The Crystal Palace: Exploring the History and Design

Updated August 10, 2021
The stanley bicycle show in the Crystal Palace in London, outdoor

Global exhibitions began in earnest in the mid-19th century, inspired by the growing interconnectedness of the arts and western culture. Yet, the first of what would come to be known as the World Expos, which was held in London in 1851 came to be recognized as a symbol of the Victorian age. Held inside an impressive structure made out of cast iron and glass, this 'crystal palace' building amazed the public so much that even despite its destruction nearly a hundred years ago, it lives on in memory through the few physical artifacts that have survived.

The Crystal Palace Is Commissioned

Inspired by the 1844 French Industrial Exposition, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, proposed a similar event for his home country in which an expo would be held that incorporated a truly international audience. From mechanics, design, technology, and the arts, the exposition was set to be a celebration of the modern age the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox were commissioned to devise a building with enough panache to befit the grand event, and the nearly 2,000 feet long and 500 feet wide building that resulted perfectly embodied this grandiosity. Entirely constructed out of glass and cast iron and in only nine months time, the building was nicknamed 'The Crystal Palace' due in large part to the significant amount of surface area within the building that captured and redirected natural light. There was little need for interior lighting thanks to the impressive number of window panels built around the roof and sides of the greenhouse-esque exhibition hall. This architectural feat was only accomplished thanks to Paxton's experience with designing greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire, and it was a smashing success.

The Building Gets Deconstructed and Re-constructed

The Crystal Palace for Grand International Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park London

The Great Exhibition of Works of Industry, also known as the very first World Expo, opened in Hyde Park on May 1, 1851, and lasted until October of that year. Over the summer, notable inventors, artists, authors, and thinkers from the time all clamored to have their work acknowledged at the exposition and they competed with the massive crowds to see what the 19th century had to offer. Awarded just as much acclaim as the things displayed inside, the Crystal Palace was slowly deconstructed after the expo was finished and transferred to a permanent location in Syndenham Hill in South London. It was in Syndenham where the building was resurrected and enlarged, where it served as a Royal Navy training base and a home for the first Imperial War Museum's collections.

Curious Destruction of the Glittering Building

For nearly 100 years, the Crystal Palace stood as a testament to Victorian innovation in the heart of London, until tragedy struck on November 30, 1936. According to History Today, a fire that had started in a cloakroom spread throughout the building, and spurred on by the strong winds rustling through the air that night, the flames engulfed the wood flooring and soon the legendary building was no more. While there hasn't been any substantial efforts made to resurrect the building once more or pay homage to it with a similar architectural feat in London, there are artifacts here and there that have survived which can give you a closer look at this glasshouse, and if you find yourself in Dallas, Texas, you can drive by the Infomart building, which was erected in 1985 in honor of the original Crystal Palace.

Commemorative Antiques Featuring the Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace Exhibition

As is typical with significant events like sports games and concerts, many commemorative goods were manufactured and sold in the period leading up to and during the Great Exhibition. Due to their age and niche subject matter, not many of these notable artifacts have survived. However, the ones that do can give you a great glimpse into what witnessing the giant crystalline place must have been like.

Take this commemorative fan from 1854, which sold in 2001 for what amounts in today's market for nearly $2,500, for example. Featured across the fan are three separate lithographs, the center of which is an extensive view of the palace's exterior and surrounding landscape. Just three years prior, accessories and decorations were printed with depictions of the Crystal Palace in all its glory, as this artifact which sold for almost $1,250, reflects. Given the fact that the Crystal Palace was so intrinsically tied to the Great Exhibition, and the exhibition itself only lasted for a year's span, it's unsurprising that collectibles from this period are few and far between. In a century filled with massive technological innovation, it's expected that the engineering feat that was the Crystal Palace would quickly be overshadowed by greater spectacles.

However, if you happen to find a commemorative collectible from this period, it's still a good idea to have it assessed by an appraiser and perhaps insured due to its rarity. If you're thinking about selling it, the few artifacts that have sold in recent years indicate that pieces from the mid-19th century relating to the Crystal Palace can be evaluated anywhere between $800-$2,000 depending on their provenance, maker, and condition to name but a few things.

Burning Down the House

From the libraries of Alexandria to the mysterious Amber Room, it's all too easy to focus on mourning the massive losses of the past rather than making time to celebrate the marvels that they were. While you can't enjoy the Crystal Palace's greenhouse effect any longer, you can still enjoy the pieces we have left which illustrate its visage with depth and reverence in the few artifacts left in private collections, museum exhibits, and perhaps an antique store near you.

The Crystal Palace: Exploring the History and Design