Exhibition. Auerbach mentions that local New South Wales advocates mentioned how competition was high between countries who attended, “Their goods would benefit by the direct competition and comparison with other nations’ products in the Crystal Palace," (Auerbach, 97).

     However, even though Great Britain invited all nations to participate in the Crystal Palace, British commonwealth countries were allocated the most floor space. Although the exhibition was presented as an international event, in reality Britain was the dominant aspect of it. Punch, which is a satirical magazine, stated, “Although the exhibition was meant to represent a harmonious union between nations, all was not as it appeared,” suggesting that Great Britain intended to show her powerful muscles in industry and manufacturing among the other nations who attended The Great Exhibition. The British manufacturer’s moral as Punch stated by Jove “We must look sharp – or these foreigners will be cutting us out,” exemplifying the competitive nature of the exhibition (Punch, 233). Zadock Thompson’s journal describes the poor maintenance of the American exhibit, keeping with the narrative that Britain wanted to shine a negative light on other countries exhibits.

     Despite the difference between perception and reality, people who attended The Great Exhibition noticed the unity between the nations and at the same time noticed the competition between them. In Mary Smith’s Autobiography below she describes awe as well as contempt towards the foreigners that she saw at the exhibition. Whether perceptions appear to be different than the reality or not, The Illustrated London News suggested that it doesn’t matter how The Great Exhibition meant to be, the result made it clear that only one place had successfully gathered nations together to put aside their differences for the purpose of the exhibition.


Auerbach, Jeffrey. Britain, The Empire, and The World At The Great Exhibition of 1851. 

Punch, The London charivari . vol XX. 1851. ebook. Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

International Competition