- Historic Sites
1876: The Eagle Screams
HISTORICAL REGISTER of the CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION 1876.
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
The President and Dom Pedro made l heir way to Machinery Hall, where they turned the handles activating the gigantic Corliss engine, a machine of huge flywheels and walking beams that powered the fourteen acres of machinery in the hall, fourteen acres of printing presses, spinning machines, sewing machines, and typecasting machines. A Lockwood envelope-making machine that was a favorite with Centennial crowds began to fold flat pieces of paper into envelope form; a pin machine, supervised by a little girl, began pounding pins into paper strips at the rate of five per second. Manufacturers of glue and curled hair displayed their wares. The American Screw Company exhibited three thousand screws. The Pennsylvania File Works displayed the world’s smallest file, measuring a half inch, and the largest, which measured six feet and was etched with pictures portraying the progress of American file making. There were car wheels and diamond saws, water pumps and locomotives. Surveying the puffing, humming, hammering spectacle of Machinery Hall, a reporter for the Atlantic wrote, ”… Surely here, and not in literature, science, or art, is the true evidence of man’s creative power; here is Prometheus Unbound.”
That same vitality was everywhere, in the bright parades and colorful processions that almost daily wound their way through the Exhibition grounds, in the gigantism of the buildings and exhibits. The Centennial’s Main Building, which covered thirty-five acres, boasted of being the world’s largest. Inside Memorial Hall was a colossal group of statues claiming to be “the largest ceramic work ever made.” The huge hand and torch of the yet unfinished Statue of Liberty was on display not far away, and over on State Avenue the Mississippi Building, though small in size, had big numbers to boast of: a hundred and sixteen different kinds of Mississippi wood had been used to construct it.
Sometimes Centennial exuberance showed itself in an incredible profusion of decoration. Even the relatively plain Machinery Hall sported some Oriental-looking towers. Locomotives were scrolled and flower patterned. The soda-water fountains scattered throughout the Exhibition not only served up soft drinks to the thirsty, they rivalled the artwork in the ornateness of their embellishment. One Centennial observer described a fountain called the Minnehaha: From the body sprung an arch root of Italian marble, on which was placed a miniature fountain in a fluted basin, supported by bronzed dolphins. A glass vase capped with silver crown enclosed a handsome statuette. On each end of the roof were placed handsome urns in bronze, resting on pedestals of variegated marbles. In a highly polished niche stood a fine bronze figure, underneath which, from a lion’s head, ran the water from the fountain above into a beautiful fluted basin.
And sometimes Centennial energy was revealed in an enthusiastic yoking together of ideas and materials that had very little underlying connection. One popular exhibit was the head of Iolanthe, a classical heroine, sculpted bv a Caroline S. Brooks—out of butter. In Agricultural Hall hung a liberty bell made from tobacco plugs and a Moorish chandelier with cigars for candles. The Kansas and Colorado Building contained a capitol dome built from apples. On the wall of the Iowa Building were two huge flowered wreaths made entirely from human hair. Proving that Americans weren’t alone in their enthusiasm for this kind of oddity, the government of Venezuela exhibited a picture of George Washington—made from the hair of Simon Bolivar. In a magnificent understatement Centennial judges commended the display for “originality of conception.”
One out of every fifteen Americans visited the Exhibition, to be entertained by such interesting oddities and by papier-mâche Indians, Yale locks, Pullman berths, and sharks’ teeth. One of the visitors was David Bailey, a young schoolteacher from Ohio, who wrote a book about his trip, a small book “for the people,” he said, “the common people … the country people, ‘of whom I am which.’ ” In it he created a charmingly personal picture of what the Centennial was like for the thousands upon thousands of ordinary American citizens who made their way to Philadelphia.
When, with thousands of others, Bailey arrived in the city late July 3, the streets were thronged, all the principal hotels were full, and the Atlas, where Bailey had made reservations, said they had no room for him. But (lie Ohio schooltcacher was not that naive. “We had keen thoughtful enough to take with us the return registered-letter receipts of the letter in which we had sent them money,” he explained; and he got his room, proving, he said, that one should “first never destroy registered-letter receipts; and second, never send money in advance to secure nx)ms at a hotel.”