The Jaw-Dropping Showcase Of Cinema At the 1900 Paris Exposition

If I had a time machine and a list of events I’d like to witness, the 1900 Paris Exposition just might be in the top ten. (Or at least the top 25..there’s a lot of things I’d like to see!) If you haven’t heard of it, it was…well…just look at this:


As I took in the wonders of that fabulous Art Nouveau architecture–dressed in a lovely Parisian summer frock and my best hat, of course–I’d hightail it straight to the Festival Hall. For this is where the Lumières had an exhibit demonstrating moving pictures. On a 70-foot wide screen suspended in that vast, beautiful hall. Yes, a screen of that size in the year 1900! For whatever reason, this momentous occasion has practically been forgotten by history–you’re lucky to even find a picture of it.

I found one! (From Emmanuelle Toulet’s book Birth of the Motion Picture.)

The 1900 Paris Exposition (also called the Universal Exposition or, in French, Exposition Universelle) was an exciting event to begin with. Even more so than previous world’s fairs, it would both showcase the achievements of the past 100 years and herald the coming of the new century, with all its promises of grand technological advancements.

The opening ceremony at the Eiffel Tower.

The site of the fair covered 280 acres in the heart of Paris, stretching from the Place de la Concorde to the Champ de Mars. Along with several vast new buildings and the beautiful Pont Alexandre III, it included some structures from previous expositions like the mighty Eiffel Tower. In its eight month run from April 14 to November 12, 50 million people (!) would visit to take in the wonders of science, communication, art, agriculture, astronomy, and more from around the world. International congresses would also be held there, and even the 1900 Olympic games.

Fountains by the Palace of Electricity.

A number of motion picture companies would have exhibits at the fair, but the Lumières were specially invited to create the most prominent exhibition–you might say it was cinema’s formal “debut.” Initial plans involved hanging a vast screen from the Eiffel Tower, but this didn’t last long. Louis Lumière would instead hang the screen in the Festival Hall, built inside the 1889 fair’s Gallery of Machines. The hall was an elaborate structure topped by a vast stained glass dome, supported by broad arches and surprisingly slender pillars. Walls and ceilings were festooned with art nouveau statues and flourishes and the whole thing was painted in shades of gold, soft yellow, blue, pink, and grey. There was seating capacity along the sides for 25,000 people and plenty of room to roam. Visitors entered through a single door, called “low and unstylish” by one contemporary writer, but imagine the effect of suddenly stepping into a vast, colorful hall, faced with the massive moving images on that screen. It must’ve been surreal.

The hall, presumably during a later event (it was eventually demolished).

A regular-size projector was used for the films and was placed 200 feet from the screen, with “remarkable” results. He originally made a screen that was about 100 feet wide and about 80 feet tall, but had to cut it down to approximately 70 feet wide and 55 feet tall to fit in the newly-built Festival Hall. It would also be kept wet so the images were as luminous as possible. Louis recalled:

“To avoid the difficulty of moistening the screen at the time of projection, the screen was kept immersed in a large rectangular tank of water, and each evening was raised out of the tank by a hand-winch under the cupola after removing the trap door that closed the tank during the day. I had to be satisfied with an arc of only 100 amperes, which, however, was sufficient because of the optical instruments used. The demonstrations occurred each evening, without trouble, throughout the Exposition.”

Testing out the first screen.

There were over 300 free 30-minute screenings during the fair using a total of 150 films, the sort of brief Lumière products still familiar to us today. Louis had hoped to make fancier new films just for the occasion, but it was not to be:

“To obtain better definition in the images projected upon so large a screen, I had a camera built, with the collaboration of Mr. Carpentier, capable of producing images, 4.5 by 6 cm., having perfect definition…Unfortunately, the camera was not finished in time for the more ambitious programs we had planned, so we kept to the original small films.”

The grand entrance of the fair.

Need I say more about what an incredible event this would’ve been to see in person? The gorgeous Art Nouveau fantasyland of the Exposition–in Paris no less; the beauty of the Festival Hall and the vastness of it; the surreal vision of that giant moving image hanging in space–what an epic experience. And what a fitting herald for the great cinema to come.


Lumière, Louis. “The Lumière Cinematograph.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, December 1936, Vol. XXVII, No. 6.
Toulet, Emmanuelle. Birth of the Motion Picture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

8 thoughts on “The Jaw-Dropping Showcase Of Cinema At the 1900 Paris Exposition

  1. Wow what an experience this fair must’ve been! I love those buildings. What a shame they were not made to be permanent. They were exquisite. I found a web page about the fair you will like: It says that it wasn’t a financial success. What a shame! I’m surprised about that. And there is actual footage of it too!

    • On the economic side, it is not really a surprise. Paris made very huge efforts to be the centre of the World for the year 1900 and this had very high costs: one example, think only that the first lines of the Paris’ metropolitan were to be completed on time for the fair , which was not easy (complication to go through the Seine, danger in case of fire as trains were in wood, but the first big fire happened in 1904, so later, citizen not in favor of this new mode of transport,…)
      And, as mentioned above by Lea, the fair was not the only “big event” of the year: also Olympics took place in Paris in 1900 (and last from May to October)
      All this means that the City (and all France) needed to spend a lot of money that despite success of both events was not enough to have a positive balance.

      But, as Lea and many others, I really would have loved to see the fair.

      Un grand bonjour de pas très loin de Paris

    • Wow great finds, thanks for sharing!! (The Eiffel Tower was painted yellow?! Wut) Odd that it wasn’t very profitable, maybe they just sunk so much money into everything it was hard to make it all back.

    • A LOT, especially for an age before antibiotics, fast communication, or speedy travel. I don’t know exactly why or when we became a society of pessimistic sad sacks, lol.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I’ll definitely be checking out your blogathon, Singin’ in the Rain happens to be my favorite film of all time. 🙂

  2. Pingback: “The Divine Sarah” Bernhardt–Sculptress | Silent-ology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s