The New York Crystal Palace Catalogs

Cataloging History, Part 2

(“Cataloging History” is a four-part series on the history and theory of museum and exhibition catalogs, focusing on the 1853 New York Crystal Palace. Part 1 considers the early history of this genre, tracking its roots to the catalog of the Museum Wormianum and the Louvre, and exploring the variety of uses to which early American museums put published descriptions of their collections and exhibitions. This second part looks in detail at the catalogs and guides published by and about the 1853 New York Crystal Palace. Part 3 considers the catalog as physical and digital object examining the affordances of each of these forms, what it encouraged and allowed. Part 4 applies the tools of the digital humanities to explore the Crystal Palace catalogs as digital object. What can we do when we turn the catalog into a database?)


Part 1 of Cataloging History covered the history of museum and exhibition catalogs to 1850. To review: There were many styles of exhibition catalogs: lists of objects, explanations of content, descriptions of the experience, and catalogs that used the exhibit as an opportunity to expound on a broader topic. New York in the 1850s was just beginning an exhibitionary boom. The exhibit catalog was being rethought. Neither exhibitions nor catalogs had any fixed style. Each display reinvented the medium as it thought best.

Into this scene came the promoters of the 1853 New York Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace would be, they bragged, the most “rich and various display” ever seen “on this side of the Atlantic.” How best to represent such a grand and wonderful display? They were familiar with exhibitions and like the American Institute fair, with their lists of exhibitors. All of them were familiar with New York’s art galleries, the new stores on Broadway, and Barnum’s Museum, and the range of catalogs styles they used. Some of them had seen the Crystal Palace in London, and no doubt all had perused the catalogs.

Visualizing the New York Crystal Palace

According to Earle Coleman’s bibliography of the Crystal Palace, there were 32 official and semi-official publications issued about the exposition. We might arrange these into five categories, with some outliers, and a few that fit into more than one category.

Organizational materials

Opening addresses, and other events

Catalogs both general and specialized by topic and place

Guides and descriptions

Explanations and elaborations

Why so many published materials? The Crystal Palace was a complicated place, with thousands of exhibitors displaying a wide range of art and artifact from around the world. It was hard to find your way around in. And the promoters wanted to reach not just New Yorkers and visitors to the city, but also other businessmen who were interested in the machinery and products on display, but also potential buyers—indeed, all Americans. They had an international audience in mind, too. The Crystal Palace was intended to show the world that America had come of age as both an industrial and mercantile power and as a major market.

A Panoramic Representation of the Interior of the Crystal Palace, New York, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1854.
A Panoramic Representation of the Interior of the Crystal Palace, New York, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1854.

I’m going to focus on catalogs and guides, including maps, thinking about them as ways to record and experience a museum-like experience. Lev Manovich, in “Database as a Symbolic Form,” offers a way to think about catalogs and guides, or as he calls them, database and narrative. He writes:

“Database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.”

Manovich suggests that databases are a modern replacement for narrative. In museum work, they have long been complementary, serving different purposes and audiences.


A Day in the New York Crystal Palace, 1853

William Richards was the author of both A Day in the New York Crystal Palace, a guide, and of the official catalog. He introduced his guide with a comparison of the two forms:

“The Official Catalogue, indispensable in itself as a complete and systematic inventory of the thousands of objects embraced in the Great Exhibition, is, yet, in the very nature of the case, deficient in that sort of information concerning the chief attractions of the Palace which the visitor requires.”
Excerpts from A Day in the New York Crystal Palace

Richard’s guide was designed for the visitor to carry with him. It’s a walk through the building “pausing here and there,” as bibliographer Coleman notes, “to deliver what now seem very poor jokes and woefully inane puns.” The user is warned to follow the path it outlines precisely. The benefit to be derived from it, we are told, “will be in exact proportion to the fidelity with which the course it points out is followed.” It was designed as “the best way to see the whole Exhibition in the shortest possible time and with the least possible weariness.” It is a remarkably random walk through the fair, reflecting the odd way things were displayed. A specimen of cordage is next to the Venus of the Louvre. Tobacco and food are intermixed. Our guide notes that “The singular, though perhaps unavoidable, admixture which obtains of chemical products, substances used as food and raw materials, render it quite impossible to keep these classes distinct in this Manual.”

A Day in the New York Crystal Palace was banned from sale at the Crystal Palace. It’s interesting to speculate on why that was. Perhaps, by suggesting a path — by defeating the randomness of the database or the official country-category organization of the Official Guide, the “A Day In” guide privileged some displays more than others. It might also have taken business from the gentlemen who offered themselves as guides, at a price.

A second guide, the Union Book Association’s Strangers Guide to the City and Crystal Palace, offered another approach. Their choice of what to feature was easy. It was a commercial guide — the 46 firms who bought ads in the back were featured in the write-up.

