The History of Trade Shows

By Adelaide Raymond

Long before the creation of commercial malls, online shopping, mail order catalogs and other means of modern shopping, the only way to obtain goods was through the marketplace where vendors would exhibit.

Tracing back as far as ancient bazaars and Middle Eastern marketplaces, people would gather to exchange their goods and services. They would take the time to display their products and talk to potential customers, explaining why their product was superior to the dozens of others like it.

Then during the 16th century, merchant capitalism became a popular economic force. Farmers, craftsmen and other merchants would travel to centers and sell their wares at open-market trade fairs. This probably sounds familiar because today’s trade shows share some characteristics with these early marketplaces.

However, it wasn’t until 1851 that the foundation of modern trade shows, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, took place at Hyde Park in Central London. The Great Exhibition was a show designed to display the best products from all over the world in one place. During the 6 months it was open, the show attracted approximately six million visitors. In total, there were about 17,000 exhibitors with products ranging from guns to pottery, musical instruments to perfume, fabrics to machinery and many more. The practice of celebrity attendance at trade shows may have stemmed from The Great Exhibition which was attended by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and others.

The Great Exhibition inspired all those who attended, including the United States citizens. From 1853-1854 the U.S. held the Exhibition of Industry of All Nations, also known as the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. The exhibition showcased many similar displays, as did other countries that later mimicked the Great Exhibition.  International trade expositions continued to be put on by countries such as France and Columbia, but none ever captured the greatness of what took place in Central London.

Today, trade show exhibits have become more complex than those at The Great Exhibition, but they still get their roots from the basic principles of early markets. Entrepreneurs, companies and industry professionals such as investors, manufacturers, licensors and retailers come together at trade shows big and small. Exhibitors purchase booths as a way to showcase products to potential businesses in hopes of their product becoming the next big thing, while companies attend trade shows in the hopes of discovering products worthy of their investments.

As time goes on, trade shows continue to evolve. While it is still common to display products and prototypes, there is not always a need for a physical product presence. For example, INPEX, America’s Largest Invention Show, is the only place companies can find VIBE (Virtual Invention Browsing Experience), with which they can privately view inventions on large, touchscreen viewing stations. However, the ideology behind trade shows has been around as long as there were goods to be bought and traded. Time will only tell how trade shows will evolve in the future.