When The New World Dazzled The Old


Centennials don’t make sense. It should be evident that a hundredth anniversary is a mere numerical happenstance without historic significance. Yet our schools teach history by the numbers, and we talk about “Eighteenth-Century Civilization” or “The Gay Nineties.” These decimal labels derive from the simple fact that we have ten fingers; this kind of numerology is not helpful to an understanding of the past. History is a flowing stream that must not be dammed into stagnant puddles of decades or centuries.

But if anniversaries are illogical, their observances may be significant. They are, in fact, of great historic interest because they reveal the selfimages of nations. The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was such a revelation.

The idea to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of American independence by an international exposition in Philadelphia first occurred to a littleknown professor from Indiana, John L. Campbell, in 1864. The idea was in the air—at least three other Americans independently proposed the same plan in the 1860’s. The international expositions in London and Paris were the great showcases of the industrial revolution, the arenas where the nations battled in the contest for prestige; they were also brilliant social events that thrilled the public. These ever-growing “world’s fairs” required government backing and enormous expenditures. Nothing on their scale had yet been attempted in the United States. The Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations of 1853-54 in New York was a commercial venture, and it was not a success.

It took five years to persuade the United States government to endorse the Centennial, but in 1871 Congress passed an act to hold “an International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine.” At first Congress did not provide funds, and the Centennial year fell in the middle of the worldwide economic depression of 1873-78. Financial difficulties almost put an end to the exhibition before it began, but all obstacles were overcome. To the general surprise of press and public, when the Centennial opened on May 10, 1876, every one of the 249 large and small structures among the thousands of trees and millions of flowers of beautiful Fairmount Park was ready.

But the punctual opening of the exhibition did not assure success. Would the public support this venture? Would Americans travel to Philadelphia just to see a big fair? On opening day 187,000 people came, 110,000 of them admitted free of charge. But two days later attendance fell to a low of 12,720. The daily average in May was 36,000. It was 39,000 in June. In July a terrible heat wave kept it to 35,000. In August it rose to 44,000. In September it more than doubled, to 94,000. In October it mounted to 102,000. In November it reached 115,000—over three times as many people in rainy November as in sunny May. This is a most unusual pattern for any public event, and there is only one explanation: word of mouth. The visitors returned home and told their friends that the Centennial was a wonderful show for the money (admission was a modest fifty cents a day).

To understand the Centennial’s appeal we must visualize the rather austere and parochial life led by most Americans in the iSyo’s. Employees worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. There were no museums worthy of the name. The Chautauqua movement was only just beginning. Outside the large cities theatre, minstrel show, and circus were rare events. There were no vacations with pay. Only affluent families traveled for pleasure. Only the rich ever traveled abroad. The exhibition was the nineteenth century’s unique opportunity for the common man to see what the rest of the world was like—and to see the glories of his own country. And it was no frivolous self-indulgence to buy reduced-rate round-trip tickets to Philadelphia, for the Centennial was patriotic and educational too. There were some thirty thousand exhibitors, and two thirds of them were from foreign nations.

So the Centennial was not just a big fair, it was a world’s fair. International participation was the most significant aspect in 1876; it made the Centennial a historic event that is still relevant today. Opponents of the exhibition predicted that Europe would boycott it. Crowned heads reigned in every European country but France and Switzerland, and monarchies would certainly not participate in an event that celebrated a successful revolution. But the skeptics were wrong. One by one the foreign ministers sent formal and florid letters expressing their august sovereigns’ acceptance and delight. Not a single European nation declined, and fifty countries were represented in Philadelphia.


Americans took pride in this worldwide response. In the words of an anonymous poet of 1876: