The Largest World Fairs of All Time

An aerial view of Exposition Universelle, held in 1900 in Paris.
An aerial view of Exposition Universelle, held in 1900 in Paris.

An exposition, also known as a world fair, is a platform for nations to share achievements with one another. In an early effort of globalization, expositions would feature pavilions from countries all over the world that included information about their citizens and culture. Also popular at historical expositions was the presentation of new inventions from all corners of the world.

However, expositions were also sometimes methods for spreading propaganda, as countries were allowed close control over their identity, where money and politics often played a role. Although many people believe that expositions have fallen out of style with the invention of the internet, Shanghai most recently hosted a very successful exposition in 2010.

5. New York World Fair - New York, 1939

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The 1939 New York World’s Fair was the largest exposition in US history with visitors exceeding 44 million. The exposition was the first to have a futuristic theme and ran under the motto of “The World of Tomorrow.” The fair was held at Corona Park in Queens, New York and occupied an area of 1,202 acres which is the second largest in US history after the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The 1939 New York World’s Fair was planned during the Great Depression and was aimed at relieving the city from economic depression by attracting foreign investment. The exposition was opened on April 30, 1939 coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the presidential inauguration of George Washington. Its opening saw an attendance of 206,000 spectators. Major inventions to emerge at the New York World Fair included nylon fabric, the View-Master, a streamlined pencil sharper, and a futuristic car city envisioned by General Motors.

4. Exposition Universelle - Paris, 1900

The 20th century had a memorable start in France, when the nation’s capital hosted the 1900 world fair known as the Exposition Universelle. With visitors exceeding 48 million, the Exposition Universelle is the largest exposition ever to be held in Europe and third largest of the 20th century overall.

The Exposition Universelle was one of the earliest expositions to feature multiple countries, with France inviting various countries to showcase their technological advancements and cultural heritage. The Exposition was officially opened on April 14, 1900 to a relatively low public turnout that was attributed to high ticket prices. Exposition Universelle was the birthplace of many inventions that we enjoy today including escalators and talking films (early movies). However, it turned out to be expensive endeavour to organize and the cost per visitor ended being almost 600 francs more than each price of admission. The Expo ultimately lost about 82,000 francs after 6 months in operation. The Exposition Universelle is notable for hosting the first Olympic Games to ever exist outside of Greece, although they were not considered a success. The Exposition Universelle also had a sinister side - it included human zoos that were designed to promote the French colonizing of Africa as a positive and necessary endeavour. This was attempted by showcasing African people engaging in "authentic activities", designed to depict them as inferior to French visitors as a means of garnering support for colonization.

3. Expo '70 - Osaka, Japan

A time capsule from Expo​ ’70 in Osaka.

Expo ’70 was the biggest exposition of the 20th century and the second largest in history. The exposition was held in Osaka, Japan with the theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” Expo ’70 had a record attendance of over 64 million visitors, a 40-year record that would not be surpassed until Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

The city of Osaka received the highest tally of votes from the Bureau of International Expositions in 1965 and was granted permission to host the 1970 event. The exposition was opened on March 15, 1970 and ran for six months until its closing ceremony on September 13,1970. Expo ’70 was held in an area covering 820 acres and had 77 countries participating as well as four international organizations. Notable exhibitions included a large piece of moon rock that was brought back from the Apollo 12 mission, and a theatre that showed the world's first IMAX movie. After the closure of the event, a few of the pavilions remained intact, and the site is now known as the Expo Commemoration Park. The site hosts a time capsule which is to be opened after 5,000 years in the year 6970.

2. Expo 2010 - Shanghai, China

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Expo 2010 was an international exposition held in Shanghai, China from May 1, 2010 to October 31, 2010. Expo 2010 goes down as the largest fair in history, having attracted 73 million people. It also had the highest international participation of any exposition in the world with 246 countries participating in an area covering 1,300 acres. Furthermore, the exhibition set a world record in single-day attendance on October 16, 2010 when over 1 million people visited the exposition.

The theme chosen for the exposition was “Better City - Better Life.” The government spent $2.7 billion to host the event with the majority of the funds going to the establishment and development of the 5.28-square kilometer site. The opening ceremony was held on April 30, 2010, and featured the biggest LED screen in the world as well as one of the biggest fireworks displays in history. The Chinese pavilion was the tallest structure of the exposition with an area covering over 1,722,225 square feet. It remains the biggest pavilion in history.

1. Honorable Mention: World's Columbian Exposition

With a total visitor count of 27.3 million, Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition doesn't quite make the cut. However, this exposition certainly deserves an honorable mention due to the legacy it left behind. At the time, it was seen as impressive that Chicago was even able to host the fair in the first place, as the city had to beat out the likes of other prominent cities like New York and Washington, D.C. for hosting rights. Prior to the fair, Chicago had a reputation as a dangerous, dirty city in the industrial Midwest. It was only after the hosting of the elegant Beaux Arts fair that national and international opinion of Chicago began to change. The Columbian Exposition dazzled visitors with inventions that many had never heard of before, some of them as prominent as the Ferris Wheel and zipper, and some of them obscure, like Wrigley's chewing gum and spray paint.

Top 10 World Expositions By Attendance

RankExpositionLocationYearVisitors (Millions)
1Expo 2010 Shanghai, China201073.08
2Expo '70 Osaka, Japan197064.2
3Paris InternationalParis, France190050.8
4Expo '67Montreal, Canada196750
5Century of ProgressChicago, United States1933/34 48.6
6New York's World FairNew York, United States1939/40 45
7Expo '92 Seville, Spain199241.8
8Brussels World's FairBrussels, Belgium195841
9Exposition UniverselleParis, France188932
10Paris International ExpositionParis, France193731

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