A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When, in my favorite book, Oscar and Lucinda, the owner of the Prince Rupert Glassworks, Lucinda Leplastier says of a project idea, “…a Crystal Palace, yet not a Crystal Palace.” I knew I had to learn more about this historic glass building. While I found brief articles online & mentions in books, it wasn’t until reading Auerbach’s book that I finally was able to fully understand the quote from Peter Carey’s novel.
An outgrowth of design fairs, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended as a showcase of Empire and the industrial revolution held inside a beautifully designed building. The Crystal Palace was the largest enclosed space on earth at the time. Built from the ground up in 9 months, it had 300,000 panes of hand blown glass. It was large enough to park a locomotive engine inside. Not only was there goods and machinery from all over England and Europe, but far flung lands as well. Areas were set up to look like a Medieval Court, a bazaar in Tunisia or a palace in India, complete with a taxidermied elephant and howdah. The U.S. showed their latest inventions like the McCormick reaper, Colt revolver and Singer sewing machine.
There was also “living exhibits” with natives from various countries on display, such as Bengali carvers sculpting ivory. I found this idea rather creepy, especially when I read that the American section included plantation slaves.
Though it was touted as “A Celebration of the Working Man”, there was a very real fear of what would happen if actual working people were allowed into the Crystal Palace. The admittance fee was purposely kept to a shilling in order to keep the riff raff out. It was thought that the poor and foreigners would bring disease and debauchery to London. Though several hundred policemen were on duty each day, not a single instance of trouble was reported at the Great Exhibition. In fact, the lower classes actually perused the displays, while the wealthy lingered by the crystal fountain in the nave, “seeing and being seen.”
After more than 5 months, the Exhibition closed in mid-October. The Palace was taken apart and reassembled in the London suburb of Sydenham, where it became a sort of educational theme park with rooms depicting Ancient Egypt and Rome. It remained popular for several decades, but by the early 20th Century, had fallen into disrepair and neglect. Visitors remember flaking paint and soggy newspapers in the non-working fountains. A fire began in one of the offices on a November night in 1936 and by morning the building was completely destroyed.
The book has an abundance of illustrations, from contemporary paintings, catalogue drawings and Punch cartoons to historical photographs. There’s even a floor plan of the Exhibition, which you can read if you squint mightily. Sometimes Auerbach puts in a little too much minutiae, there’s excessive discussions of the committees and finances in the planning stages, but that can be excused on the grounds of thoroughness. It’s a detailed look at a place and time of marvels, one in which only memories and hunks of melted glass remain.
Yale University Press 1999 280 pp. ISBN 0-300-08007-7