When The New World Dazzled The Old


American firms had participated in all five major international expositions since 1851, and Americans thought they had done well. The Europeans’ view was different. At the Great Exhibition in London the American commissioners had reserved more space in the Crystal Palace than they could fill. Punch mocked the Yankees’ big promises and small performance: An enormous banner betokened the whole of the east end as devoted to the United States; but what was our astonishment, on arriving there, to find that their contribution to the world’s industry consists as yet of a few wine-glasses, a square or two of soap, and a pair of salt-cellars! For a calculating people our friends the Americans are thus far terribly out in their calculations.

Some outstanding American products—for instance, McCormick’s reaper, Colt’s revolver, and Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber goods—arrived later, but the poor first impression was not quite erased. There were few American exhibits at the Paris Exposition of 1855 and the London Exhibition of 1862, and they were little noted. At the Paris Exposition of 1867 the seven hundred and five American exhibitors made a better showing, though the American section was again not ready on opening day. American steam engines, machine tools, and sewing machines impressed European experts in these industries. At the Vienna Exposition of 1873 the American section was at the maximum distance from the main entrance, and it attracted a minimum of attention. American machinery in another hall was again admired, but American prestige suffered a devastating blow: the United States commissioner, General Thomas Van Buren, disgraced himself and his country; he was caught selling whiskey that he had imported duty-free “for exhibition.” His successor had modest expectations for the coming Centennial, reporting in 1873 that America could not hope to equal the great European world’s fairs in 1876.


In view of this indifferent record of twenty-five years America was not considered a first-rate competitor. The United States was also a poor market for European products because its government protected American goods by a high tariff. A French businessman asked sarcastically why the “Country of Liberty, par excellence” did not believe in liberty of world trade. Many leading British, French, and German manufacturers decided to save the great expense of sending their products across the Atlantic, believing that they would have little to gain and little to learn in Philadelphia.

These preconceived views were entirely overthrown by the Centennial Exhibition. The official reports by European experts in many fields were unanimous in their stunned surprise and admiration for American productive genius. Great Britain was the world’s foremost industrial nation, and the three-volume British report on the Centennial is a particularly revealing publication. Expert after expert described how American industrial might was overtaking Britain.

The engineer John Anderson was “immensely impressed” by the vast display of machine tools, the all-important machines that made other machines: The Americans as a rule are not copyists; the inventing of clever devices, and tools for saving labour, seems to be their natural forte. … By past exertion [Britain] has become rich, [the United States] is still comparatively poor, but with an abundance of brain power in active exercize. …In this competition of tool devising, brains count for more than wealth, and will gain an advantage.

The famous civil engineer Sir John Hawkshaw was “astonished” by the changes since he had first visited the United States at a time when there were only a few railroad lines with rude wooden bridges. The advances made in public works “tell of the increase of wealth, and speak still more strongly of the public and patriotic spirit of the people.” Another engineer, W. H. Barlow, reported on motors: As a whole the Machinery Hall gave me a high opinion of the mechanical skill of the Americans. There is great inventive power, and a ready and fearless adaptation of the means to the end sought.

David McHardy found that the Americans’ well-designed edge tools and brightly polished cutlery rivaled the famous Sheffield wares of England. R. H. Soden Smith, keeper of the National Art Library, was surprised by the “immense advance” of the ceramic industry: [American pottery] afforded the direct and formidable challenge. … The self-reliance, which is so marked a characteristic of the American character, has strikingly come out in the progress of this industry.

James Bain, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, praised the beauty and variety of American hardware. American safes and locks were better than their European counterparts. But, according to Bain’s rather sour observation, this was because American bank robbers were so active.