How to See the Crystal Palace, 1854

One more guide, this one done by a writer not so fixated on the catalog view, or seeing everything, or an official take on things. How to see the New York Crystal Palace is an opinionated guide, happy to tell you what’s good and what’s bad. This is from the second incarnation of the fair, when P.T. Barnum had taken charge, and it shows. This is a user-friendly guide. It’s selective. All of the art is described in one section. The picture gallery is described in a list, with only occasional editorial interventions; presumably you can wander there on your own. (It seems that only “Part first: General View.—Sculpture.—Paintings” was the only part that was published.)


Catalogs are databases, or prot0-databases. “As a cultural form,” Manovitch writes, “database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list.” A published catalog offers the data of a database, but in a frozen form. (Part 3 of this series considers what happens when we use digital methods to unfreeze it.)

The World of Science, Art, and Industry, Illustrated from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54

The Crystal Palace authorities published two catalogs that suggest both the range of ways to display the Fair on paper and also the possibilities the database as worldview. The World of Science, Art, and Industry, Illustrated from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54 was self-consciously designed as a publication for the ages. It’s a gorgeous volume, costing, the publisher proclaimed in capital letters, “in excess of FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS.” The publisher went on to proclaim its “general and permanent value; the present Exhibition being used merely to furnish a text and examples for the illustration of general principles.”

The table of contents of the The World of science, art, and industry, illustrated from examples in the New-York exhibition, 1853–54

It’s an odd two-part book, printed in sections over the course of the fair, and much of it printed at the fair. Some of the pages are illustrations — it included 504 illustrations, made from daguerreotypes — with descriptions. These are Manovitch’s unordered database: random images designed to catch the eye — with an odd index that sorts them by class as a table of contents.

Interleaved with these are scholarly articles, was written by Prof. Benjamin Silliman, one of America’s most important scientists. The World of Science was both a catalog and an explanation and elaboration. (It also had advertisements, but they were inserts, carefully kept separate from the finished volume.)

The Official Catalogue of the New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nation, 1853. Courtesy Bard Graduate Center

The second official catalog, The Official Catalogue of the New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations offered almost 200 pages of fine print listing all of the almost all of the objects on display. The author — compiler is a better term — was William Richards — who went on to write the One Day guide. It is a pure database. Exhibits are arranged in the catalog by country, and then by subject, just as they were in the building itself.

There are two maps that shows where everything is located. (More on these later.) A table of contents lists things by country. Within country, they are listed by class, or industrial grouping. The editor gives instructions on how to use the catalog: “the visitor should pursue, on passing through the building, the order in which it presents the countries. As an object meets his eye, he will notice its class and serial numbers, and reference to the following pages, will at once put him in possession of all the information concerning the object.

The first three pages (of 23) of the displays from the United Kingdom, from the Official Catalog. The catalog organizes the fair by country, and then by class.

But that seems unlikely. Visitors wonder. Instead, we might think about the organization of the fair, and the catalog, as a way of visualizing the goals of the fair. The goal, the catalog states, is “to draw forth such a representation of the world’s industry and resources as would enable us to measure the strength and value of our own, while it indicated new aims for our enterprise and skill.” The organizers were eager to highlight foreign manufactures, to highlight New York City as a commercial center, “the chief entrepot of European goods.”

The organization of the catalog and the fair reveals the thinking behind the display. This was not a place to compare products from different countries — if that had been the goal, the products would have been arranged by class, not by country. Instead, it was a place for experts to see what might be imported, what countries were doing. The organizers were especially pleased that they succeeded in securing contributions “which would otherwise be unknown” in the US. This suggests that agents and importers, rather than manufacturers, were driving the fair.

Notice of the Mineralogical Collection in the Crystal Palace, by Benjamin Silliman. New York, 1854.

There were two additional catalogs of the Fair, for those who didn’t want to miss anything. Class 1, “Minerals, Mining, and Metallurgy” wasn’t ready in time for the Official Catalog, and was published later, after a great deal of controversy. This was quite a narrative catalog, explaining the process of selection, thanking donors, and offering highlights of the minerals on display, which were scattered throughout the Crystal Palace. Some, like a 29 1/2 foot column of coal, were displayed outdoors. Some were organized into a “cabinet.” And many were displayed in other classes, in the various national sections of the building.

Official Catalog of the Pictures Contributed to the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in the Picture Gallery of the Crystal Palace, 1853.

The Official Catalog of the Pictures was published shortly after the main catalog. It was organized in a straightforward way, following the layout of the exhibit: “The numbers start at the centre, and proceeding to the left, continue completely around the gallery.” It was useful in the space, where the paintings had been arranged by donor, but seems fairly random as a catalog, with paintings arranged in no apparent order.

Both the Official Catalog and the Illustrated Record were for sale at the fair.

Maps and Charts

Maps and charts offer a third information system for navigating the exhibition.

The Official Catalog included two very abstract maps and some difficult directional information that a careful reader might use to build a tour of objects of interest.

First and second floor maps, and information on where to find displays by country. From the Official Catalog.

