“The Great Exhibition and the Little One,” from Household Words

Author(s) : DICKENS Charles, HORNE Richard
Share it
This article forms part of the Close-up on the great British and French universal exhibitions during the Second Empire

It was seen by a few philosophers long since, that the abstract faculties of man could not be increased in number, neither could they be enlarged and refined beyond a given extent; and it was therefore concluded that the advances of mankind in their practical social condition were limited to the ordinary characteristics of a high condition of civilisation. This belief was generally entertained down to a comparatively recent period. It has been reserved, not merely for our modern times, but we may fairly say for our own day, to perceive the truth, and to announce a belief in the gradual advances of the human family to a condition very superior to anything conveyed by mere “civilisation,” in the common acceptation of the word, and in the common characteristics which it displays. In brief, we consider that our present period recognises the progress of humanity, step by step, towards a social condition in which nobler feelings, thoughts, and actions, in concert for the good of all, instead of in general antagonism, producing a more refined and fixed condition of happiness, may be the common inheritance of great and small communities, and of all those nations of the earth who recognise and aspire to fulfil their law of human progression.
There may be — for a free will, and a perverse one, too, appear to be allowed by Providence to nations as well as individuals — there may be an odd, barbarous, or eccentric nation, here and there, upon the face of the globe, who may see fit to exercise its free will, in the negative form of will-not, and who may seclude itself from the rest of the world, resolved not to move on with it. For the rest of the earth's inhabitants, the shades, and steps, and gradations of the ascending scale will be various, and no doubt numerous; but, what we are moving in a right direction towards some superior condition of society — politically, morally, intellectually, and religiously — that newly turned-up furrows of the earth are being sown with larger, nobler, and more healthy seed than the earth has ever yet received, we humbly yet proudly and with heartfelt joy that partakes of solemnity, do fully recognise as a great fact — the greatest and grandest, by far, of all the facts that crowdingly display themselves at the present time, because it indicates the ultimate combination of all our noblest efforts.
Let us glance at a few of the special signs and tokens of the struggle that is no going on in the world, and we shall clearly see that the period of revolutionary excitement has in a great measure subsided into an industrial excitement. It looks as though England had said to the continental nations — “Pause awhile to take breath after your barricades, and the putting to flight of your kings, and consider whether a good round of industrious work will not show us all whereabouts we are; whether it will not give time to reflect upon the best means of gaining greater strength by means of the knowledge of things, and of each other, than can possibly be acquired by the sword. Who can tell but the political rights of nations may be more easily and permanently attained by works of peace, by studious observation, and by steady persevering resolution, than by any number of emeutes, however, successful at the time?” Far from thinking that such a course is likely to merge energies in abstract speculation, or that it can supersede the ever-present necessity for practical action and direct effort, we are of opinion that such a speech from the mouth of sturdy Old England is very worthy of careful consideration, by many of those nations who have contributed to the present Exhibition of Industry.

Of these special signs and tokens of the peaceful progress of the world, how numerous, how diversified are they!  — and — let us honestly add — how impossible to be thoroughly singled out and examined amidst the crowding masses of men and things, raw materials and manufactured articles, machines and engines that surround you on every side! Where to begin, and how to advance with any prospect of concluding in a reasonable number of daily visits — is the difficulty. It is not much diminished by the great official Catalogue, (to say nothing of the “Synopsis,” the “Popular Guide,” &c), to which no index is attached, nor any compass-box — which is almost equally needed by the persevering navigator of all the “bays” and other intricacies below and above. Suppose, therefore, we lay aside the Catalogue, and turning over Porter's “Progress of the Nation,” adopt his divisions to guide us in our examination.
Mr Porter begins with “Population.” We cannot do much with this question, as it is not at all represented or representable by an exhibition of this kind. Yet the question is too important in any consideration of national progress to be entirely passed over.
