State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995



When Joseph Paxton wished to impress the organising committee of the 1851 London Exhibition with his design for what became the fabled Crystal Palace, he had a large engraving of it published in The illustrated London news of 6 July 1850. The design immediately captured public support, and within one week had been adopted by the committee. Thus began what was to become a long and fruitful relationship between the newspaper industry and the great world exhibitions of the nineteenth century. Newspaper involvement was vital to this burgeoning cultural form, but as the Paxton episode shows, involvement extended beyond mere reportage and promotion, and newspapers eventually came to be exhibits in their own right.
The most elementary level of newspaper involvement, reportage, fell into two categories: coverage in daily papers and coverage in weekly or monthly illustrated papers.
With regard to daily papers, the widest source of coverage was to be found in the press of the country which hosted the exhibition, particularly as, in the years before 1880, correspondents were rarely sent to an exhibition outside the local area. The Argus for instance, would have sent a reporter to Adelaide but not to Vienna. Similarly, reporters from The times may have gone to Paris but not to Sydney. In general, accounts of overseas exhibitions published in Melbourne papers were merely transcriptions of the reports published in English newspapers some months earlier.
Most local daily press reporting would cover an exhibition in minute detail, from the reports of the planning commitee's meetings, through the installation of exhibits, to the speeches and parades of the opening day. Newspapers also ran special exhibition supplements, usually in the first week of an exhibition. They included such features as a history of the colony and its participation in previous exhibitions, a tourist guide to the exhibiting city, a sketch and floor plan of the exhibition building, profiles of the exhibition commissioners and descriptions of the various international displays or “courts”. Daily papers might run several of these supplements during the life of an exhibition.1
Once an exhibition had opened, details of exhibition prize winners might be published in the daily papers along with reviews of musical performances and exhibition gossip and anecdotes. A significant focus, however, was the almost obsessive reporting of statistics. Exhaustive daily, and in some instances hourly, attendance figures were published (even for overseas exhibitions when the figures were three months out of date2) in an attempt to portray the significance of the exhibition. The number of people in attendance as a percentage of the total population, or as a percentage of the number of people who had attended previous exhibitions in the city or other cities, were calculated and cited proudly. Also published were figures relating to the number of exhibits, the number of acres covered by the exhibition buildings, the number of contributing countries and so forth. Little attempt was made, however, to reflect on an exhibition's status as a cultural phenomenon or even to outline the range or types of exhibits involved.
In marked contrast, the coverage of exhibitions in the weekly or monthly illustrated newspapers virtually ignored the political build-up to an exhibition, preferring instead to bring into sharp focus that element most obviously missing from the coverage in daily papers — its sense of spectacle. Following the model established by The illustrated London news, which from the first was a strong supporter of the exhibition phenomenon and provided a remarkably detailed coverage of Crystal Palace and its successors around the world, illustrated papers tried to convey a sense of the vastness of the exhibition space and the enormous variety of strange and wonderful products on display. Special issues of The illustrated Australian news, published to commemorate the openings of both the 1880 and 1888 Melbourne International Exhibitions, featured ground
plans, views of the Exhibition Building and artists' renderings of the opening ceremonies. Subsequent issues featured the various intercolonial and international courts, crowd scenes and sketches of prize winning exhibits, and are typical of the coverage of exhibitions provided by other Australian illustrated papers.
In several instances, the voluminous press reports in the daily and illustrated papers were compiled into scrapbooks by staff of the Public Library. Press cuttings were arranged in chronological order and annotated with the name and date of the newspaper. Two large folio volumes cover the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition from December 1865 to June 1867, including some articles relating to Victoria's involvement in the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865. and planning for the 1867 Paris exhibition (MSF 12900, MSF 12906). Indexed cuttings from Melbourne, country Victorian and some London papers relating to the Melbourne exhibition of 1872, and Victorian representation at the London exhibition of 1873 were also collected (MSF12122). Two other collections of cuttings cover, respectively, the Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition of 1875 and the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880–81.3

The illustrated London news being printed at the 1851 London Exhibition, from The illustrated London news 31 May 1851, p. 502

