Letter from Europe

Paris sideshows in June 1867

Issue no. 2017/20

Picture above: The Champs de Mars in Paris, site of the 1867 World Fair (photo © Freesurf69 / dreamstime.com).


There was much ado in Paris 150 years ago this month. The 'Exposition universelle de 1867' had opened at the Champs de Mars in April and had secured very positive press reviews both in France and more widely across Europe. It also drew a big crowd of visitors to the French capital.

Dear fellow travellers

There was much ado in Paris 150 years ago this month. The Exposition universelle de 1867 had opened at the Champs de Mars in April and had secured very positive press reviews both in France and more widely across Europe. By early summer, ever more wealthy Europeans were making their way to Paris to be part of what was very clearly the big happening of 1867.

Over 50,000 exhibitors from 42 countries took part in the Paris show. Among the innovations showcased were reinforced concrete, new clock designs and hydraulic lifts. But the impact of these was eclipsed by the Japanese woodcuts exhibited in Paris.

Ever since Commodore Perry had landed at Kurihama in 1853, there had been speculation in the West about the scale, scope and quality of Japanese art. It was at the Paris fair in 1867 that exhibits from Japan really captured the European imagination.

By June it was already clear that this Exposition universelle (or World Fair) was pulling much bigger crowds than the 1862 fair in London. It was precisely because Europe's opinion makers, intellectuals and social elites all wanted to be in Paris in 1867 that the World Fair attracted dozens of sideshows. There was hardly an international organisation which didn't schedule a meeting in Paris during the exhibition, and the greatest concentration of such conventions was in late June. It was a chance to do a little business, visit the World Fair and still be able to head off on holiday to the mountains or the coast for July and August.

Among the legion of intergovernmental meetings taking place 150 years ago this week was the International Conference on Weights, Measures and Coins, a gathering surely so full of gravitas that delegates would never have been distracted by anything as frivolous as Japanese woodcuts. The Brits at the meeting pondered the merits of decimalisation and considered adding a touch less gold into the sovereign so that it might equate more precisely in value to 25 French francs.

There were of course dissenting voices. The farthing was so historic an element of English coinage, so elementally rooted in the national psyche, that it was inconceivable that the pound might be divided into 1000 farthings instead of just 960.

But the English were not minded to offend their French hosts. One delegate from London put it nicely in remarking that the English "animated by sincere friendship for France, [...] will applaud and accept with pleasure the propositions which we may adopt with a view to introducing uniformity in the coinage of all countries."

Just a few streets away at the same time, another gathering of worthies discussed gold. The International Monetary Conference of 1867 laid the basis for the global monetary system which was to prevail for some decades. The big issue in Paris was whether currencies should be tied just to gold. France and most of the countries at the 1867 gathering favoured a dual standard (linked to both silver and gold) but the Brits saw the future as pure gold - and, rather surprisingly, it was the British view which prevailed. This was not merely an arbitrary decision. Huge new reserves of gold were appearing on the world market (from inter alia California and Australia) so that gold had effectively replaced silver as an instrument of exchange.

If Britain's continental friends thought that the 1867 conference might be used as a pretext to lure Britain into monetary union, they were mistaken. The Latin Monetary Union had been founded just 18 months earlier and already France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Greece had signed up. The British delegation were having none of it, and took time out to see the Japanese woodcuts. In the 150 years since those Paris meetings, issues of currency and sovereignty still haunt British relations with its continental neighbours.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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