It appears that England doubles its population in fifty-two years; France, in one hundred and twenty-five years; Russia, in forty-two years; the United States of America, in twenty-two and-a-half years; Sweden doubles its population in one hundred years; and all Europe in fifty-seven years. What are we to say of China? We believe the figures are not known; and, even if they were, the practice of infanticide would in a great measure perplex, if not defeat, our judgement and deductions. Here, however, we find all other countries doubling their populations in a comparatively short period of years, and England, Russia, and the United States of America, in alarmingly short periods of years — the latter, more especially.

Are there any corresponding means of increasing the power of producing food, so as to meet this constantly progressive demand for it? The great number of ploughs, and the exercise of so much thought and mechanical ingenuity in their varieties of invention, has been the subject of some good-natured merriment among other nations; but, when we look forward twenty-two years, and behold the American States with double their present population, the contemplation of these ploughs and other agricultural implements, must induce very serious reflections — reflections which do not end with the thought of America. It is not our present business to consider the causes of this extraordinary difference in the numerical advances of our species in different countries, curious and intricately interesting as that examination would be; but to look at such means of meeting the increase as now present themselves before us. In England, we may regard our machinery and workshops as so many means of obtaining corn, and other food-productions of the earth. Our machinery and engines are our ploughs, by an indirect process, since we manufacture for those countries whose agricultural produce is far more abundant than our own.
This brings us to the second division of Porter's examination of the “Progress of the Nation,” namely, agricultural and manufacturing production. Under this head, we have to point, first, to the great quantity and variety of raw materials — mining and mineral products — chemical and pharmaceutical productions — substances used as food — and vegetable and animal substances used in manufactures; and secondly, to the extraordinary display of enginery and machinery. Under this latter head are to be included all the improvements in railway travelling, no less than in farming and in manufacturing.
As it is impossible in any allowable space to “go through” the whole Exhibition, or tough upon a tithe of its Catalogue, let us suggest as curious subjects of comparison, those two countries which display (on the whole) the greatest degree of progress, and the least — say England and China. England, maintaining commercial intercourse with the whole world; China, shutting itself up, as far as possible, within itself. The true Tory spirit would have made a China of England, if it could. Behold its results in the curious little Exhibition now established close beside the great one. It is very curious to have the Exhibition of a people who came to a dead stop, Heaven knows how many hundred years ago, side by side with the Exhibition of the moving world. It points the moral in a surprising manner.
Consider our English raw materials, and our engines and machinery. We do not pause to particularise; there they are, and may be seen. Enormous blocks of coal, great masses of stone, and timber, and marble, and mineral and vegetable substances.
Consider the material employed at the great Teacup Works of Kiang-tiht-Chin (or Tight-Chin) the “bedaubing powder, ready mixed,” and the “bedaubing material”; — pith of stick, to make rice-paper; medicine-roots, hemp-seed, vegetable paints, varnishes, dyes, raw silk, oils, white and yellow arsenic, saffron, camphor, green tea dyes, &c. Consider the greatness of the English results, and the extraordinary littleness of the Chinese. Go from the silk-weaving and cotton-spinning of us outer barbarians, to the laboriously-carved ivory balls of the flowery Empire, ball within ball and circle within circle, which have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years. Well may the three Chinese divinities of the Past, the Present, and the Future be represented with the same heavy face. Well may the dull, immovable, respectable triad sit so amicably, side by side, in a glory of yellow jaundice, with a strong family likeness among them! As the Past was, so the Present is, and so the Future shall be, saith the Emperor. And all the Mandarins prostrate themselves, and cry Amen.
The railway engines, and agricultural engines, and machines; the locomotives, in all their variety; the farm-engines, such as the compound plough, the harrow, the clod-crusher, the revolving sub-soiler (some of them looking not a little alarming, like instruments of torture for the Titans), the draining-plough, the centrifugal pump, the sowing-machine, the reaping, the thrashing, and the winnowing machines, the chaff-cutter, the barley-hummeller, the straw-shaker, the combined thrashing, shaking, and blowing machine; the “machine to sow and hoe an acre of turnips in five minutes” — how can we possible describe these, so as to be understood! Then, there are sawing-machines of great power; machines for planing; others by which a large hurdle can be cut from the solid timber, and put together in nine minutes, and a fifty-six gallon beer-barrel made in five minutes. As for the machinery of our manufactures, with all their complex powers, their wonderful stringed, velocity, and minutely precise manipulations, one's head whizzes with the recollection of them. But among all these wonders, nothing exceeds, and but few approach, the printing machinery of the “Illustrated London News,” which is the same as that used by the “Times.”
