“No account … however close, however graphic, can give a just conception of the variety and interest of the things to be seen.”

—William Dean Howells, “A Sennight of the Centennial,” Atlantic Monthly

May 10, 1876 dawned bright and clear after a night of rain. A crowd of 10,000 assembled on the green before the Main Building to see President Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil formally open the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine—which would come to be commonly known simply as the Centennial Exposition.

It was the first official World’s Fair ever held in the United States. Over its six month run, it drew 10 million visitors—nearly twice the number that attended The Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Ten years in the planning, the Centennial Exposition cost more than $11 million, featured over 30,000 exhibits, and covered more than 450 acres of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

Conceived as a celebration of the the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Centennial Exposition quickly became a symbol of America’s emergence as an internationally important industrial power. It was a welcome diversion for a nation in turmoil. Deeply mired in a financial depression that had been kicked off by the Panic of 1873, the country was also about to say goodbye to President whose two terms were distinguished mostly by the volume of scandal and corruption attendant upon them. While Reconstruction was winding down, guerilla conflicts in the West were escalating, and would culminate in June of 1873 in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And as if all that weren’t enough, the country was in store for what would be one of the most rancorous Presidential elections in history.

The Exhibition served to canonize and disseminate freshly-minted elements of national mythology, including the doctrine of American Exceptionalism and the associated belief in “the virtue of the American people and their institutions, the mission to spread these institutions, and the destiny under God to accomplish this work.” In short, the Exposition was a mirror into which Americans could gaze and see reflected nothing but hope, glory, and progress.

Machinery Hall

The focal point of the exposition was Machinery Hall, and the focal point of Machinery Hall was the Corliss steam engine. The seventy-foot-tall, 1,500 horsepower double engine powered thirteen acres of machinery via five miles of shafting, gears, pulleys, and belts. Despite the huge amount of power that it generated, it required only one operator, apparently a rather sanguine chap, of whom Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells wrote:

“In the midst of this ineffably strong mechanism is a chair where the engineer sits reading his newspaper, as in a peaceful bower. Now and then he lays down his paper and clambers up one of the stairways that cover the framework, and touches some irritated spot on the giant’s body with a drop of oil, and goes down again and takes up his newspaper; he is like some potent enchanter there, and this prodigious Afreet is his slave who could crush him past all semblance of humanity with his lightest touch.”

A great diversity of exhibits were powered by this dynamo. The New York Herald, the Sun, and the Times all printed their daily editions in the hall. The Wallace-Farmer Electric Dynamo (an early precursor to electric light), the Otis elevator, the sewing machine, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, all delighted fairgoers.

Not all the steam-driven advancements displayed at the Centennial were to be found within Machinery Hall, however. Outside, in Fairmount Park, General LeRoy Stone’s ornately designed double-decker two-wheeled rotary-steam-engine-driven monorail was to be found traveling along 170 yards of track. Also popular was the Sawyer Observatory—an ironwork structure equipped with two steam elevators that lifted observers 300 feet above the ground, providing an amazing view of the fairground and surrounding countryside. It was the tallest structure in the United States at the time, and is said to have been the inspiration for the Eiffel Tower.

And many advancements weren’t steam-driven at all. Products first displayed at the Centennial that were destined to become household names over the next 100 years included the Remington Typographic Machine (typewriter), Heinz Ketchup, Hires Root Beer, and Kudzu.

American Indian Exhibit

Howells may have been greatly impressed by the Corliss engine, but he was less kindly disposed toward the American Indian exhibit, or at least toward those who were its subject. Of the exhibit, which included life-size mannequins of Indians as well as an extensive collection of the implements of their daily life—baskets, weapons, buckskin garments, painted canoes and totem poles—he wrote:

“The red man, as he appears in effigy and in photographs in this collection, is a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence.”

Housed in the U.S. Government Building (along with the departments of War, Interior, Navy, Treasury, Agriculture, and the Post Office) the exhibit was a joint project of the Smithsonian and the Department of Interior. When Smithsonian exhibit organizer Spencer Fullerton Baird met with resistance from the Department of the Interior on his proposed inclusion of live Indians in the exhibit, he assured them that only “the cleanest and finest looking” Indians who could speak English and who brought with them a child, a dog, and a pony would be displayed. But this argument fell on deaf ears, and even though President Grant approved of the idea, Congress refused to appropriate funds.

The Women’s Pavilion

The Women’s Pavilion was, “one of the novel and more controversial exhibit buildings of the Centennial.” When a group of women was denied permission to exhibit independently in the Main Exhibition Building, Mrs. Elizabeth Duane Gillespie (a great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin) and a committee of thirteen Philadelphia ladies organized to sponsor their own pavilion, which was intended to showcase the abilities of women in all spheres of activity—both inside the home and out. More than 75 women who had obtained patents exhibited their inventions—such as emergency flares, model interlocking bricks, a life-preserving mattress for steam-boats, and a patent land pulverizer—alongside the more traditional needlework, corsets, and household items.

The Women’s Pavilion even had a steam engine of its own, a six-horsepower Baxter run by a female engineer from Iowa named Emma Allison. The engine she tended ran six looms and a printing press. When a man asked her if the work was too demanding for someone of her sex, she replied “It’s easier than teaching, and the pay is better.” Critics, however, feared Allison would blow the place up by reading novels instead of monitoring the steam gauge.

Overall response to the Women’s Pavilion was mixed. Some conservative observers decried it as being too forward, while more progressive elements criticized its emphasis on the domestic arts as patronizing. For their part, the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee made every effort to steer clear of controversy. Susan B. Anthony and other members of the National Woman Suffrage Association were refused permission to read “A Declaration of Rights for Women” at the July 4th celebration. Alas, the committee’s efforts at tact and reticence didn’t earn them any gentlemanly consideration from Exposition organizers, who issued a particularly pointed snub: The fair’s “Women’s Day” was scheduled for Election Day, November 7—a perfect day for the ladies to have the run of the place, the reasoning went, given that all the men (who were presumed to have no interest whatsoever in such goings-on) would be off exercising their franchise.

Maybe they should have let Susan B. Anthony read after all.

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12 Responses to The Centennial Exposition

  1. Sherwood says:

    Oh that was awesome–thank you

  2. M.K. Hobson says:

    I'm glad you liked it! My goal is to do two historical articles like this a month, but these things require actual WORK. Quel horreur!

  3. Serge says:

    Thanks for telling us about this. MK.

  4. M.K. Hobson says:

    Better 134 years late than never!

  5. Serge says:

    Are you suggesting you might be the Multiverse's Immortal Procrastinator?

    Hmmm… If alternate universes are created every time a choice is made, and if we suppose that one universe contains only one sentient being, and if that sentient is an Immortal Procrastinator, would the latter's tendency to put off making any choices mean that this universe doesn't give birth to even one other alternate universe?

  6. M.K. Hobson says:

    Ah, but isn't procrastination itself an action? Cannot absence of action also be an action, grasshopper?

  7. M.K. Hobson says:

    Better 134 years late than never!

  8. Louise Krasniewicz says:

    Hi, nice post. But Emma Allison was from Canada, not Iowa, even though some of the official accounts say Iowa. See her life documented at the blog: emmaallison.me

  9. […] An interesting perspective on the two international expositions. Another article about the Philadelphia exposition. […]

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