1876: The Eagle Screams


They ran the Exhibition in the pragmatic way they ran their businesses, beginning their official meetings the day after receiving Congress’ official blessing, quickly choosing Fairmount Park as the Exhibition site, selecting committees, and reviewing other exhibitions. There was little spiritual agony about their deliberations and much efficiency. Historian William Pierce Randel has noted that their official statements sound for all the world like stock reports.

The rules they set up for displays and awards kept conflict at a minimum. Only two classes of articles could not be displayed, those that were “dangerous or offensive” and “patent medicines.” When the judges handed out the bronze Centennial medals, it was on individual rather than comparative merit; every exhibit in a category might receive an award.

Still, the Exhibition’s managers had their difficulties. Customs officials enmeshed foreign exhibits bound for Philadelphia in snarls of red tape. Rumors that the Exhibition would not begin on schedule were so persistent that though it opened as planned on May 10, one report had it beginning ten days late.


And, of course, there were problems with financing. Though Congress had approved plans for the Philadelphia celebration, prior to 1876 it had appropriated only a half million dollars for it, and that sum was to erect a United States building. The main source of revenue would be from the sale of Centennial stock, and to help in the sale of that stock the Centennial’s Board of Finance turned to Philadelphia women, particularly to Mrs. E. D. Gillespie. She was the efficient and very well-travelled great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, and before the celebration was over, she would earn herself the title of “imperial wizard, the archtycoon” of the Exhibition.

A member of Philadelphia’s inner circle, Mrs. Gillespie combined a strong sense of the decorum that prevailed at the Centennial with a deep belief in women’s rights. She set up a ward system in Philadelphia, and then throughout the nation, that utilized womanpower to raise the necessary money; and when she spoke to her workers, she promised them that the “Exhibition will be the means of demonstrating the great advantages that the world reaps from woman’s work.”

Through direct sales efforts, concerts, bazaars, and art shows, the women produced a sum of money greater than that appropriated by any state toward the Centennial effort, with the exceptions of Pennsylvania and New York. Mrs. Gillespie was also an effective worker in getting Congress finally to appropriate, in 1876, $1,500,000 so that the Exhibition could open free of debt. She testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, producing letters from the women in her vast chain of command to convince the senators that there was indeed national interest in the Exhibition.

The reward for all this effort was to be a special section in the Main Building for a women’s exhibit. But on June 11, 1875, Director General Goshorn notified Mrs. Gillespie that there would be no room for the women in the Main Building. He suggested that they build a separate structure, if they could secure a sufficient sum for the construction. In her memoirs Mrs. Gillespie wrote, ”… I have lived many years since and have never forgotten the utter misery of those first moments, for the women of the whole country were working not only from patriotic motives, but with the hope that through this Exhibition their own abilities would be recognized and their works carried beyond needles and thread. …”

Goshorn’s decision might have driven some women to demonstration —or to mayhem. But Mrs. Gillespie decided to go ahead and raise the money for a separate woman’s pavilion. In a little more than three months she and her workers had acquired a sufficient sum. On opening day, after Emperor Dom Pedro had turned the valves of the Corliss Engine in Machinery Hall, his wife, the Empress Theresa, pulled a cord in the Woman’s Pavilion, activating various machines attended and invented by women. One woman showed how a darning machine worked, another demonstrated a life-preserving mattress, others printed a newspaper, The New Century for Women .

So quietly had the whole incident been handled that the genesis of the Woman’s Pavilion was unknown to most. In his naivete William Dean Howells wondered “why the ladies wished to separate their work from the rest of the human race.”