In the 19th and early 20th centuries, immense, months-long expositions brought the world to everyday people in one immersive experience: World’s Fairs, held in cities across the globe since the 1850s, and which still happen today, albeit on a generally smaller scale.
Showcasing the most cutting-edge technological, scientific and socio-cultural advances of the time, World’s Fairs were in their heyday can’t-miss events for both learning and for pleasure, attracting tens of millions of visitors during their runs. While the vast majority of them have been held in Europe and Asia, several were held in various U.S. cities between 1876 and 1974 — and several of those featured specific pavilions and displays about Maine.
Maine sent former governor and Civil War hero Gen. Joshua Chamberlain to give an address at the first-ever World’s Fair to be held in the U.S. — the Centennial Exposition, held in 1876 in Philadelphia. Chamberlain delivered the address, “Maine: Her Place in History,” again to the Maine Legislature in February 1877.
Seventeen years later, at one of the two largest and most successful World’s Fairs in U.S. history, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago, Maine commissioned an ornate Queen Anne-style building designed by Lewiston native Charles Sumner Frost to house its pavilion. It was made from granite quarried from 10 different Maine quarries, slate from Monson, and wood from Maine’s vast timberlands.
Along with showcasing its industries and sporting heritage, Maine’s presence in Chicago was also the first time Maine’s Poland Spring water was thrust into the national spotlight, with company founder Hiram Ricker winning the fair’s Medal of Excellence during a water taste test, and putting the company on the path to international recognition.
And after the fair closed, Ricker paid to have the building carefully deconstructed, moved to Maine via freight train, and rebuilt at Poland Spring Resort, his world-renowned Gilded Age hotel. Dubbed the Maine State Building, it still stands today, and can be visited at Poland Spring Preservation Park. A booklet published during the fair to be handed out to visitors also described Maine’s many tourist attractions, and can be viewed on Maine’s Digital Commons.
At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Maine again commissioned a building — this time, a log cabin, to be filled with Maine-made furniture and artifacts, photographs and paintings depicting the Maine way of life. A 1903 article in the Bangor Daily News describing the building said that its second floor would act as a kind of lounge for Mainers visiting the fair, who might want to “rest from over-fatigue, fall suddenly ill, or who want a change of apparel.” Unlike the Maine State Building, however, after being moved to another location in Missouri, the log cabin was eventually destroyed by fire in the 1930s.
Maine did not have a presence at the next three world’s fairs, held in San Francisco, Chicago and again San Francisco, but state organizers saved their time and money for an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, one of the largest fairs in history, attracting more than 44 million visitors in 1939, and again in a second season in 1940.
For a country coming out of the Great Depression, the 1939 New York World’s Fair represented a renewed hope for the future. Maine’s exhibit, however, focused squarely on the present, showcasing a walk-through panorama of Maine’s coast, forest and mountains, as well as a massive display of Maine’s major agricultural products — namely, corn, blueberries, seafood and especially potatoes.
Also at the 1939 New York World’s Fair was a statue of a lobsterman, commissioned by the state to be created by sculptor Victor Kahill of Portland. The project ran out of money before the fair started, however, and instead of Kahill actually casting his work in bronze, he simply painted the plaster mold in bronze, which was what ended up on display in New York.
After the fair, the statue was displayed at the Columbia Hotel in Portland, at Portland City Hall and at the Sea and Shore Fisheries Museum in Boothbay. Finally, in 1975, the Maine Legislature approved money to properly cast the statue in bronze. Several casts were made, one of which stands in Washington, D.C., on Maine Avenue, and the other of which can still be seen today in Portland’s Canal Plaza, between Temple and Middle streets.
Another statue that was also displayed at the fair, a sculpture by Camden-based artist Lewis Iselin depicting a Norse sea goddess, has been on display in the sculpture garden at the Zillman Museum of Art in downtown Bangor since 2007.
Thirty-five years later, Maine exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair, also in New York. Maine, along with the five other New England states, collaborated on the New England Pavilion, with each state getting its own area within the building, as well as marketing the entire region as a tourism destination.
Despite being one of the first events to ever widely showcase space-age and computer technology, the 1964 World’s Fair attracted a great deal of criticism and was viewed in hindsight as a failure, mostly due to attendance levels being far lower than anticipated. In Maine, the New England Pavilion was heavily criticized for several reasons, chief among them being the wooden building’s lackluster appearance, and the seemingly cheaply made signage and exhibits.
Three years later, Maine again received criticism for its pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, which stood out as solidly traditional and even old-fashioned amid the highly modern architecture, futuristic themes and contemporary music and art. And as it turned out, 1967 was the last year Maine would participate in a World’s Fair.
By the late 1960s, the age of the grand international exposition was waning, as people became more and more interconnected, and expectations for quality in fairs and amusement parks grew higher and higher. The bar set by Walt Disney was amazingly high — especially considering the fact that Disney opened its own, permanent version of a World’s Fair, Epcot, in 1980.
World’s Fairs and similar types of expos still happen — the 2010 Shanghai Expo was a big success, attracting a reported 73 million visitors. Still, most of the fairs in the past 40 years have had attendance levels of under 20 million. And the wide-eyed marvels of earlier ages, when technology was progressing at levels that were then-unimaginable and people didn’t know much about other U.S. states, let alone other countries, are a thing of the past.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It also incorrectly stated how the log cabin in St. Louis was destroyed.