- Historic Sites
When The New World Dazzled The Old
Fifty European nations came to America on her hundredth birthday—and, for the first time, took her seriously
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The Europeans had probably expected all Yankees to be crude, but they generally found American men friendly, hospitable, generous, and well behaved. But American businessmen worked hard—too hard—in their relentless pursuit of the dollar, and they lived up to Benjamin Franklin’s maxim “Time is money.” They also had the jarring habit of saying about another man: “He is worth so-and-so many dollars.” American womanhood was a more complex topic, and there the verdict was mixed. All visitors were dazzled by the beauty of American women; surprisingly, some Europeans thought that the women of New York were more elegantly dressed than the ladies in the fashion capitals of Paris and Vienna. The young Polish journalist Henryk Sienkiewicz—who would later become a world-famous novelist—found American women of the upper class despotic, aggressive, superficial, and “lacking … in the qualities of mind and heart.” Catharina Migerka, the articulate wife of the Austrian commissioner, was particularly interested in observing and interviewing American women. She praised their beautiful eyes, lovely hair, graceful figures, good taste, selfreliance, energy, lively conversation, and devotion to charitable works. She also called them domineering wives and poor homemakers; the American husband seemed to be “the most obedient servant of his female master, so modest and humble as if he felt unworthy of his better half.” The Woman’s Building, organized by a women’s committee and filled with things made and operated by women, was a novel feature of the exhibition. There was a curious difference between the American and the foreign reaction to the women’s pavilion. To Americans it was one of the most popular attractions at the Centennial. The Europeans damned it with faint praise, or they just damned it as a manifestation of American women’s overassertiveness. The Swiss commissioner wrote: One had the impression of a mass of excellent accomplishments by dilettantes. A more important question, in my opinion, is this: In what way has the exhibition in the Woman’s Building proved that American family life is based upon right, natural and moral principles? Is it perhaps impoverished by ambitions for emancipation which go too far?
He also felt that the Americans’ respect for women was “generally ennobling” but “frequently excessive.”
The elitist visitors from abroad usually ignored poverty and the dark side of life in the United States, but one group came to the Centennial to study the American working class. A French labor delegation brought fraternal greetings to the American republic and the American comrades. The reactionary French government abetted this visit because it knew that American workers were docile; such a trip could only have a moderating effect on the French militants. The French delegation distributed a thirty-four-point questionnaire among American workers. They learned that working hours in the United States were long, wages were low, with a weekly average of six or seven dollars, child labor was common, unemployment was high. But even these socialist visitors reported some positive factors: elementary public education was free and universal, the right to vote was general, and the government did not hamper labor unions.
The year 1876 was one of great scandals in Washington, but very few foreign visitors showed any interest in American domestic politics. Mrs. Migerka, the Austrian from whom we have heard before, was one of the few. She blamed American corruption on the absence of a civil service and warned: If the star spangled banner is to remain the banner of freedom, the elected leaders must inspire the people’s confidence in their honor, that precious heritage from the man who was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
A French visitor, the Marquis de Talleyrand-Périgord, was another critic: You convene the nations to a superb exposition, a triumph of material efforts, but you also expose a governmental rottenness without equal. This material triumph could have made you tremble with pride while this scandal shames you in the face of humanity. … May the example of the errors into which the Americans of 1876 have fallen, profit them and serve them as a lesson!
On the other hand, European accounts were sometimes favorable to the point of delightful absurdity. For instance, Inspector Charles Hagen of Scotland Yard, who was in charge of security of the British exhibits, reported on the exemplary conduct of American crowds: It will scarcely be credited by English readers, but it is a certain fact that during the whole of the Exhibition, with as many as 256,000 visitors in one day, scarcely a case of drunkenness was seen.
The management did indeed succeed in keeping most drunks out (in 159 days there were only 104 arrests for intoxication), but the English detective evidently failed to notice the shantytown of rowdy saloons and honky-tonks that sprang up just outside the fence of the exhibition. Three Swiss traveling companions noted that European workers were stupefied by liquor, while the Americans kept a clear head by drinking tea and soda water. They even claimed that they saw only one public drunk on their entire American journey, and he turned out to be—a Swiss. A kind of Centennial euphoria seems to have come over the travelers that made them see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil about America in 1876.