Following Napoleon's embarrassing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the revolt of the Commune, and the resulting turmoil from these events, France desperately needed to display its renewed greatness on an international scale. The political instability of the nation threatened the country's first truly Republican presidency and necessitated an event that would draw the public's attention away from government failings. On the centenary of the storming of the Bastille, Paris hosted its fourth Exposition Universelle in under thirty-five years.
While many European monarchies refused to officially attend an event they believed glorified the beheading of kings and queens, the French were determined that the exhibition of the Third Republic would be more successful than any previous World's Fair. Without the official presence of the European monarchies, the 1889 Exposition Universelle became more of a national than international event and the first of its kind that focused more on entertaining large crowds than on creating new avenues for trade (Mattie 84). Even without the official attendance of most of the European monarchies, the exhibition attracted over thirty million visitors over the course of the six months it was open and demonstrated the glory of the Third Republic internationally and to the French people (Findling 100). Due to the expectation for each World's Fair to outshine the last and Parisian desire for superiority, the 1889 Exposition Universelles was grander than any of its predecessors.
Like previous events, the 1889 Exposition Universelles took place on the Champ de Mars in the newly constructed Galerie de Machines and the Trocadero but was also expanded along the Seine to include the Colonial Exhibition in the Esplande des Invalides. The entire exhibition was housed in eighty buildings, taking up 237 acres and featuring 61,722 exhibitors, forty percent of whom were foreign (Findling 103). The opulence of the buildings and surrounding areas inspired one visitor to claim, "If the gloomy clouds gathering on the political horizon do not break out into a storm, half the civilized world will be lured to Paris, and most certainly with good reason, for this is the most beautiful exhibition the world has ever seen" (Findling 102). This remark was well-deserved, as a combination of the French government, the city of Paris, and private investors paid forty-seven million francs, or one and a half million 1889 US dollars, to put on the exhibition (Stamper 330). The sheer scale of the event demonstrated the dominance of the French government and reinstated France as a political force on the international level.
With the unveiling of Gustave Eiffel's Tower and Contamin's Galerie des Machines, France exceeded the world's expectations by producing both the tallest and largest buildings of the time, respectively (Wilson 42). While the Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of the French Republic, the modern iron structure was initially derided by Parisians. The now lesser known Galerie des Machines was deemed "one of the wonders of the construction age" but did not survive the test of time (Stamper 330). The building contained two rolling bridges that were suspended twenty feet above the gallery and allowed visitors to observe the machinery below. The Galerie des Machines contained fifteen acres of exposition space and was filled with sixteen thousand machines covered by a hinged glass roof (Jonnes 224). While several new technologies debuted in the Galeries des Machines including stock-quotation printers and Daimler and Benz gasoline-powered motor cars, the main focus of the exhibition was promoting innovation in existing technologies (Findling 103). The telephone and telegraph had been exhibited in previous World's Fairs and continued to draw large crowds in 1889 to see their improvements.
While electric lighting had been invented seven years prior to the 1889 Exposition Universelle, this technology was transformed from its typical utilitarian purpose to put on a display that would excite and amaze audiences (Young 346). Electric lighting transformed the natural world into a spectacular display by lighting the Exposition Universelle through the night with fireworks and streetlights. The grounds of the exhibition were illuminated by lights shows and fountains that constantly changed colors that inspired one visitor to remark, "Everything shines, glitters, blazes in a perpetual feast for the eyes" (Findling 103). Thomas Edison impressed the crowds by fashioning the shape of a pear out of twenty thousand electric bulbs that produced enough light for a small town (Findling 103). Edison exhibited all 493 of his inventions, including a phonograph that played both the American and French national anthems in the Galeries des Machines (Findling 103). His inventions inspired further innovation and promoted America as a superior technological power by displaying the magic of electricity in its ability to transform the world. Through his and other technological exhibitions, the world's opinion of what machinery could accomplish was permanently changed. France used three-fourths of the space in the Galeries des Machines to display its own technological dominance (Young 345). The modernity and technological breadth displayed in producing the Galeries des Machines implied France's economic and political dominance over rival countries.
In a display of the era of New Imperialism, France demonstrated its colonial conquests in presenting their primitive subjects in human zoos in the Esplanade des Invalides. By centering these exhibits in the heart of Paris, the French government "brought the empire home" and educated and garnered support from the French and foreigners on these projects (Young 348). These exhibits were "calculated to rouse the pride of the French and the jealousy of rival countries," cementing French cultural superiority (Cooley 29). Included in these exhibits were pavilions from Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Algeria and the likes the Dutch colony of Javanese people who lived in primitive dwellings and performed dances to entertain spectators (Young 351). By displaying the unsophisticated lifestyle of these peoples, the Exposition displayed the juxtaposition between Western progress and less refined colonial cultures. With France's displays of cultural dominance through colonialism, they were able to assert their national identity as a world power.
To view the exhibit, a visitor could climb the Eiffel Tower or take one of the two trains that ran through the expansive fair grounds (Findling 103). Visitors were stunned by the Eiffel Tower and Galeries des Machines. They witnessed Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show featuring Annie Oakley and the savage Indians, rode in the rickshaws of the Indochinese, and viewed reconstructions of an Egyptian temple and an Aztec Palace (Findling 105). Opening on May 6th, the day following the anniversary of the meeting of the Estate-General, the 1889 Exposition featured many celebrations of the revolution. These commemorations included a reconstruction of the Bastille that reminded the world of France's past while positioning the country in a point of strength for the future (Mattie 81). The French also honored the friendship between themselves and their fellow young Republic, the United States, on July 4th by dedicating a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty that still stands in the Seine (Findling 104). Over the six months that the exhibition was open, visitors experienced the wonders of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, which redefined the expectations for World's Fairs by modernizing and producing wonders in architecture and culture. The magnitude of the success of the event reestablished the French peoples' self-confidence in the Third Republic and educated and amazed visitors on cultures from all over the world.