Institut für Zeitgeschichte
der Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck

Quelle: Punch 20 (1851), S. 208.

Dr. Wolfram Kaiser

World exhibition 1851: the rat-race for progress

World exhibitions were imminently important in the nineteenth century because they created global public spaces through the mass visits of people from all kinds of social backgrounds and from many different countries. They were also extensively reported on in newspapers and journals world-wide. Initially, world exhibitions were mainly industrial exhibitions, with international participation. However, the second exhibition in Paris in 1855 already had a special pavilion for works of art, and the scope of subsequent exhibitions was progressively extended to include sections on common development issues in an age of internationalization, such as education, the future role of women, and the "social question".[1]

The first world exhibition took place in London in 1851.[2] Industrial exhibitions had been organized in several countries before, but they had always been limited to exhibits from one country only. This is true, for example, of the French industrial exhibitions started by the Republic in 1798 to make French industry more competitive with that of the leading industrial power at the time, Britain.[3] The same applies to industrial exhibitions organized by several German states in the first half of the nineteenth century. The idea to internationalize these exhibitions was proposed at the time of the Second Republic in 1849, but the protectionist forces in France were still strictly opposed to foreign competition at their exhibitions. It was thus left to Britain to organize the first world exhibition only five years after the abolition of the corn laws and the introduction of the policy of free trade. One key motivation behind the organisation of the exhibition was to facilitate the cultural representation of international industrial competition to demonstrate the general superiority of the British social system of production and industrial products, in order to promote British exports and international trade more generally. Reflecting the free trade ideology, the organisers also expected the international exhibition to contribute to universal peace through facilitating intercultural encounters and the global exchange of goods and ideas.

This cartoon was published in the English satirical magazine Punch. It presents the world exhibition as a "derby race", the most popular British horse race at the time, although it looks more like a rat race of all nations for progress and modernity. The Crystal Palace is in the background and shown as a kind of grand stand at the race course. It was a captivating and universally acclaimed building made solely of iron and glass and constructed by the architect Joseph Paxton. He is shown in the cartoon running in front of the national competitors behind him. Just in front of him, on a dog, is the standard figure representing the magazine Punch. The race is being followed by large crowds on and in front of the Crystal Palace building and in the foreground. Most of the spectators look like members of the British "respectable classes" who would have been able to afford the high entrance fee on the opening day, and some foreigners. The cartoon interprets the world exhibition in a way that is revealing for the dominant view of international competition and relations in Britain at the time. The presentation of the different riders and their respective place in the race is also to some extent indicative of the progress of different countries and continents as seen by the Punch cartoonist and journalists, based on their impressions of the different national sections in the exhibition grounds.

The satirical magazine, like most influential British newspapers by 1851, was not opposed to liberalizing world trade through the policy of free trade. Quite on the contrary: It made a mockery of warnings by British protectionists and outright xenophobes before the start of the exhibition that at best, it would lead to the import of bad morals and Republican ideas, or at worst, would destroy British industry through foreign competition or provoke the revolution that Britain had avoided in 1848-9. But despite its general support for free trade, Punch also applied irony to the more ambitious (and elusive) hopes of many Radical free traders, like Richard Cobden and John Bright, that the intercultural encounters at the world exhibitions would necessarily enhance international understanding and promote world peace. Punch was also clearly sceptical that the international competition in the global public space created by the world exhibitions would always take place in an orderly fashion. Rather, the cartoon presents the national riders as scrambling in wild panic for the finishing line.

At the same time, the cartoon reflects the idea of a basic universality, which was still characteristic of the first world exhibition. Note that the European nations and the Americans are not all pictured as running ahead of the rest of the world, or, in other words, as economically and politically more advanced. In particular, an American can be seen on a Colt revolver on the right, far behind the frontrunners. There is also a European rider with a spiked helmet just behind the African elephant and next to an American Indian. The cartoon does not yet differentiate between an "occidental" or "Western", more advanced culture on the one hand and supposedly inferior non-European cultures on the other. The same idea of a basic universality and, at least in principle, comparable abilities of and equal opportunities for all nations and cultures would be less likely to be found in similar visual representations of later world exhibitions at the height of imperialism.

The undisputed race leader is England, personified by John Bull, followed by a Scotsman. The Crystal Palace exhibition indeed underlined British industrial superiority, particularly in mass consumer goods and the machinery to produce them. It increased the general curiosity in Europe for the reasons for Britain's rapid economic advance, especially for British production methods, its industrial relations and its new external trade policy. The Crystal Palace exhibition contributed significantly to the dissemination of the free trade ideology, especially in France. Here, the Second Empire used its first world exhibition in 1855 to prepare the ground in very general cultural terms for the trade liberalization which followed in the bilateral so-called Cobden-Chevalier treaty of 1860.[4] At the same time, John Bull, despite what looks like a smile of satisfaction, still keeps an eye on the other riders because the exhibition also showed that countries like France and some North German member states of the customs union Zollverein were already catching up quickly, at least in some areas.

