The Great Exhibition of 1851

Amtlicher Bericht über die Industrie-Ausstellung aller Völker zu London im Jahre 1851 von der Berichterstattungs-Kommission der Deutschen Zollvereins-Regierungen

Published in Berlin, 1852

People dressed in their Sunday best strolling among statues, ladies with sweeping skirts and fans, gentlemen raising their hats when an acquaintance crossed their path, an elegant tea salon filled with witty conversations in the style of Jane Austen – these are the associations that come to mind when we try to imagine what the Great Exhibition in London was like.

Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, was the patron of this event which was quite revolutionary in its time. It was incredible that worthy members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce invited competing tradesmen and manufacturers from all over the world (!) – i.e. they did not limit the participants to well-known business friends from Great Britain and the colonies – to showcase their goods.

Everything about this World’s Fair was unheard of! From the Crystal Palace designed by an architect for greenhouses to the incredible amount of 17,062 exhibitors from 28 countries that were present when the event was opened by Queen Victoria herself on 1 May 1851.

Just For Fun? – Or: The Actual Reason for Holding the Great Exhibition

Six million visitors from across the world came to see the Great Exhibition. However, we should not be deluded by the colourful scenery of contemporary engravings. The event was not organised for the sole purpose of pleasure or profit. The initiators had a political agenda. The first World’s Fair was a successful PR campaign for the international free trade that British politics and economists were calling for.

An accurate list of the participating countries including figures regarding their population, the size of their booth and the number of jurors they were allowed to appoint.

At that time, the industrialisation of Great Britain was already far advanced, to the point that the country needed new markets for its goods, which were produced in record time. However, most countries on the continent protected their national industries with high protective tariffs. And these tariffs were a thorn in the side of British entrepreneurs. But how could they convince the governments of Europe of a paradigm shift regarding customs policy?

The British wanted to take advantage of the entrepreneurial spirit of their competitors. Those who hoped to profit from abolishing all tariff barriers would be more likely to support the abolition of protective tariffs. Thus, it was all about showing their non-British counterparts that they did not only have a chance to survive but also to thrive on an international market. Therefore, providing potential trade partners with a platform was a major concern of the Great Exhibition.

Swiss Participants

Of course, Switzerland took part in the Great Exhibition. A commission representing the various cantons took care of the 273 exhibitors. It is interesting to see what products Switzerland exported at the time. First and foremost, of course, watches and sophisticated jewellery, but also embroidery such as that made in St Gallen, silk ribbons and dyed cotton fabrics form Basel. By the way, this is also the origin of the chemical industry of Basel: chemically produced, less expensive colours were used to dye the fabrics.

The combined booths of Swiss exhibitors were larger than those of all exhibitors from Spain, Portugal and their colonies combined. This can certainly be interpreted as a sign that the Spanish world had lost touch with industrialisation, while Switzerland was one of the most important industrial nations in the mid-19th century.

Map of the German Customs Union.

Germany in 1851

Germany sent a total of 1,720 exhibitors to the Great Exhibition. Even though, technically speaking, Germany did not even exist at that time. The attempt to found a unified German empire had come to a bloody end two years earlier. In 1851, progressive intellectuals were in prison, lived in exile or kept their mouths shut. One can roughly compare the policy of the smaller and larger states on German territory at the time to China’s policy today: no concessions regarding freedom of speech and political participation, but full support for the unscrupulous profiteering of enterprising individuals.

Part of the program to promote Germany’s economy was the German Customs Union, which had been founded in 1834 under Prussian leadership and flourished in the middle of the 19th century. It abolished numerous small customs barriers, which made trade within Germany much easier. Not all states were part of the Customs Union. In particular, the Hanseatic cities and Hanover, which was linked to Great Britain by a personal union, hesitated for a long time before they joined the union.

Nevertheless, the German Customs Union was a political and, above all, economic power. Many progressive citizens saw it as an institution to which they could commit themselves.

A Report of 2,522 Pages

Many men who cared about progress and their profits gathered under the roof of the Customs Union – women were considered unsuitable to promote economic development in the 19th century. All those trade associations whose splendid buildings still characterise many city centres today originated in this period. They discussed ways and means of promoting the economy, including the participation in the first World’s Fair in London.

All trade associations of the German Customs Union jointly founded a supranational commission that organised the joint participation of German entrepreneurs, rented exhibition space and provided assistance regarding the participation. In addition, this commission had a second task: it informed all members of the government and the trade associations about the exhibits shown at the Great Exhibition. The German commission was not the only institution to do so, the French also published such a summary.

The German report occupies a total of three volumes with 2,522 pages. The MoneyMuseum was able to purchase the first of these three volumes from the antiquarian bookseller Klaus Breinlich. It critically reviews the section of raw materials and machinery. Volume 2 is exclusively dedicated to textile products, and volume 3 evaluates goods made of metal, glass, clay, wood and stone as well as art objects.

The report was written by thirty-three leading experts in the respective industries, who had been sent to Great Britain as official reporters of the German Customs Union. They gathered information on every single exhibit and critically analysed whether it was better or worse than competing German products.

Just One of Hundreds of Examples

As an example, let’s take a look at a single group of products listed in the report. The second group “Mechanical Engineering”, class “VI Factory Machines and Tools to Build Them”, heading “D Machine Tools for Metalworking” describes “§ 154 Coining Machines” as the last section, i.e. many different machines used to mint coins.

Just 1 1/4 pages are dedicated to this subject. Nevertheless, we learn:

  • that eight companies exhibited a total of ten machines
  • what these machines were used for
  • what these machines did
  • where they were already in use
  • what they cost
  • and whether they used new, previously unknown techniques.

The descriptions are so precise that today’s specialists can still understand which machines the text deals with, and this despite the fact that there is not one illustration included.

And there are descriptions of this kind for hundreds of areas in the first volume alone!

Even though today’s books and encyclopaedia articles like to focus on the picturesque details of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was first and foremost an industrial and commercial exhibition used by entrepreneurs to broaden their network. Pretty ladies with sweeping skirts should not blind us to the fact that the Great Exhibition was about nothing but big business.

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can take a look at all three volumes online:


We purchased the work at Klaus Breinlich’s antiquarian bookshop.

The concept of the international trade fair soon became a successful export of its own, travelling for instance to Chicago, where a World Fair took place in 1893.

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