- Historic Sites
1876: The Eagle Screams
HISTORICAL REGISTER of the CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION 1876.
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
At seven A.M. on May 10, 1876, the opening day of the Exhibition, it was raining in Philadelphia as it had been much of that spring. But by eight o’clock the clouds had begun to break up and the sun to shine fitfully, and the flag decorators were briskly at work on Philadelphia housefronts, putting up the Stars and Stripes, the union jack, the French and German tricolors. For months citizens had been buying bunting in preparation, and now they festooned the city. From pole and halyard they hung the emblems of every nation represented at the Exhibition, and even a few more besides.
Little girls wore tricolored hair ribbons; their mothers wore national colors as chokers; their fathers and brothers sported lapel flags of every description. So bedecked, the excited people thronged the streets, ignoring the mud. A few small boys set off firecrackers. Soldiers on foot and horseback hurried to Broad and Walnut Street, where they were to form a parade. A happy crowd gathered around the George Childs house, where President Grant was staying. They greeted him with cheers and applause when he came out at eight thirty to head for the Gentennial grounds.
That was the direction in which they all finally headed, crossing the swollen Schuylkill afoot, in trains, carriages, coupés, and cabs. “It looked,” a reporter noted, “as if a great army was moving in vast divisions to capture the Centennial.”
At nine A.M. , when the Exhibition gates opened, the first rush of people headed for the area between Main and Memorial Hall, where the opening ceremonies were to take place, and almost overpowered the ten hapless policemen who had been set to reserve seats for the press and dignitaries, for the rest of the morning it was like that—a constant, usually good-natured battle between the crowd and the guards. As dignitaries arrived—senators, cabinet secretaries, generals—those at the front of the crowd, which by this time had grown to more than a hundred thousand, would cheer and applaud. Those at the back would surge forward trying to see what was ‘going on. The police would try to hold the line. A New York Times man, who couldn’t find a seat below, watched the “preposterous pushings” from atop the Main Building. ”… The squirming and crushing of that vast horde was so remarkable,” he reported, “that it was almost impossible to take one’s eyes from its contemplation. …”
A few minutes after ten o’clock the orchestra began to play the “Washington March.” No one could hear the music very well—there were too many strings for an outdoor concert—but the crowd was saved from boredom by the arrival a short time later of a bearded man dressed in a plain black suit, Dom Pedro n, emperor of Brazil, prince of the Houses of Bourbon, Braganza, and Hapsburg. He set off another round of surging and pushing and cheers, more cheers than had been given any of the American dignitaries.
Had anyone thought about it, it might have seemed odd for Americans to be lionizing a monarch on the anniversary of the country’s independence. To be sure, Dom Pedro was a man of plain talk and common ways, but still, this was the centennial of 1776, and that had not been a year when monarchs were much in favor in this country.
It was not, however, a time for such self-conscious analysis. The excitement and noise generated by the Brazilian’s arrival grew and built even after he had been seated. With all the pushing and confusion many were unaware of the President’s first appearance. But some observant soul on the celebrity platform noticed and frantically waved a handkerchief at the orchestra. They struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and the crowd applauded enthusiastically, not stopping until the band began to play the “Centennial March.” Forgotten for the moment were the scandals of Grant’s administration, the recent trial of his private secretary, Orville Babcock, for complicity with the Whisky Ring, and the impeachment trial of William Belknap that the Senate was conducting, accusing the former Secretary of War of “high crimes” and “misdemeanors of his office.” ft was simply not the time to think of such things. One observer’s comment captured the spirit precisely: “An American can see only one Centennial,” he wrote, “so we decided to make the most of it.”
The Reverend Matthew Simpson’s opening prayer continued the note of high spirits and self-assurance. The Lord was thanked for revealing America to His “chosen people,” for the country’s “social and national prosperity and progress, lor valuable discoveries and multiplied inventions. …” Centennial officials spoke, President Grant declared the Exhibition open, and Fairmount Park was filled with a cacophony of chime ringing, gun salvos, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” and, of course, more cheering.