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"L'Exposition Universelle de Paris, 1900"

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

I never underestimate the power of a picture when this can make me travel back in time, through my memories. Usually, this step back in time would happen with photographs of places we visited and moments we personally lived (something we have experienced). It is very unlikely to happen with photographs not belonging to us or portraying old times before we were even born. I feel a connection with vintage photography indeed. I cannot explain but it feels like I have been there before, in this picture of 1900 that I found in an old box at my parents’ house ...

The picture here above is an original picture of 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition from my personal collection. I don't know who took this pic or from who my great-great grandmother received it. I know it is from the 1900 exhibit because I can clearly see the building of the German Merchant Navy on the right. This building I can recognize because it is also reported on a postcard I will later show you in this post. I can also recognize something I had descovered writing on this topic: the moving sidewalk, a moving walkway taking visitors from a place to another. A new stuff for the time, specially built for the 1900 expo.

I can hear the voices around me, I can smell the dirt road I am walking along, I can feel the sun on my face and, most important, I can clearly admire the buildings around me. I perfectly know the background prevailing this first year of the 20th century and I am aware of where I stand (having had a passion for history at high school is helping me a lot!). My cultural baggage is the only luggage I take with me when travelling back in time and this experience gets of higher intensity combined this knowledge with the ability to see the past through your ancestors’ eyes.

Those dusty boxes I have never paid so much of my attention in my life are now so precious to me. The stuff inside them is massive and it’s there to be discovered. Every picture or small good wants to shout out its own story, I can feel it. They smell of old memories which had belonged to my ancestors and that now I am responsible to pass to future offspring. The time traveller in me is thrilled to discover new places of a past ages.

From my personal collection: the Clothes and Fabric building, Paris 1900

From my personal collection: Education and Teaching building, Paris 1900

From my personal collection: the building of the German Merchant Marine. This building is the same I found on the first picture here above.

I found the picture and the vintage post cards here above in this box (that I am starting calling “the magician hat”, though this does not pull out the rabbit but memories). As a deck, they were hold together by a frayed thin rope. They all portray the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1900 (Exposition Universelle de Paris). The first image is clearly a vintage picture (probably a citrate print). Nobody knows who this belongs to (my grandmother neither, my mother told to me). This blows me away; I will never get to know who captured this moment.

The other three images are post cards (two of them are unsent) depicting various edifices especially built up for the exposition. All my efforts to figure out which relative those pictures come from are in vain. I have to start my imagination and look at them for what they are at last: valuable heirlooms.

Illustrated panorama of the 1900 Paris Exposition by Lucien Baylac

The inauguration of the Universal Exposition of Paris, April the 14th 1900

The Universal Exposition of Paris in 1900 was the fifth fair of its kind held in the French capital after the 1855, 1867, 1878 and 1889 fairs. It started on April 14th with an opening ceremony and closed its doors in November, putting Paris at the center of the world stage. The first universal exposition of the 20th century aimed to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. It was 10 times bigger than the fair of 1855, with its 83.047 exhibitors (44.694 from all over the world) and its record of 50 million visitors (to look such a result again in the history of universal expositions we have to wait until the Osaka fair of 1970 and the Shangai one of 2010). France could congratulate herself on having hosted the most successful exposition ever staged.

After a century of political upheaval, France of year 1900 could celebrate its restored equilibrium and look forward to the future with new optimism. With the settle of the 3rd Republic, adopted in 1870, its economy was flourishing and endowed with a solid diplomacy that ensured the “Ville Lumière” enjoyed quiet days. Paris, more than ever, was renowned all over for its artistic and intellectual influence, being able to attract the powerful magnates of the world for the pleasures it promises to the lovers of luxury, top restaurants and entertainment of all kinds.

The Universal Exhibition celebrated by fanfare the new 20th century. The city was ready to host and organise such a global event, irradiating to the eyes of the whole world as the city of the art of living.