The systematic comparison facilitated by the international exhibition also revealed that the industrial race leader was lagging behind in other respects. In particular, visitors recognized France as being more advanced not only in its works of art, which was undisputed, but also in the application of art to industrial products and generally in questions of design and taste. The cartoonist represents France in the foreground on the left by its President, who later abolished the already weak republic in December 1851 and then declared himself Emperor in 1852. Napoleon III, as he then became known, is shown here in his preferred bourgeois clothes, similar to those he might have worn when he was still in exile in London before 1848. He is riding a galloping horse with a stylish harness which moves elegantly. This is in sharp contrast to the English bull which is energetic and difficult to stop, but also wild and uncultivated. These two animal images are clearly meant to symbolize certain basic (assumed) characteristics of the two national cultures. Despite the general satisfaction with British industrial performance, the exhibition also increased a longing in Britain for the supposedly superior continental European style and taste and led to repeated demands by Cobden and others to adopt it.

Britain and France respectively occupied approximately one half and one third of the entire exhibition space. This served to strengthen the impression of their superiority as the two most advanced industrial countries. It is highly symbolic in this cartoon that Punch places a Yankee, as Americans were commonly called at the time, almost at the end of the field. His hopeless position reflects the general idea conveyed by the small American section that the United States was still basically an agricultural economy and unlikely to become more competitive in industrial products 'for some generations to come', as The Times (wrongly) predicted in one of its reports.[5] The high transport costs across the Atlantic, the still comparatively low industrial export interest in the United States and the lack of public subsidies to support a strong national showing, all contributed to the meagre American performance which, in the eyes of European commentators, was not at all up to the earlier prediction of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America that the United States had the potential in the longer term to dominate the world together with Russia. [6]

Three impressions served to correct the initially very negative assessment of the United States. The first was the repeated victory of American harvesting machines over British competitors in several field contests during the summer. While it is true that these machines were invented and used for agriculture, they clearly demonstrated the potential of American machinery production. The second and third impressions are combined pictorally in the Yankee's means of locomotion. He sits on a Colt revolver, a decidedly superior "method of vaccination", as the The Times called it, [7] which was shown in the American section and at least alluded to the potential military power of this very fast growing country. The knives figuring as the Colt's legs in the cartoon represent a bet which an American won in London during the exhibition summer by unlocking a supposedly totally secure British-made lock. It was no mean feat in the eyes of the British who had bet on his success or failure, and it strengthened the image of Americans as prepared to overcome all obstacles and succeed against all odds.

The last rider who deserves a special mention is a little Chinese man in the foreground. We now know that pigs are among the most intelligent animals, but in 1851 they were popularly considered to be stupid, and they were certainly much slower than the English bull or the French horse. Moreover, while the Chinese rider at least manages to identify the general thrust of human progress, the pig is fast asleep and also facing in the wrong direction, evidently causing the officer in front to laugh whole-heartedly. China was never officially represented at world exhibitions until 1904, except for exhibits brought to Europe and North America by Western tradesmen and provincial Chinese dignitaries. At the same time, the intra-Asian comparison with Japan was only possible from the exhibition in Paris in 1867 onwards when the Japanese Empire presented the first in a whole series of national contributions which left a marked impression in the Atlantic world of its quick modernization and general willingness to adopt "Western" systems of production, forms of government and elements of high culture. China, which had still served as a positive point of reference in European discourses in the age of enlightenment only 100 years earlier, is already represented in this cartoon as immobile and incapable of movement, or, in other words, as easy prey in the coming era of more rapid colonial expansion.

The world exhibitions produced a massive amount of valuable sources for the study of the cultural history of international relations. The means of representation in the exhibition grounds included the setting of the exhibits and national sections. The architecture used was extremely important. The Crystal Palace, for example, conveyed the idea of transparency and openness not only of the building itself, but also of a liberal parliamentary state. The actual material exhibits, from mass consumer products to luxury goods, machinery and exhibitions on education, the role of women in the modern world and policies to tackle the "social question" and human exhibits like the natives from European and American colonies who were "on display" at the world exhibitions later in the nineteenth century were all important forms of representation.

All of these and other cultural sources related to the world exhibitions can be very valuable for the study of international history in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, they are often only informative about one particular aspect or issue, not about world history as a whole. In order to reconstruct the vertical and horizontal relations within the emerging "world society" in this age of rapid internationalization, it is usually necessary to interpret many different sources in conjunction. This facilitates the analysis of international relations between states, of the transnational networks of social groups and political parties, and the global transfer of ideas, ideologies and social practices. On the other hand, cartoonists aim to put a particular idea in a nutshell. This cartoon of the opening of the Crystal Palace exhibition manages to illustrate and discuss in a single image a key issue of the world exhibitions, namely the competition between nations, continents and cultures for economic progress and social and political modernity in an ever more interdependent world. This is what makes it so especially interesting.

