The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace

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The Great Exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace, a remarkable structure built especially for it, in Hyde Park, London. It opened in 1851. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s other half, drove the project from its conception, through the planning stage and in its operation, which presumably kept him busy when he and Vicky weren’t receiving gifts from their grateful subjects from the Empire (not the local music hall of the same name).

The exhibition was a showcase for the best of everything made in Britain and our dominions (a word we now rarely use, thank goodness), a trade show with exhibits from engineering to furniture, textiles to art and everything in-between, on a scale previously unseen. We had the biggest empire in the world and the Great Exhibition was intended to make sure that everyone knew it.

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For manufacturers exhibiting their goods, potential buyers would be coming from around the world, so they produced what we now call ‘exhibition pieces’, demonstrating the finest craftsmanship and latest technology. One example of the latter was a new optical novelty, 3D photography. Although the stereoscope had been invented a few years earlier, it was first shown to the masses at the Great Exhibition and was a huge success, leading to countless millions of stereographs (stereoviews for my American friends) being produced in the UK and the USA during the subsequent eighty years.

After three years in Hyde Park, the building was relocated to Sydenham, just outside London. It caught fire in 1936, burned down and wasn’t re-built, ‘though there have been various proposals to do so.

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Financially, the Great Exhibition was hugely successful, making a surplus equivalent to £18m in today’s money, which was used to fund the construction of the internationally renowned and much-loved museums in Kensington. This is an interesting contrast with London’s ‘Millennium Dome’, now the O2, built in 1999 on the banks of the Thames. I was one of its many disappointed visitors.  

Today’s slide is a recent purchase and is one of best photos I’ve seen of the exterior of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Relatively few lantern slides of the building and its contents have survived and the quality of the hand-tinting and its sharpness and detail are particular rare. When projected onto a large screen, it’s almost like being there!      

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