France during the "Belle Epoque"

During year 1900 the Belle Epoque was at its most sparkle. This “Beautiful Era”, starting in 1871 and ending with the beginning of the Great War in 1914, was known as an age of peace, optimism and prosperity. The non-stop discoveries and technological innovations instilled good vibrations in people of the time so that they would think that sooner or later a solution to all the problems of humanity would have been found. The population growth was faster than ever as most of the epidemic diseases were eradicated and the infant mortality decreased. The industrial production as well as the world trade increased consistently.

During the Belle Epoque science, medical and technological progress grew faster than in any other period before. The invention of comforts such as the electric lighting, the radio, the automobile, the cinema, the pasteurisation had a strong impact in everyday life improving the standards of living. One can easily understand why there was so much positivity in the air!

A French poster from 1894 by Jules Chéret that captures the vibrant spirit of the Belle Époque

Established in 1869, Les Folies Bergère is a famous cabaret club and it was at the height of its fame and popularity during the Belle Epoque. The institution is still in business, and keeps on being a strong symbol of French and Parisian life.

The Peugeot Type 3, one of the greatest invention that changed people's life during the Belle Epoque

Illustration of "La Jamais Contente", first automobile to reach 100 km/h in 1899.

Another amazing invention: the "Cinématographe" by Lumière brothers. This is the world's first movie poster, for comedy "L'Arroseur Arrosé", 1895.

The building up of the first shopping malls is a proof of the sociological changes that took place during this time and the birth of the consumer society. Paris had a leading role in the construction of the shopping centers. The print above depicts "Le Grand Bazar" in Paris, built by Henry Gutton between 1906 and 1907

The Reitwagen (riding car), the first internal combustion motorcycle invented by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, 1885

During the Belle Epoque some new artistic movements flourished and, among them, the Art Nouveau distinguished itself. With its floral shapes this style was considered modern in respect to previous ones. It was a new way of expressing art, perfectly in phase with this period of sustained innovation.

Interior of the Tassel hotel built by Victor Horta in 1893, considered the first Art Nouveau building

Art Nouveau style advertising by Alphonse Mucha

The "Exposition Universelle de Paris" of 1900

One-week-entry ticket tarifs at the Paris world fair, 1900

Everything was ready for Paris to proclaim itself the capital of the world with the start of the universal fair on April 14th 1900, an exhibit that would have made visible all the changes and achievements of a century. The whole fair buildings (such as the industrial, architecture and arts ones) represented both a summary of the nineteenth century as well as a showcase for new inventions and innovation in the field of technology. In any case, the exposition of 1900 marked the end of an era.

This world fair presented the opportunity for foreign exposers to compare themselves with other nations and to realise that their similarities and their unique differences were just an added value. This was very important for the increase on cultural tolerance among nations, especially after a period of war.

The map of the Paris world fair's buildings, 1900

New cultures were experienced and an overall better understanding of the values each country had to offer was gained. One could find the positivity, the enthusiasm for the new coming century, the thirsty for knowledge, the inquisitive minds searching for new inventions that could stimulate their curiosity, encourage investigation, inspire etc… There was such a learning atmosphere that we will not find in any other world fair after that one of 1900. The early announcement and the massively positive response disenchanted the interest that had been circling around the first German International Exposition. Support for the exhibition was widespread as countries immediately began to plan their exhibits and to finance their own pavilions.

The fair was actually Universal, strictly speaking, for the variety of topics it tackled. People could have access from Place de la Concorde and it stretched along both banks of the Seine river to the Champ de Mars and the Trocadero. Furthermore, 104 hectares of space at the Bois de Vincennes were dedicated to the automobile, to small businesses and to the Olympic Games.

Popular constructions made for the Universal Exposition of 1900

These buildings were specially built to host the various exhibits of the 1900 world fair. When I look at the pictures here below I get shocked at thinking that most of these enormous structures no longer exist. It is like they just vanished into thin air. Unfortunately for us they were never meant to be permanent, with the exceptions of the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais which today still serve as exposition spaces.