Newspapers as exhibits

As many commentators have pointed out, the great world exhibitions of the nineteenth century were a feature of a rapidly expanding capitalist economy4. Exhibitions were principally commercial enterprises designed by and for manufacturers to promote their products. Newspapers were no exception and were themselves displayed as exhibits. Special or ornamental issues of newspapers were displayed at every exhibition as examples of the printer's art: The Castlemaine advertiser, printed in gold leaf, was exhibited at the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition, and the first issue of The age, “executed in gold on white satin for exhibition in Melbourne and transmission to the Paris exhibition of 1855”5, was published to coincide with the opening of the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854. Black and white engravings from illustrated newspapers were also displayed, such as those from The illustrated Australian news and The Australasian sketcher, hung at the Colonial and Indian exhibition in London in 1886, and others from The illustrated London news, displayed in Melbourne in 1888.
The display of newspapers extended to the exhibition of complete sets of papers from a particular region, packaged up together as a representation
of the diversity of the local literary culture. The Library holds several of these exhibition volumes in its Newspaper Collection: a volume of New South Wales newspapers, collected for display at the 1875 Intercolonial Exhibition and donated to the Library by the Exhibition Commissioners; Victorian newspapers collected for display at the 1872 Melbourne Exhibition; and American newspapers collected together in 1876 for display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Newspaper publishers went to great lengths to produce elaborate special issues for these collections also. For example, the The Tarnagulla courier and general advertiser produced a special exhibition issue on 6 October 1866 which was printed in gold type with original photographs attached.6 Bound sets of Victorian newspapers were also exhibited in London in 1873, in Vienna in 1873 and in Philadelphia in 1876.
Newspaper advertising agencies seized on the exhibition phenomenon as an opportunity to promote the newspaper industry. The leading American agency, Geo. P. Rowell and Co., in conjunction with the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, organised an exhibition of American newspapers in which all 8,129 American newspaper titles were represented in a specially constructed building. The Library holds two versions of the catalogue of newspapers displayed and one of the volumes of American newspapers. Similarly, the Melbourne-based newspaper advertising agency, Gordon and Gotch, organised a newspaper kiosk at the Melbourne exhibition of 1888 where complete files of Australian and overseas newspapers could be obtained.
So intense was the newspaper industry's involvement in the exhibition culture that not only were its products placed on display but often also the printing press itself. Newspapers were printed on site at many of the great international exhibitions, beginning in 1851 with the printing and engraving of The illustrated London news on public view within the walls of the Crystal Palace. The Philadelphia times was printed in Machinery Hall during the run of the Philadelphia exhibition of 1876, and The Glasgow herald exhibited an electrically driven newspaper printing machine in Glasgow in 1888. In Australia, the first issues of The age were printed on the opening day of Melbourne's first exhibition in 1854, and years later the Popular guide to the Centennial Exhibition (Melbourne, W. H. Williams Printer, 1888) noted that The Argus printing machine in motion would be of great interest to the exhibition visitor.
Thus it can be seen that the relationship between the newspaper industry and the exhibition culture was a fully synergistic one. In the exhibition phenomenon of the nineteenth century, exhibition space and newspaper page celebrated each other, and in so doing, celebrated themselves.
Trish Hoyne
Librarian in the Research Section of the
La Trobe Library


See The Argus ‘Melbourne Centennial Exhibition supplement’. 2 Aug. 1888. 6 Oct. 1888, 8 Jan. 1889.


See The Argus 15 September 1851 reports on the Crystal Palace exhibition.


‘Newspaper paragraphs in Victoria to the Melbourne and Philadelphia exhibition of 1875–76’. Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition, 1875, preparatory to the Philadelphia Exhibition, 1876, vol. 3. Melbourne, The Commissioners, 1875, pp. 18–58; Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, Victoria, International Exhibition opened October 1st 1880 by his excellency the Marquis of Normandy CCMG Governor of Victoria. Melbourne, s.n., 1880.


P. Greenhalgh, Ephemeral vistas. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1988; P. and J. Kinchin, Glasgow's great exhibitions. Oxford, White Cockade, [1988].


G. Hutton and L. Tanner, eds., The age, 125 years of age. West Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1979.


Intercolonial exhibition 1866 press contributions. LTM 87.