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World's Fairs in the United States

Written by Robert W. RydellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert W. Rydell, John E. FindlingAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John E. Findling and Kimberly PelleAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kimberly Pelle


List Price: $15.95


On Sale: June 04, 2013
Pages: 176 | ISBN: 978-1-58834-342-0
Published by : Smithsonian Books Smithsonian
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Since their inception with New York's Crystal Palace Exhibition in the mid-nineteenth century, world's fairs have introduced Americans to “exotic” pleasures such as belly dancing and the Ferris Wheel; pathbreaking technologies such as telephones and X rays; and futuristic architectural, landscaping, and transportation schemes. Billed by their promoters as “encyclopedias of civilization,” the expositions impressed tens of millions of fairgoers with model environments and utopian visions.

Setting more than 30 world’s fairs from 1853 to 1984 in their historical context, the authors show that the expositions reflected and influenced not only the ideals but also the cultural tensions of their times. As mainstays rather than mere ornaments of American life, world’s fairs created national support for such issues as the social reunification of North and South after the Civil War, U.S. imperial expansion at the turn of the 20th-century, consumer optimism during the Great Depression, and the essential unity of humankind in a nuclear age.


The Spokane fair, Expo ‘74, was the inspiration for the Knoxville fair of 1982. Stewart Evans, the executive director of the Downtown Knoxville Association, attended Expo ‘74 and thought Knoxville, a city similar in size to Spokane, could do the same. There was little enthusiasm at first, but gradually, civic leaders, including Jacob F. “Jake” Butcher, president of the United America Bank, came to support the idea as a way to benefit the city and, not so coincidentally, themselves. The city council endorsed the idea of an exposition and moved forward with planning, ignoring requests from a sizeable opposition organization that a public referendum be held with respect to putting on the fair. Meanwhile, Butcher's ties with President Jimmy Carter and, especially, his budget director, Atlanta banker Bert Lance, were useful in obtaining federal support for the fair.

The expo site was a 65-acre plot not far from downtown known as Lower Second Creek, a stream running the length of the city, partly in a tunnel. The proposed site has little public access and a railroad track running through it. Expo planners thought the stream and the rest of the site could be cleaned up and made useful. By the time of the fair, the stream had been buried and a shallow 4-acre pond, called Waters of the World, had been constructed, but the railroad track proved too expensive to move and remained in place throughout the fair. Pedestrian bridges over the track allowed visitors to get from one side of the fairgrounds to the other.

The theme of the exposition, contrived in the context of the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, was Energy Turns the World, and it seemed fitting inasmuch as Knoxville was the home of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a regional energy system built during the 1930s. In addition, Knoxville lies near Oak Ridge, the site of the National Atomic Energy Laboratory, and is not far from the coal deposits in the Cumberland Mountains. Exhibits from 24 nations, 30 corporations, and seven states generally reflected the theme, although it could best be seen in the $21.1 million US pavilion, which included an IMAX film on America's energy resources and numerous exhibits on energy availability and use in the United States. An interactive video system allowed visitors to express their opinions about energy issues, and other video displays informed visitors about different forms of energy production. Most of the international participants hewed to the energy theme as well in their pavilions, although Egypt, Peru, and China all displayed historical relics, and Hungary's exhibit focused on the then popular Rubik's Cube, developed by Hungarian mathematician Erno Rubik.


“Filled with archival photographs and boasting a section of extensive notes, Fair America examines and documents 30 world's fairs from 1853 to 1984. It would seem to be the definitive work, exploring the intentions of organizers, the perceptions of audiences, and the way minorities challenged stereotypes at each fair. Any school, public, or academic library would welcome this systematic work.”—Library Journal

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