But much more useful were the maps handed out to visitors to the Fair, to let them find their way through what must have been a very confusing place. Few brochure maps survive for early exhibitions, though whether that’s because they were infrequently created or because they were ephemeral is hard to know.

A copy of the official brochure—a handout, no doubt—with a map survives from the Crystal Palace. It offers, in two sides of a single sheet of paper, a remarkable amount of useful information for the visitor. In addition to official regulations (“No fire or smoking allowed within the Enclosure of the Fair”) and where to find the people responsible for areas of concern (Catalogue office, W. C. Richards, editor, Office №13 (Interior), a Gallery”) it offered clear directions of finding objects of interest.

Brochure for visitors to the New York Crystal Palace. From University of Maryland.
Detail from the brochure showing visitors where to look for items of interest.

The top left of the brochure offers a chart that would allow visitors to find things they were interested in quite easily — much easier than navigating the fair using the catalogs. Interested in Category 11, “Manufactures of Cotton”? Check out Division B, Courts 12 and 14, and Division D, Court 6.

Detail from brochure revealing highpoints and areas of interest in a way that cuts across the organizational scheme of the Fair.

But perhaps most useful is the fine print on the map. Here, the visitors’ needs for detail beyond classes and categories, beyond country—that is beyond what the simple database of a catalog provides—are provided for. Look at the fine print in the detail above. Shall we go see Prussian porcelain? or McFarland’s harnesses? Lasak’s furs? English silver ware? This map allows visitors to use the Crystal Palace in a much for user-friendly way.

Maps and charts offer a visitor’s-eye perspective. The map-maker has to make choices and doesn’t need to hold to a consistent scheme. The catalog aimed for completeness and a standard form of presentation. The map calls attention to areas of interest, a bird’s-eye view that acknowledges the heterogeneity of the Fair and the varied interests of visitors.


.New York Public Library ,The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection, 1659197

These essays are dedicated to the memory of David Jaffee, whose work at the Bard Graduate Center inspired their writing. They are based on a presentation to the Bard Graduate Center symposium on the New York City Crystal Palace, part of the opening ceremonies of the New York Crystal Palace 1853 exhibition.Based on a presentation to the Bard Graduate Center symposium on the New York City Crystal Palace.

Scholarly writing on the Crystal Palace:

Earle E. Coleman, Exhibition in the Palace: A Bibliographical Essay (New York: New York Public Library), 1960

Charles Hirschfeld, “America on Exhibition: The New York Crystal Palace,” American Quarterly 9, no. 2 (1957): 104, doi:10.2307/2710627.

New York Crystal Palace 1853. Digital Publication. Bard Graduate Center, 2017.

Robert Post, Reflections of American Science and Technology at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853, Journal of American Studies, Vol. 17, №3 (Dec., 1983), pp. 337–356

Daniel E Russell, Crystals at the Crystal Palace: The Mineralogical Display at the 1853 Crystal Palace Exhibit in New York City,” February 2008,

Catalogs Mentioned in the Essay

How to See the New York Crystal Palace: Being a Concise Guide to the Principal Objects in the Exhibition as Remodelled, 1854.- Part First.-General View.- Sculpture.- Paintings. G. P. Putnam, 1854.

New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (1853–1854). Official Catalogue of the New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. 1853. New-York, G.P. Putnam & co., 1853.

Notice of the Mineralogical Collection in the Crystal Palace. New York : Billin & Brothers, 1854.

William Carey Richards, A Day in the New York Crystal Palace and How to Make the Most of It: Being a Popular Companion to the “Official Catalogue”, and a Guide to All the Objects of Special Interest in the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (G.P. Putnam, 1853), 11.

Benjamin Silliman, World of Science, Art, and Industry, Illustrated from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. New-York, G.P. Putnam and Co., 1854.

Other Useful Primary Sources

Carstensen, Georg, and Karl Gildemeister. New York Crystal Palace: Illustrated Description of the Building. Riker, Thorne & Company, 1854.

New-York Crystal Palace for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations: This Building, Constructed of Iron and Glass, Is Erected on Reservoir Square in the City of New-York, by the Association for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations … Carr & Hicks, stationers and printers, 31 Maiden Lane, N.Y., 1852.

Richards, William Carey. A Day in the New York Crystal Palace and How to Make the Most of It: Being a Popular Companion to the “Official Catalogue”, and a Guide to All the Objects of Special Interest in the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. G.P. Putnam, 1853.

Silliman, Benjamin. World of Science, Art, and Industry, Illustrated from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. New-York, G.P. Putnam and Co., 1854.

Stranger’s Guide to the City and Crystal Palace, with a Full Description of the City of New York, and a Complete History of the American Industrial Exhibition … New York: Union Book Associates, 1853.

Also useful

Manovich, Lev. “Database as Symbolic Form.” Convergence 5, no. 2 (June 1, 1999): 80–99. doi:10.1177/135485659900500206.

Currier & Ives, “Burning of the New York Crystal Palace on Tuesday Oct. 5th 1858.” Museum of the City of New York