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Wesleyan University | Center for the Humanities



"A Combination of Beauty and Bombast": The Spectacle of Capitalism at the World's Fairs

Roberto Saba •  Wesleyan University

October 31st @ 6pm at Daniel Family Commons

Scholars emphasize the educational aspects of world’s fairs, arguing that they were designed to instill in the masses the rationality of industrial capitalism. Undoubtedly, this was the case if we study the world’s fairs from the perspective of their most prominent organizers. Yet if we look at them from the perspective of working-class visitors and small entrepreneurs trying to make a profit, we see that the fairs were much more chaotic (and creative) than the scholarship has made them. This paper deals with the sense of amazement and bewilderment that took ordinary people who participated in world’s fairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It argues that the world’s fairs created a sense of awe and confusion through a highly stimulating mix of industrial technology, racialized bodies, scientific advancements, rides and shows, myriad commodities, artistic expressions, nationalist rituals, and other innovations. In the end, such chaotic spectacle was a much more effective form of educating the masses who were entering the world of industrial capitalism than the rationalist approach of the world’s fairs organizers.

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