Skip to main content
Knowledge Center

History of Modern Trade Shows

Alyssa Mertes

Published: July 23rd, 2020

Trade shows are one of the most valuable ways you can promote your brand to customers. These advertising events are great opportunities to network with other professionals and stand apart from the competition. You can even go as far as to offer trendy promotional products to really stand out from the crowd. In fact, we strongly encourage it!

Why do businesses promote at trade shows? When was the first trade show? Take a break from decorating your booth and go down memory lane to visit the history of trade shows.

Hour Glass

The History of Trade Shows Timeline:

Displaying your products in booths has been in practice since bazaars were established in the Middle East. Explore the fascinating history of trade shows in this exclusive timeline!

  • 1810

    Berkshire Cattle Show                                                                  Source:

    Elkanah Watson organized the first agricultural fair in North America. The Berkshire Cattle Show displayed prized livestock and was a sore spot for local shopkeepers who were losing business.

  • 1851

    Great Exhibition Source:

    England became home to the world's first recognized trade show, The Great Exhibition. Hosted by Queen Victoria, this enormous event was a massive success with over 100,000 exhibits and 6 million visitors!

  • 1876

    Centennial Exposition Source:

    Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition was one of the first World Fairs in U.S. history. Alexander Graham Bell introduced his telephone to the public for the first time at this enormous event.

  • 1881

    International Cotton Exposition Source:

    The International Cotton Exposition was an important way to market new products and services. In fact, Eli Whitney displayed the original model of his cotton gin at this prestigious event.

  • 1889

    International Industrial Fair Source:

    New York hosted the International Industrial Fair, which went on to become the largest franchise expo in the country. Today, the annual event sees over 400 of the top franchise brands in the country.

  • 1889

    Eiffel Tower Source:

    Gustav Eiffel designed the Eiffel Tower for the Paris Exposition. This wrought-iron landmark was constructed to commemorate the French Revolution.

  • 1893

    Customized metal trays Source:

    Chicago hosted the infamous World's Columbian Exposition. This historical event introduced the first ever Ferris Wheel, which inspired the 196 foot ride currently at Navy Pier. pular in Coshocton, Ohio, leading to a surge in popularity for the industry. Coca-Cola loved ordering these imprinted trays to advertise their business.

  • 1904

    PPAI Source:

    Promotional products became a significant part of trade shows, leading to the formation of PPAI. Their first expo had only 32 exhibitors, but the event has since grown to host thousands of distributors from all over the country.

  • 1939

    Golden Gate International Exposition Source:

    The Golden Gate International Exposition unveiled one of the most recognizable landmarks in America, the Golden Gate Bridge. Chicago's Joseph Strauss was in charge of this colossal achievement.

  • 1962

    Century 21 Exposition Source:

    The Century 21 Exposition had the theme "The Age of Space." This inspired the futuristic design found in Seattle's most iconic landmark, the Space Needle.

  • 1968

    Consumer Technology Association Source:

    The Consumer Technology Association began their annual trade show in Las Vegas. This event features new products in the world of video games, virtual reality, and even self-driving cars!

  • 1975

    World of concrete Source:

    The World of Concrete hosted their first expo with only 77 presenters. Today, it's one of the leading trade shows for the commercial construction industry.

  • 1997

    AAOS Source:

    The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons hosted their first trade show. This event provides education and improved patient care to musculoskeletal specialists.

  • Late 2000s

    Virtual trade shows Source:

    Virtual trade shows have changed the way these promotional events operate. They cost significantly less and are becoming increasingly popular with business owners.

Wagon Source:

How Bazaar!

People have been selling and exchanging goods since the beginning of civilization. Hunters and gatherers exchanged livestock and crops in exchange for basic survival needs like tools and furs. While we don't necessarily follow the same mold today, the remnants of those early days can still be seen in trade shows!


Bringing trade into public places, however, began with the ancient bazaars of the Middle East. As early as 3000 BCE, storekeepers and farmers would establish booths outside city walls with the goal of marketing their medicines, fabrics, spices, livestock, pottery, and other wares to travelers. Depending on the location, these events would be either confined to close quarters, or contain miles of passageways with hundreds of booths. The bazaars were beneficial for the economic state of Middle Eastern countries and were centers for social, cultural, and political activities. Even more, the new areas for trade and commerce brought the Islamic World into its Golden Age.

