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The 1853 World’s Fair: Dreams of Paradise

At the 1853 World’s Fair in New York, some exhibits attracted larger crowds than others. Elisha Otis’s demonstration of a new elevator safety device—which involved Otis standing atop a suspended elevator platform above the exhibition hall while an assistant severed the suspension cable with an ax—was more popular than, say, the Philadelphia window salesman who presented his latest tweaks to the Venetian blind. But to Walt Whitman, the most impressive exhibit was the exhibition hall itself, a glimmering glass structure built in the shape of a Greek cross with a vaulted dome at its center, covering five acres in what today is Bryant Park. The “Crystal Palace” so

overwhelmed Whitman in its palatial grandeur that the poet ranked it above Earth’s greatest wonders in his 1871 poem “Song of the Exposition”:

…a palace, loftier, fairer, ampler than any yet,

Earth’s modern wonder, history’s seven outstripping,

High rising tier on tier with glass and iron façades,

Gladdening the sun and sky—enhued in the cheerfulest hues,

Bronze, lilac, robin’s-egg, marine and crimson…

The Fair—formally, the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations—opened on July 14, 1853, and showcased all the latest innovations in engineering, agriculture, transportation, perfumery, soaps, tonics, toothpaste, backgammon boards, fishing tackle and many other

newfangled novelties of industry and technology. But while most fairgoers looked inside the exhibition hall, Whitman looked out—out upon the raw farmland of New York City. There he envisioned a future urban center composed of “lofty, fair, but lesser palaces”

clustered around the original one: a crystalline, transparent New World born from the stony Old. And for all we know Whitman’s city of glass might have been a reality, if not for a fire that tore through the Crystal Palace in 1858, only five years after it opened, and

burned it to the ground.

Browsing the catalogue for the 1853 World’s Fair feels like reading an archive of alternate histories, an inventory of inventions that could have been but never were: Emanuel Lyons’s magnetic powder that promised to kill insects without poison; J. Small & Co.’s

inflatable life-preserving cap to be worn by infants; Samuel Smith’s patented electromagnetic walking cane. From the vantage point of someone surfing Google Books in 2017, it’s easy to pick out the revolutionary inventions from the ones doomed to attics and scrapyards. But in 1853, illuminated not by my laptop’s liquid crystal display but by the Crystal Palace’s abundant natural light, the inventions teetered one and all with equal value upon the technological frontier.

Ultimately, it wasn’t fire that defeated Whitman’s vision but Elisha Otis: On the foundation of his new safety device and its resounding reception at the exhibition, Otis established the Otis Elevator Company (still the country’s largest elevator manufacturer), and for the first time in history architects starting thinking up. The world’s maiden skyscraper, and the first building to be serviced by Otis’s hydraulic elevators, was completed on May 1, 1870, in New York City, and Whitman’s dream of a crystalline paradise soon became lost in a forest of steel.

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