The Crystal Palace Programme & Guide to the Entertainments:
As I flipped gently though the soft, slightly yellowed pages of the programme, I found the lithographic lettering, the carefully phrased announcements of the many marvels and spectacles to be seen, and even the advertisements all pulling me back to Saturday, April 13, 1901, to stand beneath the high ceiling of cast iron and sheets of plate glass that covered the enormous structure. I began to hear the faint sounds of orchestral music from the buildings’ theatres, the clicking of heeled boots and swishing of long skirts against the wooden floorboards and the buzz of hundreds of excited voices joined together in this place at a time when the world was on the very cusp of an era of rapid scientific and technological progress; a time when, in the Crystal Palace of England, there would have seemed no end to the marvels humankind could produce.
The Crystal Palace was constructed specifically to house the world’s most impressive technological feats for the 1851 Great Exhibition. In preparation for this event, a committee was appointed to select a design for the building and oversee construction.¹ Their workspace was soon flooded with the designs of hopeful applicants and although they highly praised a couple of these submissions, all of the initial applications were denied; there were certain restraints that had not met: the building was to be temporary and had to be cheap to construct. After fielding the relentless badgering of a disgruntled, rejected applicant, and the ridicule of their own standby design which they published for review in the paper, the harried selection committee found its solution in the design of Joseph Paxton.
Paxton was mostly known at the time for his green thumb; working as a gardener for the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatworth House. In his attempts to save the life of a giant Victoria Amazonica waterlily that had just recently been discovered by European botanists and was fading away in its new, unfamiliar environment, Paxton created a more appropriate habitat for the lily, in the form of a cast plate glass house and in this building, the lily thrived.
The Lily House provided the inspiration for the Crystal Palace and by the Great Exhibition in May of 1851, the largest building of glass ever to have been constructed at the time, glittered on the lawns of Hyde Park, England like an enormous gemstone.
After the Great Exhibition, when its temporary site was to be reclaimed, the Crystal Palace relocated to Penge Place atop Sydenham Hill, the site at which the marvels announced in this week’s ephemera piece were located. There you could see such things as an automaton ladies’ orchestra comprised of eleven life-sized figures playing “delightful” music, the Reno Inclined Elevator or Electric Stairway (the now common escalator) available for viewing at one penny per person, and the curious behaviour and interactions of ants in the Royal Exhibition of Working Ants, until fire claimed the building on November 30th of 1936.
We can still marvel at the Crystal Palace to this day though, by gazing at the many photographs and paintings that commemorate its existence and by imagining how it would have felt to be there, swept up in all the excitement and clutching a freshly printed Crystal Palace Programme & Guide to the Entertainments.
Check back for another ephemera feature next week!