America at the Great Exhibition of 1851
The centennial of the 1851 Great Exhibition gave rise to the Festival of Britain in 1951. This essay, which I have slightly revised, was also a modest centennial contribution. If it were being completely rewritten, I would look for American domestic reactions not available to me at the time and take note of initial English criticism of the role of Albert, Prince Consort, and his unmonarchical, "German" involvement in conceiving and organizing the Exhibition as a testament to the "visibility of progress."
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, which opened at Paxton's Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park, on May 1, 1851, used to be portrayed as a collection of amusing Victoriana, running in scale all the way from the "colossal" statue of the Queen (in zinc) to a set of carved fruit-stones submitted by the Prince Consort's brother, Ernest of Coburg-Gotha. More recently, the Exhibition has come to be admired for its embodiment of an age which may have been lacking in taste but certainly had no lack of gusto. Or the Exhibition can be considered as a technological display, not the least interesting item of which is Joseph Paxton's nineteen-acre "Crystal Palace" in which it was housed. By contemporaries it was often taken as a gauge of the relative prowess, cultural and technological, of the exhibiting nations. It is this last aspect that I wish to discuss, in relation to the United States.
Before an answer can be attempted, something must be said of British opinions of the United States. In the 1840s Britain was not so much ignorant of America as unsympathetic. She did not ignore what went on across the Atlantic; the newspapers of 1851 devoted almost as much space to America as do those of the