The Crystal Palace: Victorian England’s Version of a Pandora’s Box

British Library
British Library / British Library

In 1851, 19 acres of London’s Hyde Park were suddenly transformed. Over the course of just 19 months, they were ensconced in a building the likes of which had never been seen: a huge conservatory constructed of just glass and cast iron. The building would come to be known as the Crystal Palace, and even though it was temporary, it would become one of Victorian England’s most famous—and influential—structures.

It was built for the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, a world’s fair dedicated to showing off the spoils of the Industrial Revolution. The exhibition was the brainchild of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who felt it was time for England to not only show off its industrial might, but inspire and edify its own people with something to be proud of. 

Such a revolutionary exhibition would need a revolutionary building to house it, but that posed a problem when 245 design submissions were deemed unsuitable. Finally, a landscape artist named Joseph Paxton submitted his design: a grandiose structure made of enough glass to house over 8 miles of display space. 

The building itself was jaw-dropping: It was so tall it could enclose entire elm trees and so long it could have fit more than six modern-day football fields. Given that large windows were still an expensive commodity, Paxton’s glittering creation was even more impressive. It immediately became an icon—but what was inside was even more incredible. 

Visitors could peruse industrial wonders like complex textiles and newfangled devices like a forerunner of the fax machine. They could use the first public flush toilets and gush over an exhibit of hundreds of taxidermied animals in adorably comic situations—a novelty that would become one of the more popular exhibits in the Palace. 

But not everyone was in love with the Crystal Palace. The different nations and the technological wonders inside worried some critics, but even worse were the democratic principles that seemed to work within its glass walls. Aristocratic Englishmen saw a threat in a building that emphasized equality over social structures, letting anyone who could scrape together a shilling have a look at the greatest wonders of the world. To traditionalists, the Great Palace felt like a Pandora’s box, a flashy attack on everything they held dear.

And ultimately, it was just that. Dickens hated it, but he wrote Bleak House in part as a response to what he saw as the chaos and irony of a palace built near a slum. Charlotte Brontë called it “a wonderful place—vast strange, new, and impossible to describe.” Its collection formed the impetus for what would become one of London’s most influential institutions: the Victoria and Albert Museum

But perhaps the greatest legacy of the Crystal Palace’s grandeur and accessibility was for ordinary people. There, they were able to see sights that were once reserved only for the elite or those who could afford to travel the world. They experienced a truly international collection that oriented them towards the existence of other nations and ultimately encouraged freer trade even as it justified further colonial expansion.

When the Crystal Palace closed its doors at the end of 1851 (it ended up being rebuilt and sitting in a different part of London as a venue until the 1930s, when it was destroyed by a fire), Victoria wrote in her journal that “this great and bright time is past.” It really is—despite recent plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace in London, it looks like the days of the world’s greatest exhibition (and its most inspirational temporary structure) are done.