The Porte Monumentale (monumental gate) was located on the Place de la Concorde, at the Eastern entrance of the Fair. At the top of the gate stood a statue called “la Parisienne”. 1900

View of the Eiffel Tower and the Celestial Globe, during the "Exposition Universelle" in Paris, 1900 . The globe was decorated with images of constellations, and the pillars on which it stood were decorated with mythological sculptures. 1900

The "Champ de Mars" with the Electricity Building in the background. Picture taken from the Tour Eiffel, 1900

The Palais de l'Electricité (electricity building) entirely lit and decorated with electrical bulbs. The inside of the Palais had a mirror system that made the visit truly impressive, multiplying the sources of light in a dazzling manner. 1900

The Palais des Nations, (the pavilions of the nations), 1900

The Grand Palais. it was a showcase for French art and cultural exhibits, it incorporated elements of the Art Nouveau, which design was something completely new for the time. 1900

Inside de Grand Palais: a sculpture exhibition, 1900

The Petit Palais , the most remarkable building, a jewel at the corner of the Champs Elysées designed by the architect Charles Girault. Along with the Grand Palais and the Pont Alexandre III, the Petit Palaisserved as one of the main focuses of the International Exhibition of 1900 and helped solidify the position of France as artistic world leader. 1900

The Petit Palais from a different viewpoint , 1900

The Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, 1900

Inside the Trasportation building, 1900

Inside the Transportation building, 1900

Inside the gallery of machines, 1900

Inside the gallery of machines, 1900

The Chinese pagoda pavilion, 1900

The Japan pavilion , 1900

The building of Italy, 1900

The American pavilion, 1900

View of the Alexandre III bridge at the 1900 Paris World Fair.

Education and Teaching building, Paris world fair, 1900

"La Gare d'Orleans" (today the "Musée d'Orsay), built in 1900 for the universal exposition

The "Gare des Invalides", 1900

The old Trocadero building, 1900

The Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero Palace in the background, 1900

Inside the Palace of the Illusions, 1900

The Russian Asia Pavilion, 1900

The "Parc Aerostatique" (aerostatic park), hot hair balloons races, 1900

Palace of Mining and Metallurgy, 1900

Palace of Civil Engineering and Transportation, 1900

The Pavillon Bleu was a luxury restaurant built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, ideally located under the Eiffel Tower to attract customers, it differs from dominant eclecticism to adopt an attractive and daring Art Nouveau style, whose originality comes from a blue and yellow bichromy applied to a singularly highlighted wooden structure.

Along the banks of the Seine one would find the "Vieux Paris" (old Paris): the medieval village theme park erected by the city of Paris. Vieux Paris was the product of the active imagination of Albert Robida, a man who made his fame publishing cartoons of the future: a tomorrowland of airships, microbe-killing sanitary devices, and a strangely changed human race. Paris, 1900

The Tour du Monde was a building composed of different architectural traits and characteristics, and represented a sample of the world's architectural styles. 1900

The "trottoir roulant", a moving sidewalk taking visitors from one point to another, 1900

Another image of the moving walkway at the 1900 Paris world fair. The right platform would have been immobile, while the two left platforms were moving at different speeds. In the background of the image, one can see the German Merchant Navy building and the "Tour du monde" at the feet of the Eiffel Tower.

The Russian pavilion, 1900

The Commercial Navigation building, 1900

Press building, 1900

The Cambodian Pavilion, 1900

The Colonial building, 1900

The Finnish Pavilion, 1900

The Hungarian pavilion, 1900

The German pavilion, 1900

The Italian pavilion, 1900

Manufacturer's and Liberal Arts Building, 1900

The Women's Pavilion, 1900

The "Palais de l'Optique", where several scientific inventions (such as a giant telescope) have been shown to public.

The pavilion of Ecuador, 1900

The Dutch East Indies Pavilion, 1900

Inventions and innovation at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900

Among the themes tackled at the Paris exposition of 1900 there was Electricity, a physical phenomenon that was already transforming society and whose major attribute was its capability to charm the eye. Many pavilion during this exhibit used electricity with the purpose of encouraging illusion.