After contemplating this extraordinary piece of mechanism, and its ordinary practical results, take a walk across, and along, “hither and thither,” to the Little Exhibition, and look at the means of printing which is there exhibited.
“The operation is very quick,” says the Chinese Catalogue, “and from two thousand to three thousand may be taken off in a day by a single workman.” This rude expedient has never been improved from the hours of its first construction. It is an illustration of the true doctrine of Finality; the gospel according to which would have been taught us (under heavy pains and penalties) to print for ever, as Caxton prints upon the Royal Academy walls, in Mr. Macalise's wonderful picture, and to keep the stupendous machinery which produces our daily newspapers with the regularity of the sun, through all eternity, in the limbo of things waiting to be born.
There are some stupendous anchors lying in the outer part of the Great Exhibition. Their enormous size and weight naturally suggest the present advanced state of naval architecture in England and America; we may turn from sailing-ships to the models of our steam-navy, and of the magnificent stream-boats on the lakes and rivers of the Untied States.
Compare these with the models of junks and boats in the Chinese Exhibition. Compare these with the Junk itself, lying in the Thames hard by the Temple-stairs. As a bamboo palanquin is, beside a Railway-train, so is an English or American ship, beside this ridiculous abortion Aboard of which, the sailors decline to enter until “a considerable amount of tin-foil, silver paper, and joss stick,” has been purchased for their worship. Where they make offerings of tea, sweet-cake, and pork, to the compass, on the voyage, to induce it to be true and faithful. Where the best that seamanship can do for the ship is to paint two immense eyes on her bows, in order that she may see her way, (do the Chinese do this to their blind?) and to hang out bits of red rag in stormy weather to mollify the wrath of the ocean. Where the crew live in china closets, wearing crape petticoats and wooden clogs. Where the cabinet is fitted up with every sort of small scented object that is utterly irreconcilable with water or motion. Where nobody thinks of going aloft, or could possibly carry out his wild intention if he did. Where the crew ought to be armed with sticks of cinnamon, and the captain with a lantern at the end of a pole. Where the whole is under the protection of an ornithological phenomenon on the stern, who crows with all his might and main, “I was the representation of a cock a thousand years ago, and the man who says I could possibly be made more like one, shall immediately be sawn in half, according to law!”
Return to the Great Exhibition. In the department (Class 7) of Civil Engineering, architecture, and building contrivances, we find the revolving, dioptric, and catadioptric apparatus of lighthouses; models of railways, of iron bridges, of self-supporting suspension-bridges, of submarine steam-propellers, of the great tubular bridge, and of the proposed “grand ship canal through the Isthmus of Suez.”
Step over to the Little Exhibition, and consider how the Chinese Lanthorns would look on the North or South Foreland, or the Long Ships, or the Eddystone, in heavy weather, and what capital floating lights they would make on the Goodwin Sands.
The Chinese self-supporting bridges, houses, pagodas, and little islands, on their porcelain, all standing upon nothing, are equally curious with the models of their actual structure.
In the Great Exhibition, among the philosophical, musical, horological, and surgical instruments, we find, first, the great Electric Clock; and next we notice clocks that will go for four hundred days with once winding up; watches that are so accurate from injury by damp, that they are exhibited suspended in water, and performing with regularity; a money-calculating machine, suited to the currency of all nations; an instrument for the solution of difficult problems in spherical trigonometry (obviously a great comfort); clocks showing the days of the month, months of the year, motions of the sun and moon, and the state of the tide at the principal sea-ports of Great Britain, Ireland, France, America, Spain, Portugal, Holland and Germany — and showing all this for a whole year with only one winding up; oxyhydrogen microscopes; daguerreotype and calotype apparatus; and, above all, the electric telegraphs.
