Universal Exhibitions, which became "international" from 1928 onwards, were initially events for industry to showcase its products, and to extol the glory of Progress.
The 1851 London Great Exhibition was the first of these. Its star attraction was the structure that housed the exhibition - the Crystal Palace. Designed by Joseph Paxton, it had an enormous central nave constructed in iron and glass that the architect later reproduced in a project for the 1867 Paris Exhibition.
From 1855 onwards, France held a series of Universal Exhibitions every 11 years (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900). This interval was essential for such large-scale events. The 1855 Universal Exhibition brought together industry and fine art for the first time.
Metal was the predominant material in the pavilions constructed for these events, as demonstrated in Max Berthelin's study for the Palace of Industry that was finally built by Viel and Barrault along the Champs-Elysées.
The message conveyed by these exhibitions was first and foremost political. The glory of a nation was expressed by erecting a building that reflected its traditions and culture, with a display of items produced on the spot. The entire project was usually organised and funded by the participating country, but sometimes the exhibition organisers had to represent certain geographical areas. This was the case in the 1878 Exhibition for the Street of Nations, for the pavilions of Central and South America in particular, designed by the French (Parisian) architect Léon Vaudoyer.
The most frequent reason for organising a Universal Exhibition was to commemorate a special event: the 1893 exhibition in Chicago celebrated Christopher Columbus' arrival in America; the 1915 exhibition in San Francisco was for the opening of the Panama Canal. In France, the centenary of the French Revolution provided the opportunity for the 1889 Exhibition, symbolised forever with the construction of a 300 metre high tower designed by Gustave Eiffel.
The triumph of electricity in 1900 was the opportunity to make the exhibition pavilions even more magnificent: once night fell, they became truly magical. Designed by Edmond Paulin and Eugène Hénard to be both functional and decorative, the Palace of Electricity on its own encapsulated the symbolic dimension of these Exhibitions.
Although most buildings were ephemeral, some, with an eye to ensuring the financial stability of the Exhibitions, were retained for posterity. In Paris, the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais (by Thomas Deglane and Charles Girault respectively) are now exhibition halls. There are many other examples abroad like the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London (the 1862 Exhibition).