It is also true, of course, that cartoons are generally more relevant sources of the cultural history of international relations in liberal parliamentary states, like Britain, or democracies with a free press. Unlike Britain, France, most German states and Austria-Hungary, among others, had politically quite repressive regimes in the 1850s with elaborate systems of press censorship. Here, Feuilleton reporting and literary descriptions often tried to convey messages that could be expressed more directly elsewhere. Even when we do have cartoons like this one, however, we often need a substantial amount of knowledge of historical facts and of contemporary images before we can interpret und use them for our historical research. Moreover, it is also evident that we need to see them in the particular cultural setting in which they were made. In the case of many British cartoons, for example, this may very well require some practical intercultural training, especially in drastic black humour, before we can gain intellectual access to them.

[1] For brief introductions to the world exhibitions in the nineteenth century see Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas. The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988); Linda Aimone and Carlo Olmo, Les Expositions universelles 1851-1900 (Paris: Belin, 1993).
[2] By way of introduction, see John R. Davis, The Great Exhibition (London: Sutton, 1999), Utz Haltern, Die Londoner Weltausstellung von 1851. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der bürgerlich-industriellen Gesellschaft im 19. Jahrhundert (Münster: Verlag Aschendorff, 1971).
[3] On the French industrial exhibitions see Philippe Bouin and Christian-Philippe Chanut, Histoire français des foires et des expositions universelles (Paris: Baudouin, 1980).
[4] See also Wolfram Kaiser, Vive la France! Vive la République? The Cultural Construction of French Identity at the World Exhibitions in Paris 1855-1900, in: National Identities, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1999), 227-244.
[5] "All visitors to the Great Exhibition", The Times, 27 May 1851, 5.
[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988; French 1835-40).
[7] "All visitors to the Great Exhibition", The Times, 27 May 1851, 5.

Die Weltausstellung 1851: Wettlauf um Fortschritt (Kurzfassung)

Die Weltausstellungen waren im 19. Jahrhundert so wichtig, weil sie globale öffentliche Räume schufen. Viele Menschen unterschiedlicher sozialer Herkunft und aus verschiedenen Ländern und Erdteilen besuchten sie - 1900 in Paris wurden sogar 50 Millionen Eintrittskarten verkauft, etwa drei Mal so viele wie genau hundert Jahre später auf der Weltausstellung in Hannover 2000. Diese Zeichnung erschien 1851 aus Anlaß der ersten Weltausstellung in London in der englischen Satirezeitschrift Punch. Es zeigt die Weltausstellung als das wichtigste britische Pferderennen seiner Zeit, in dem die verschiedenen Nationen ein Wettrennen um Fortschritt und Modernität austragen.

Die Reihenfolge der Reiter in diesem Rennen verdeutlicht, für wie fortschrittlich Punch die entsprechenden Länder hielt. An der Spitze des Feldes sieht man einen Engländer (John Bull) auf einem Bullen reiten , knapp dahinter einen Schotten, erkennbar an seiner Mütze, und den französischen Kaiser Napoleon III auf einem rassigen Pferd. Die Zeichnung widerspiegelt noch den universalistischen Ansatz der frühen Weltausstellungen, so daß keinesfalls alle Europäer und Nordamerikaner vor Afrikanern und Asiaten reitend gezeigt werden. Ein Europäer mit einem Spitzhelm befindet sich knapp hinter einem afrikanischen Elephanten und neben einem amerikanischen Indianer. Ein "weißer" Amerikaner reitet auf einem Revolver, der auf der Weltausstellung erstmals in Europa ausgestellt wurde; dennoch befindet er sich noch weit hinter den führenden Nationen in diesem Feld.

Die Weltausstellungen produzierten eine große Zahl brauchbarer historischer Quellen zum Studium der Kulturgeschichte der internationalen Beziehungen. Dazu zählt etwa die Architektur, hier 1851 des berühmten Kristallpalasts von Joseph Paxton, aber natürlich auch die eigentlichen Ausstellungsgegenstände von Maschinen über Kunstwerke bis hin zu Informationen über soziale Institutionen, wie beispielsweise die Sozialgesetzgebung des Deutschen Reichs, die 1900 und 1904 sehr ausführlich ausgestellt wurde. Alle diese Quellen können aufschlussreich für die Interpretation der globalen Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts sein; allerdings erfordern sie vielfach historische Vorkenntnisse, um angemessen interpretiert werden zu können - in diesem Fall etwa zur Weltausstellung und zu den nationalen Images, die damals jedem Leser geläufig waren, aber heute nicht unbedingt verständlich sein müssen.

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