In competition with these, the Little Exhibition presents us with “a very curious porcelain box in the form of a crab, with movable eyes and foot,” and with no clock or watch at all. In the absence of public clocks to strike the hours, a Chinese watchman hits a large bell with a mallet; first ascertaining the time by an European watch, or from the burning of a candle, or the running of sand, or the descent of some liquid in a vessel.
We ought not to omit the mention of a few of the ingenious surgical inventions (and here our French exhibiters are most skilful) such as the artificial leech; apparatus and tools to meet the loss of the right hand; the artificial leg, to enable those who have lost that limb above the knee, to ride, walk, sit gracefully, or even dance; an illuminative instrument for inspecting the inside of the ear, and another for the eye; the guard razor, which shaves off hair, and will not cut flesh; the ostracide (grand and killing terms for the easy oyster-opener); the masticating knife and fork, for dyspeptic persons; artificial arms, hands, feet, legs, eyes; the artificial silver nose, warranted; and so on.
Chinese philosophical instruments we have neither seen, nor heard of, with very few exceptions. A maritime compass-box, however, is exhibited, and is considered efficient, notwithstanding that the needle points due south. The Chinese say it always does — one end of it. Of their surgical instruments we know very little; but, if we may judge of them from their knives and razors, and carpenters' tools, they must be sufficiently primitive and curious.
In the arts of sculpture and modelling, the progress many by all nations (we do not include Italy, because she has so long been famous for her excellence) is sufficiently apparent. With regard to English sculpture, we have only to call the attention of the visitor of the Great Exhibition to Mr. MacDowell's model of “Eve,” to Mr. Lough's “Titania,” to Mr. Bell's “Andromeda,” and “Eagle Slayer,” to the two figures by Mr. Baily, to the group in bronze by Mr. Wyatt, and to the colossal groups by Messrs Lough and MacDowell, to establish the fact of our having attained a high position in the art. The models in plaster, clay, and terracotta, and other works of plastic art, are also very numerous, and many of them display great excellence.
In the Little Exhibition, we find the old and never-to-be-surpassed ugly lion-monsters, with the mouth stretched until the head is half off, and the eye-balls rolling out of their sockets; we have figures of the same mandarins and the same ladies, who have sat on the same teapots and screens from time immemorial; we have carved chessmen, and caddies, and cabinets, and richly painted lanterns and teapots, and tea-cups, and soap-stone josses, and other stout gentlemen, very much in déshabillle, and with an unpleasant habit of putting out their tongues; we have slim young ladies, standing askew, with long-legged umbrellas, or some incomprehensible knick-knack, in one hand; we have models of the common people, looking very dirty and half-starved; we have more teapots; and a revolving lantern (not exactly meant to rival our catadriotripc one); and elaborately insignificant designs carved on mother-of-pearl and ivory; and more teapots, and ivory balls, with twenty other balls each a size less than the other, inside, and all movable, and no joints visible, if any exist; and diminutive boxes carved from peach-stones; and hand-screens made from the gelatine of the heads of fish; and more lanthorns; and the Goddess Chin-Te with no end of arms; and all sorts of horrible old grinners who are to be devoutly worshipped; and the God of War, who is by far the finest fellow in the party, for he really does mean something, and it is by no meaning fighting. He is considering, with a very cunning face, “Now, let me see. What will be the best way out of this? Shall I arrange to pay so many sacks of silver and afterwards fill them with lead, or how, otherwise, shall I circumvent the Barbarians and restore peace to the dominions of my Emperor, whose official name is Reason's Glory?”
The construction of musical instruments has always been a marked sign of the progress of nations, in refinement of taste and skill of [p. 359] hand. Frankly admitting that the great improvements (more particularly the cornopeans, sax-horns, opheclides, the sostenente, the many-keyed flutes, the corno-musa, and other fine inventions) are originally derived from Germany, we have yet claim credit for our sense and skill in adopting and manufacturing them; and this applies to one grand instrument, the grandest of them all, wherein, we believe it may not be said that we have attained a superiority to all other nations. The great organ in the gallery, by Willis, of London, may be adduced in proof of this; while the pianofortes, also, of Broadwood, and of Collard, are without superiors in any part of the world. We have made great efforts to arrive at the highest excellence in all the nice and intricate mechanisms of musical instruments, and with complete success, being now upon an equality with nearly all the finest productions of Germany, Italy, and France.
But what has the Celestial Empire been doing in this way during the last twenty yeas, or the last fifty, or the last five hundred years, of the last thousand years? See the Chinese harp — the flute — the horn — guitar, or mandolin. The only real instruments worthy of the name as “things capable,” though not to be called “most musical,” are the gong, and the brass pan and kettle inventions, wherewith that Dragon who attacks the Sun (when Barbarians suppose there is an eclipse) is scared away. The Celestial people have “a sort of a kind of a” flute, guitar, fiddle, bagpipe, horn, and drum. They have no idea of sounding boards, strings of catgut, semitones, counterpoint, or parts in music. the very tree on which their instruments are made, is such a Chinese tree in the essential of always doing the same thing,
that the movement it sheds a leaf, the autumn is sure to have set it.
One of the indications of the progress of a nation is “interchange,” including internal communication and trade, and external communication and commerce, currency, and wages. What the first and second of these are, with respect to Europe generally, both in extent and quality, the Great Exhibition fully attests.
The internal communication of China is chiefly an affair of official pigtails — a series of Mandarins of different sizes, buttons, and feathers, sending letters to each other of various tints, and varying from two feet to six feet in length; while the trade is limited entirely to articles of home produce; the Celestial disdaining all trade and commerce with “outside people,” except at certain sea-ports, which are so remote from the Emperor and his capital that their doings are scarcely known, and are not recognised as part and parcel of the transactions of the empire.
The following division of Mr. Porter's work — public revenue and expenditure — consumption — and accumulation — but which last he means the increase of national works and buildings, of commercial and agricultural stock, and of articles that minister to the comfort and convenience of individuals — are well illustrated by the numerous models of large public edifices and works, projected, or already existing, in the United Kingdom.
In China, there are the Great Wall, and the Imperial Place at Pekin, and the pagodas with their turned-up corners and their bells, and the temple and bridges, and the various teapot works, with few additions, if any, and probably none, all just as they were centuries ago, suggesting the idea of the same Emperor having sat upon the same enamelled porcelain throne during the whole time, with the same thin-arched pair of elevated eyebrows, admiring and wondering, with the same inanity, at the same inanimate perfection of himself and all around him.
To complete the contrast, it is worth while to glance at the real Police associated with the Great Exhibition, and the mimic police in the Little One — to say nothing of the sweltering robber in the tub, at the latter place, or the other culprit in the bamboo cage. It is worth while to compare the work-people in the Machinery Courts of the Great Exhibition, with the models of the Chinese workpeople at their various trades. It is worth while to contemplate the Chinese Lady with her lotus feet, two inches and a half in length, and to consider how many other things are crippled by conceited absolutism and distrust. You are quite surprised, in the Little Exhibition, to find Chinese fish gasping like other fish, or a Chinese frog without very oval eyes, until you recollect that neither species are the natural-born subjects of Reason's Glory, but that they happy privilege is reserved for men and women.
Reader, in the comparison between the Great and Little Exhibition, you have the comparison between Stoppages and Progress, between the exclusive principle and all other principles, between the good old times and the bad new times, between perfect Toryism and imperfect advancement. Who can doubt that you will be led to conclusions, unhappily a little at a discount in this degenerate age, and that you will mentally take suit and service in the favoured Chinese Empire, with Reason's Glory!


Charles Dickens and Richard Horne, “The Great Exhibition and the Little One,” Household Words, Saturday July 5, 1851 p. 356-60
Share it