Vulpes Libris

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.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 by Jeffery A. Auerbach

crystal palace 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

Jackie can work her favorite book into just about any topic of conversation, as you can see.

5 comments on “The Great Exhibition of 1851 by Jeffery A. Auerbach

  1. Kirsty
    October 12, 2009

    I’ve not seen this book before, I’ll look out for it. A personal favourite book on the Great Exhibition is ‘The World for a Shilling’ by Michael Leaper. It’s now out of print – for some strange reason – but it’s easily found second hand. Can’t recommend it highly enough!

  2. Pingback: Victorian news round-up | Victorian Geek

  3. annebrooke
    October 12, 2009

    Ooh this is just the sort of thing my husband would like – thanks for the review, Jackie!



  4. Hilary
    October 13, 2009

    This sounds like an unmissable book for me – thanks for this review, Jackie. I’d have loved to pay my shilling (if I had one) to see the Great Exhibition, and regret that I was born that bit too late to see the Crystal Palace, even in its neglected old age.

    I was fascinated recently to find out in a tiny aside in a 19th century auobiography that weavers from Kearsley in Lancashire were part of a live exhibit, although I share the slightly uneasy feeling about the contribution of workers from elsewhere in the world, their presence there being under someone’s total control. Although, one wonders how much say the Kearsley weavers had over being there.

    Believe it or not, one of the selling points is the prospect of finding out about how it came together, the financial planning and the committees. I’m very interested in how such an enormous enterprise came together at that time, and would like to find out more about the personalities of the people who made it happen.

  5. Moira
    October 13, 2009

    Yes, it’s not often that I wish I was born 150 years earlier … but I would have loved to have seen both the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace. Even in our modern age of wonders, I think we’d still have been stunned by it all. All those marmosets from Mozambique …

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This entry was posted on October 12, 2009 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: sociology and tagged , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)