William Wells Brown Visits The Crystal Palace

William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown, the child of a slave and slave owner, grew up in St. Louis in the early nineteenth century. He was sold many times before he escaped slavery in 1834. He adopted the name Wells Brown after the Quaker who helped him as a runaway. Having no formal education, Wells Brown taught himself to read and went on to become the first African American to publish a novel, play, and a travel guide. He wrote Three Years in Europe: Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met while lecturing on abolitionism in Europe. I’ve excerpted his description of The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, which was the first world’s fair.

Crystal Palace

A Day in the Crystal Palace.

London, June 27th, 1851.

Presuming that you will expect from me some account of the great World’s Fair, I take my pen to give you my own impressions, although I am afraid that anything which I may say about this “Lion of the day,” will fall far short of a description. On Monday last, I quitted my lodgings at an early hour, and started for the Crystal Palace. This day was fine, such as we seldom experience in London, with a clear sky, and invigorating air, whose vitality was as rousing to the spirits as a blast from the “horn of Astolpho.” Although it was not yet 10 o’clock when I entered Piccadilly, every omnibus was full, inside and out, and the street was lined with one living stream, as far as the eye could reach, all wending their way to the “Glass-House.” No metropolis in the world presents such facilities as London for the reception of the Great Exhibition, now collected within its walls. Throughout its myriads of veins, the stream of industry and toil pulses with sleepless energy. Everyone seems to feel that this great Capital of the world, is the fittest place wherein they might offer homage to the dignity of toil. I had already begun to feel fatigued by my pedestrian excursion as I passed “Apsley House,” the residence of the Duke of Wellington, and emerged into Hyde Park.

The Great Exhibition by James Duffield Harding
The Great Exhibition by James Duffield Harding

I had hoped that on getting into the Park, I would be out of the crowd that seemed to press so heavily in the street. But in this I was mistaken. I here found myself surrounded by and moving with an overwhelming mass, such as I had never before witnessed. And, away in the distance, I beheld a dense crowd, and above every other object, was seen the lofty summit of the Crystal Palace. The drive in the Park was lined with princely-looking vehicles of every description. The drivers in their bright red and gold uniforms, the pages and footmen in their blue trousers and white silk stockings, and the horses dressed up in their neat, silver-mounted harness, made the scene altogether one of great splendour. I was soon at the door, paid my shilling, and entered the building at the south end of the Transept. For the first ten or twenty minutes I was so lost in astonishment, and absorbed in pleasing wonder, that I could do nothing but gaze up and down the vista of the noble building. The Crystal Palace resembles in some respects, the interior of the cathedrals of this country. One long avenue from east to west is intersected by a transept, which divides the building into two nearly equal parts. This is the greatest building the world ever saw, before which the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Colossus of Rhodes must hide their diminished heads. The palace was not full at any time during the day, there being only 64,000 persons present. Those who love to study the human countenance in all its infinite varieties, can find ample scope for the indulgence of their taste, by a visit to the World’s Fair. All countries are there represented—Europeans, Asians, Americans and Africans, with their numerous subdivisions… Of all places of curious costumes and different fashions, none has ever yet presented such a variety as this Exhibition.

There is a great deal of freedom in the Exhibition. The servant who walks behind his mistress through the Park feels that he can crowd against her in the Exhibition. The Queen and the day labourer, the Prince and the merchant, the peer and the pauper… all meet here upon terms of perfect equality. This amalgamation of rank, this kindly blending of interests, and forgetfulness of the cold formalities of ranks and grades, cannot but be attended with the very best results. I was pleased to see such a goodly sprinkling of my own countrymen in the Exhibition—I mean Black men and women—well-dressed, and moving about with their fairer brethren. This, some of our pro-slavery Americans did not seem to relish very well. There was no help for it. As I walked through the American part of the Crystal Palace, some of our Virginian neighbours eyed me closely and with jealous looks, especially as an English lady was leaning on my arm. But their sneering looks did not disturb me in the least. I remained the longer in their department, and criticised the bad appearance of their goods the more.

Crystal Palace
Mediaeval Court from the Great Exhibition of 1851 from Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/399129
Crystal Palace
from the V&A
from the British Library

In so vast a place as the Great Exhibition one scarcely knows what to visit first, or what to look upon last. After wandering about through the building for five hours, I sat down in one of the galleries and looked at the fine marble statue of Virginius, with the knife in his hand and about to take the life of his beloved and beautiful daughter, to save her from the hands of Appius Claudius. The admirer of genius will linger for hours among the great variety of statues in the long avenue. Large statues of Lords Eldon and Stowell, carved out of solid marble, each weighing above twenty tons, are among the most gigantic in the building.

Among the many things in the Crystal Palace, there are some which receive greater attention than others, around which may always be seen large groups of the visitors. The first of these is the Koh-i-noor, the “Mountain of Light.” This is the largest and most valuable diamond in the world, said to be worth £2,000,000 sterling. It is indeed a great source of attraction to those who go to the Exhibition for the first time, but it is doubtful whether it obtains such admiration afterwards. We saw more than one spectator turn away with the idea that after all it was only a piece of glass. After some jamming, I got a look at the precious jewel, and although in a brass-grated cage, strong enough to hold a lion, I found it to be no larger than the third of a hen’s egg. Two policemen remain by its side day and night.

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Queen Victoria wearing the Koh-i-noor in a brooch. Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter 

The finest thing in the Exhibition, is the “Veiled Vestal,” a statue of a woman carved in marble, with a veil over her face, and so neatly done, that it looks as if it had been thrown over after it was finished. The Exhibition presents many things which appeal to the eye and touch the heart, and altogether, it is so decorated and furnished, as to excite the dullest mind, and satisfy the most fastidious.

I’ve gathered images from several sources including Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Also see the Great Exhibition Of The Works Of Industry Of All Nations: Official Descriptive And Illustrated Catalogue .

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