Meet Me at the World's Fair

by Sandra Hindman

The telephone, the Ferris Wheel, the first public toilet, the television, the Eiffel Tower, the incubator, the X-ray machine, even the dishwasher - these are just a few of the "firsts" exhibited at world's fairs. But, a book? What kind of book could compete with a scientific novelty like Alexander Graham Bell's telephone or an architectural wonder like Gustav Eiffel's tower?

How could a book hold its own next to these remarkable achievements? Well, there is one such book. The first (and only) woven book ever produced was displayed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Livre de Prières Tissé, France, Lyon, 1886-1887

Let's set the stage. Mounted to celebrate the storming of the Bastille and the centennial of the French Republic, the Paris World's Fair of 1889 was a showcase intended to attract visitors. Its symbol, the Eiffel Tower created quite a fuss, as viewers scorned it as "giddy and ridiculous... like a big black smokestack." Attract visitors it did. This world's fair was one of the most successful of all time, setting a record of 397,000 visitors in a single day. It has gone down in history for its exotic encounters, complete with colonial villages and Southeast Asian music. Claude Debussy is said to have heard Javanese gamelan music there for the first time. The Mexican Pavilion featured an Aztec Palace.

World's Fairs

World's fairs were designed to showcase achievements and focused mainly on industrialization during the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. Participating nations often built elaborate pavilions to display their progress. The Exposition Universelle of 1889 ran from 6 May to 31 October 1889. It used a 3km railway to transport visitors around the site. The Eiffel Tower and the Galerie des machines pavilion were key attractions, the Galerie was the largest interior space in the world at the time (115 by 420 metres).

Representing the Americans, Buffalo Bill recruited the colorful sharpshooter Annie Oakley for his Wild West show, which performed before packed audiences. Displayed in the French section, but from India, the Imperial Diamond or "Great White Diamond," then the largest diamond in the world, was a central attraction. Political and cultural identity vied with science and modernity to create a show-stopping event. The fair lasted nearly six months and before it was over tallied around 32 million visitors.

Famous for its textiles, the French city of Lyon came up with the idea of creating a woven book for the fair. Local artisans programmed Jacquard looms (invented in 1804, these machines used perforated punch cards in a continuous sequence to weave complex patterns) with hundreds of thousands of punch cards (just one card was necessary for a single row of thread) to produce a 58-page Prayer Book known as Livre de Prières Tissé d'après les enluminures des manuscrits du XIVe au XVIe siècle (which translates as Book of Prayers woven after illuminations in manuscripts of the 14th and 15th century).

It took nearly two years and close to 50 trials before even one copy could be successfully made. Fabric was intricately woven of fine grey and black silk threads. The fragile pieces of silk were then carefully folded in half and glued over a sheet of cardboard to give the necessary stiffening to the delicate material. Bindings were custom-made by the latest Art Nouveau craftsmen in Paris.

Richly illustrated with borders on every page and four large pictures, the "Livre tissé" is remarkable not only for its technology, but for its artistic design. The donor portraits in the "Livre tissé" mirror those in a Book of Hours, made in the Flemish city of Ghent circa 1425, which is now housed in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Livre de Prières Tissé, France, Lyon, 1886-1887, p. ix, Nativity and p. 16, Virgin and Child surrounded by Music-Playing Angels

Its title page is inspired by an illumination in a manuscript known as the Grandes Heures commissioned by the famous Duke of Berry. Other images come from Italian Renaissance paintings - the Linaioli Triptych attributed to Fra Angelico and Raphael's Disputa in the Stanza della Segnatura. Every border is different. The designer clearly poured over medieval and Renaissance sources - widely available in chromo-lithographic facsimiles.

For today's techies, the woven book occupies a privileged position that has little to do with art. Computer science enthusiasts have seized on the book's special relationship to the computer. The perforated cards (or the punch-card system) used for the Jacquard looms inspired the famous "Analytical Engine" conceived by Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who is considered the "father of the computer."

Livre de Prières Tissé, France, Lyon, 1886-1887

Manufacturers of the "Livre tissé" employed Babbage's technology, but it was not until 1964 that IBM unveiled the first desktop computer at the New York World's Fair. Little did IBM know (I imagine) that 75 years earlier a prototype for the computer, the Livre tissé, held a place of honor in the Paris World's Fair where, incidentally, it took the Grand Prize.

This article was originally published on Textmanuscripts, the Les Enluminures' blog.

Sandra Hindman is a leading expert on Medieval and Renaissance manuscript illumination. Professor Emerita of Art History at Northwestern University and owner of Les Enluminures, Sandra is author, co-author, or editor of more than 10 books, as well as numerous articles on history, illuminated manuscripts and medieval rings.

See the woven book See the book

Vintage Photos of 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle