The first American World Fair — elevators and pianos in Bryant Park

A charming little park behind the New York Public Library boasts quite an unusual history. Like many other parks in the city, it started as a potter’s field. Yet, unlike other parks, it was once the site of the biggest tourist attraction of its day. A location for America’s first World’s Fair — the Crystal Palace, it set off the first major tourism booms in New York.

Inspired by London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace, a transparent vision made out of cast iron and glass, was the largest building in the country. It looked like a giant glass cathedral covered with a huge glass dome 100 ft in diameter and 150 ft in height. The Crystal Palace was short-lived: it appeared in 1853 only to vanish forever in 1858.

New York Crystal Palace designed by Karl Gildemeister and Georg Carstensen. The image is an “oil-color” plate by George Baxter, London, dated September 1, 1853 via Wikipedia

The first in American World’s fair was meant to show the world what America is capable of, demonstrating achievements in arts, technology, and, above all, innovation.

The fair featured the largest sculpture exhibit in America to the day, along with pavilions of boats, fabrics, guns, medicines, appliances, furniture, watches, Morse’s telegraph, early photography, handmade toys, and goods from Tiffany’s.

Elisha Otis demo of his free-fall prevention mechanism, Crystal Palace, 1854. via Wikipedia

The most dramatic exhibit was, indisputably, that of a passenger elevator. At the time, elevators were considered dangerous, and the public was not sold on the idea of being suspended in a box held by cables that could break. Elisha Otis, the inventor of a safety elevator, demonstrated his invention in the most theatrical fashion. Standing in an elevator platform, he ascended up to the ceiling and had the supporting cables cut. The public gasped, but nothing much happened. The platform was caught by a safety feature, convincing the viewers that the elevators were indeed safe. Though it took some time, his performance launched the passenger elevator industry.

The advertising industry was still in its infancy, and product promotion often required hands-on demonstrations. Singer sewing machines were demonstrated by women in the action of making garments.

Winning awards at exhibitions was a major way to earn publicity for a company and its products. In 1855, Henry Steinway Jr. entered the Steinway piano at the prestigious American Institute Exhibition at the Crystal Palace and received the first award for quality — their first official public recognition.

“Burning of the New York Crystal Palace”, c. 1858 via NYPL

Built to then-modern standards, the Crystal Palace was supposed to be fireproof, but it went up in flames and burned to the ground in a mere 30 minutes. Its fiery demise turned into its last tourist attraction, drawing thousands of onlookers.

Just imagine: Bryant Park, the lovely urban oasis, was once a bustling location of the first American World Fair that introduced the world to some inventions that shaped the world as we know it today.

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