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.
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.
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!
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.
The "Exposition Universelle de Paris" of 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.
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.
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
2. The moving walkway
3. The first escalator in history
4. The Cinéorama
5. Le Métro
6. A giant telescope
7. Cold light and X-rays
8. The Celestial Globe
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:
12. First electric car by Porsche
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.
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.