Soon this practice of displaying merchandise in public markets went all over the world. From South Africa to Asia, many other powerful nations began to use bazaars as a way to meet costumers and sell their products. Rather than decorating booths and using large props, exhibitors would display their wares in donkey carts. This probably didn't smell too good, but it was an easy way to transport goods. Overall, the structure of these bazaars is still evident in modern trade shows.


Ancient trade had a huge impact on the rest of the world. It was a time of great achievements, riches, and power.

Allison Lassieur, author of Trade and Commerce in the Early Islamic World

When Was the First Trade Show?

Of course, we couldn't rely on donkeys forever, leading to the father of the modern trade show, The Great Exhibition. This giant event was held on May 1,1851 in Hyde Park, London. Great Britain was a leader in technological, industrial, and commercial development. Before this event, however, they had been unable to display their innovation to the rest of the world.

First trade show Source:

Queen Victoria hosted the entire affair and had the Crystal Palace designed specifically for the occasion. There were over 100,000 exhibits, and merchants and craftsmen traveled from all over the world to attend the event. The fair included musical instruments, guns, pottery, fabric, perfumes, and many other coveted products. Furthermore, great machines and other inventions were on full display to huge crowds of visitors. The point was to bring together the industrial achievements of many nations and get product inspiration across the globe. This exhibition was open for 5 months and had a total of 6 million visitors. Incredibly, that was almost 30% of the population of England at the time!

The Great Exposition showed a profit of an estimated $256,000, which by today's standards is close to $8 million! Overall, the fair was a massive success and demonstrated the progress achieved in fields such as mechanical inventions, machinery, and arts. By and large, these bold ideas helped the British economy and set the momentum for the future of trade shows.


Diversity, change, growth, universality, and an optimism toward the ever-evolving future were the large ideas to be given objective form in The Great Exhibition.

R. Reid Badger, Author of The Great American Fair: T he World's Columbian Exposition and American Culture

Fun Fact!

One of the items on display at The Great Exhibition was an alarm clock that tipped a lazy sleeper into a tub of cold water!

The History of Fairs in the United States

No conversation about trade shows is complete without speaking a bit about the earliest fairs in America. These events had a similar structure, with exhibitors displaying their products and services to a large crowd of people. Like modern trade shows, they also had booths in close proximity to the competition.

In 1810, Elkanah Watson organized the world's first agricultural fair, the Berkshire Cattle Show. Living in a rural society, this was an opportunity for farmers to trade livestock for crops and other commodities. Furthermore, they were able to set themselves apart with the animals on display. In fact, those with the best oxen, cattle, swine, or sheep received prize money of $70, which is a little over $2,000 today.

The Berkshire Cattle Show was an enormous success, and as a result, hard-working store owners were losing money. Customers were getting caught up in the excitement of large fairs and forgetting all about local business. As a result, a group of professionals in Philadelphia attempted to thwart the momentum that followed. These shopkeepers even went as far as to create advertising pamphlets to protest against fairs. Their bitter feelings almost led to riots and authorities had to intervene to keep the peace. As one angry shopkeeper put it: "All sorts of evil and mischief arises from fancy fairs!"

Still, this did nothing to stop fairs from getting even more extravagant in the United States. By 1876, a full 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exposition. From there, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and other major metropolises hosted their very own World Fairs.

The World Fairs brought in new cultures, introduced groundbreaking inventions, and changed the course of advertising history. Thomas Edison Alexander Graham Bell, and Eli Whitney are just a few of the notable inventors who displayed their products. Even more, national landmarks and cultural icons first came on to the scene, such as the Ferris Wheel, The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Space Needle.


World Fairs stimulated national pride and boosted the economy. This was before TV and movies so it gave the fairgoers a way to see what the rest of the world was like.

Kimberly Pelle, Co-Author of Fair America

Early Trade Shows

After the success of the World Fairs, more condensed trade shows started popping up all over the world. It took great intuition and imagination to bring these events into the 21st century. At the beginning, trade shows were fairly basic and had limited technology. The average event had 400 exhibitors, all of whom trying to make an impression on the audience. By the mid-1950s, however, trade shows started to become targeted to specific industries. People could attend events that catered to their industry or interests, which allowed these events to grow in popularity. Today, you'll see thousands of trade shows with many exhibitors all competing to win over the crowd.