1. Night illumination

Lightning is one of the most dramatic effects of electricity. The Palace of Electricity by night is a good example of how the use of lights during the night would make any location look impressive.

2. The moving walkway

Two-speed moving sidewalk at the Paris world fair, showing static walkway alongside and vertical grab stanchions

3. The first escalator in history

The Otis Elevator Company from New York presented for the first time at the world fair in 1900 this escalator that won the first prize. The modern staircase that we know today was created by Charles Seeberger.

4. The Cinéorama

The Cinéorama was the first attempt to synchronize phonograph recordings with the newly-developed moving pictures. This method simulated a balloon journey: in a polygonal rotunda of 93 meters of circumference, 10 synchronized cinematographic devices projected a film showing amazing landscapes. Spectators stood in a hot air balloon replica in the center of a room.

5. Le Métro

Art Nouveau style Paris metro entrance designed by Fulgence Bienvenüe. The inauguration took place on July 14th, 1900

July the 19th 1900 : Parisians discover the metro

6. A giant telescope

This is the Great Paris Exhibition Telescope of 1900, with an objective lens of 1.25 m in diameter. It was the largest refracting telescope ever constructed and displayed at the "Palais de l'Optique" . 60 meters long, it was built to let man see the moon upclose as it was 58 km far from the observer. Movie director Georges Méliès would take inspiration from this telescope for the making of his movie "A Trip to the Mooon" of 1902.

7. Cold light and X-rays

8. The Celestial Globe

The Gigantic Globe. Inside this globe visitors could enjoy the projection of the solar system while sitting on a comfortable armchair.

9. Wireless waves

At the International Electricity Congress that took place inside the Grand Palais during the 1900 universal exhibition, Edouard Branly presented his works on wireless waves, that are the basis for the functioning of the radio and the remote control.

10. The Michelin Guide

Created in 1900 by the Michelin brothers, the first famous red guide was introduced at the World Exposition in Paris. For the occasion, 35,000 copies were published and distributed for free. It aimed to provide reliable and practical information to motorists. Garages, car mechanics, hotels, petrol stations were indicated by pictograms readably understandable by all, including foreign tourists. The visionary Michelin wrote in the preface: “This guide was born with the century and will be just as long-lived".

11. The advent of motion pictures

The Lumière brothers presented their first movie in 75 mm at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Rich, creative and avant-garde, the work of the Lumière brothers was motivated by a fascination for still or moving images.

Some of the movies projected in 75 mm at the 1900 Paris world fair:

L'arroseur arrosé (1895)

L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1896)

Arroseur et arrosé (1896)

Le squelette joyeux (1898)

Bataille de neige (1897)

12. First electric car by Porsche

The Lohner-Porsche-mixte-hybrid-630 electric car presented at the 1900 Paris world expo.

You would be as surprised as me at reading that the first electric concept vehicle ever made has been shown to public during the 1900 "Exposition Universelle" of Paris. The Lohner-Porsche-mixte-hybrid-630 was the outstanding new invention addresses to car enthusiasts who still had to get used to "normal" cars. Its front wheels were driven by wheel hub motors. Its creator, the Austrian Ferdinand Porsche (who was 25 years old at the time) had developed this electric car while he was head engineer of the car company "k.u.k. Hofwagenfabrik Jakob Lohner & Co." in Vienna-Florisdorf.

13. First diesel engine

In the same pavilion where the electric car Lohner-Porsche was presented, the first diesel engine was also introduced. Patented by the French-German Rudolf Diesel, it was powered by peanut oil but it found application in the automotive industry only thirty years later.

The first diesel engine created by Rudolf Diesel, powered by peanut oil. Internal combustion of petroleum was a known quantity in 1900, though its inventor was convinced that there had to be a more efficient way.

In 1900 Paris was so beautiful and people were so well dressed. It was the time of all discoveries and enthusiasm towards life. Everything seemed to be possible and people enjoyed their lives, thinking that their dreams could really become true.

This was the spirit of the Belle Epoque and life was just sublime. Humanity would have never reached such a level of positivity towards life in whole history. "La Ville lumière" was pure bliss.



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