When The New World Dazzled The Old

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Behold the world is at our door!— Brought by the century’s steam winged ships, Gifts in its hands, thanks on its lips. Come Spaniard, Latin, Teuton, Russ, Briton and Gaul—harmonious, And Oriental, with salaam, Homage to pay to Uncle Sam. Science, and art, and industry, Their fruitage send by land and sea; From azure Rhine, from Seine and Rhone, From Neva ’neath the northern star, From ancient Nile, and Murray far, From Indus, Thames, and Amazon …

The foreigners provided a colorful spectacle. Americans could gape at kilted Scots and wooden-shod Hollanders, turbaned Turks and pigtailed Chinese. They could lunch in a French restaurant, drink in the Hungarian wine pavilion or smoke a water pipe in the Turkish bazaar, see a Laplander in his reindeer sledge or watch a sensuous Algerian dancing girl.

Americans were then quite humble toward foreign nations—at least toward white-skinned foreign nations. In his opening-day speech President Grant set a tone of modesty: One hundred years ago our country was new and but partially settled. Our necessities have compelled us to chiefly expend our means and time in felling forests, subduing prairies, building dwellings, factories, ships, docks, warehouses, roads, canals, machinery, etc. … Burdened by these great primal works of necessity, which could not be delayed, we yet have done what this Exhibition will show in the direction of rivalling older and more advanced nations in law, medicine, and theology; in science, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts. Whilst proud of what we have done, we regret that we have not done more. Our achievements have been great enough, however, to make it easy for our people to acknowledge superior merit wherever found.

Many products from abroad were seen here for the first time. The most impressive foreign exhibits were generally in the field of luxury wares. Americans could admire beautiful things like Bohemian glass, Austrian bentwood furniture, French silks, Belgian lace, colorful English tiles, Florentine mosaics, Russian malachite, Indian fabrics, Spanish shawls, and Chinese porcelain.

 

The most memorable foreign pavilion was from the Far East. At the Centennial the American public confronted for the first time the civilization of Japan. No Japanese excepting a few diplomats had previously been seen in the United States. In 1876 the Japanese brought over the materials for two prefabricated buildings and the workmen to erect them. Press and public disgraced themselves by sneering at the “Japs”; these “flat-nosed Orientals” with their “uncouth mechanical operations” were said to have put up a building that looked like a corncrib. When offered a wheelbarrow, the stupid Japanese carried it because they had never seen one before. After the opening of the exhibition this ugly attitude changed to admiration. The official report written by Richard Morris Hunt, America’s most prominent architect, praised the Japanese buildings’ “graceful lines of roofs and porches, the perfect tile work, and the rich ornamental carving, altogether offering a capital and most improving study to the careless and slipshod joiners of the Western world.” The Japanese bronzes, screens, lacquer ware, and “gorgeous products of the potter’s art” also made a deep impression. A popular journalist wrote: We have been accustomed to regard that country as uncivilized, or halfcivilized at the best, but we found here abundant evidences that it outshines the most cultivated nations of Europe in arts which are their pride and glory, and which are regarded as among the proudest tokens of their high civilization.

The year 1876 marks the beginning of a Japanese influence on American architecture and design that has not ceased.

Other foreign influences on America via the Centennial have also been traced, but American historians have entirely failed to note the more significant traffic in the opposite direction. That important story is recorded in European publications—unread by Americans—which have been gathering dust for a hundred years.