Early trade show Source: Edie Tolchin, Author of Secrets of Successful Inventing: From Concept to Commerce

What a better way to introduce a new product? The right trade show has thousands of people ready to try a new product in person.

Edie Tolchin, Author of Secrets of Successful Inventing: From Concept to Commerce

Bring in the Promos

Businesses all over the world started turning to trade shows to gain attention and display their goods and services for the world. With so many exhibitors, and more and more businesses entering the marketplace, presenters needed a way stand out from the crowd and stay top of mind. As such, it was important for the events to keep growing with new promotional tactics. This is why promotional items, like pens and stress balls, become essential at every booth.

Interestingly enough, promotional products weren't recognizable marketing materials until Jasper Meek printed a logo on a canvas shoe bag in 1886. That was a full 35 years after the Great Exhibition in London! It is rumored that promotional products were used to advertise various products during subsequent World Fairs. However, they weren't yet the promotional necessities they have become until they were used at trade shows.

In 1904, the Promotional Product Association International (PPAI) was founded to address pricing, bylaws, and procedures for the industry. Trade shows officially became part of the association's conventions a decade later with only 32 exhibitors at the show. Today, the PPAI Expo is the promotional products industry's longest running trade show. It has been held in Las Vegas every January for over 100 years!

Virtual Trade Shows

The future of trade shows is in the growing world of technology. In fact, it's anticipated that in the next several years more than 25% of all trade shows will be conducted digitally. The concept behind virtual trade shows is very simple. The business will present their products or services through a live streaming video. At the same time, this presentation is integrated with the company's social media platforms to hear feedback directly from the audience.

Virtual trade shows are a win-win for both exhibitors and attendees. Exhibitors can sit at their computer and host the event, without worrying about traveling to the event. The entire affair is conducted online, with the show going live and staying active for a limited time period. It's almost like a giant Skype session where visitors can connect over the internet and get a feel for a business without having to navigate the crowded trade show floor. The structure often includes a virtual exhibition hall for users to explore, as well as custom avatars created by the business. Ultimately, this allows for easy setup, reduced expenses, and the ability to generate exciting leads.

While you're not physically in the environment, your company still needs to have a solid presentation. This comes from using the same marketing materials you would if you were on the trade show floor. You should still have the feel of a booth, even if you're sitting at your desk. Take the time to dress the part and send free promotional materials to your visitors as a thank you for attending the event.

Virtual trade show vector

How Effective Are Trade Shows

Trade shows have since expanded from their humble beginnings, but will always be great platforms for showing off your merchandise and getting potential customers to notice your brand. In fact, studies show that the cost of acquiring customers through trade shows is significantly less than any other marketing means. Throw promotional products on top, the number one most effective form of advertising, and you've got a one-two punch of quality branding!


When properly utilized, a trade show can provide you with a wealth of information and insight to help you propel your company forward.

Matt Michel, Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine

Stats For Success

Stat 1

Trade shows and conferences generate roughly $14 billion a year in revenue.

Stat 2

81% of trade show attendees have buying authority.

Stat 3

The average attendee spends 8.3 hours viewing exhibits at a trade show.

Stat 4

The average company spends 31.6% of their marketing budget on trade shows.

The Bottom Line

Trading goods has been part of our economy since the beginning of civilization. We have brought this idea to Middle Eastern bazaars, monarch societies in Europe, and into the future with digital trade shows. The world continues to progress forward with bold new products and innovative ideas. As such, we will always need a venue for promoting, creating connections, and finding new clients. No matter where you host your next trade show, there's no denying the ROI of these popular events!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

4 random promtional products 4 random promotional products tablet
Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.


Todora, K. (2018, January 7). The PPAI Expo 2018 Underscores the Power of Promotion. Retrieved March 09, 2018, from

Hilton, S. (1978). Here today and gone tomorrow: the story of World's fairs and expositions. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Apple Rock. (2015, July 21). History of the Trade Show Industry: The First Trade Show. Retrieved March 09, 2018, from

IBIS World. (2017, December). Trade Show and Conference Planning – US Market Research Report. Retrieved March 09, 2018, from

Thimmesch, Mike. (2013, August 17). 16 Powerful Stats on the Value of Trade Shows. Retrieved March 09, 2018, from

Exponents. (2018). 5 Trade Show Statistics That Will Surprise You. Retrieved March 09, 2018, from