When The New World Dazzled The Old

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Europeans were surprised to find that Americans were also prodigiously active in the arts. Charles West Cope, the British judge of painting, reported that “England stands conspicuously and honourably prominent” in fine art; American painting reflected European taste and methods, but some artists were beginning to show “home inspirations.” Cope’s French colleague, Jules-Émile Saintin, found that “France still marches in the first rank on the road to art,” but he also wrote that “the American school of painting has made very great progress and is surely destined for a beautiful future.” The French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi—who exhibited the towering arm and torch of his Statue of Liberty at the Centennial—wrote a sympathetic account of architecture and the decorative arts in the United States. American architecture had passed through the successive stages of wood, brick, and iron, and it was now in a sumptuous era of granite and marble. At first glance America was rough and a little wild, but there were many active centers of the arts, letters, and sciences. They were “like the ice floes which form over the rapid currents of American rivers; they grow and join until they cover the most impetuous waters.” Bartholdi praised American businessmen who were not artistic or intellectual themselves but who gave financial support to the arts. British, French, and German experts noted the recent establishment of generously endowed museums in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; they were confident that these institutions would help to close what gap still remained between European and American art and design.

The Centennial was the first occasion on which a large number of foreigners came to visit the United States at the same time and for the same purpose. There were government officials of every nation and their staffs; there were the hundred and eighteen foreign judges of awards from twenty-three countries; there were exhibitors, journalists, and even some tourists. They did, of course, not limit their stay to Philadelphia but traveled widely in the United States. The world’s press carried news, pictures, and dispatches from America throughout 1875 and 1876. A surprising number of European visitors wrote pamphlets or books about their impressions of America.

These impressions were overwhelmingly favorable. The visitors enjoyed the solid comforts of upper-class life and travel in the era. They praised the grand hotels with their luxurious suites, their elevators and shops, enormous menus, gigantic helpings, immense bars, and swarms of attentive black help. American food and drink were excellent, though the foreigners found popcorn and peanuts insipid. They marveled at the efficient railroads. There were no repeated shouted announcements, blowing of steam whistles, and ringing of bells at the station; it was not necessary, because American trains always departed on schedule. American locomotives were more powerful, American railroad cars more comfortable; the travelers noted that the cars had toilets, while European trains did not. They liked the department stores, with their huge stocks of good ready-made clothing. A German museum official wrote that one could lead “an army of naked savages” into John Wanamaker’s Philadelphia store and march them out fully equipped for years. They found American advertising colorful but obtrusive; advertisements were everywhere—on the walls, overhead on banners, underfoot painted on sidewalks, projected on screens by magic lanterns, on steamboats, on balloons. They noted the curious American habit of inviting people to parties where there was standing room only. The crush was so great that it was not always possible to get to the lavish buffet; no one seemed to mind, and today’s guest was tomorrow’s host. They disliked another American custom. The French composer Jacques Offenbach, who made a lucrative concert tour, drove to Fairmount Park on his first free day in Philadelphia; he could hardly believe his eyes—the Centennial Exhibition was closed on Sunday.