When The New World Dazzled The Old

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The influence of the Centennial was felt in many fields throughout the world. The most direct and immediate impact was on other exhibitions. The foreign visitors were charmed by the informal but artful design of the exhibition, with its many colorful pavilions in their superb park setting. The European expositions had neglected the problem of bringing the public to the fair. In Philadelphia a special transportation system had been designed for the first time; railroads, horsecars, carriages, and steamboats carried up to a half million people a day. A narrow-gauge railroad with open cars chugged through the exhibition grounds and gave a pleasant ride for five cents. In Paris and Vienna the public had been overcharged both inside and outside the expositions. In Philadelphia the travelers were pleased by the fair treatment of the public; a special “Department of Public Comfort” provided many conveniences free or at modest charge. European observers noted that many Centennial buildings could be dismantled and reerected elsewhere; this was considered typical of the “practical” Americans. Virtually every major exhibition from 1876 to the present has incorporated features that were first introduced at the pioneering Centennial.

The Centennial made its impact on architecture and planning, on engineering and transportation, on communications and management. The inventions of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell made their triumphant way in every country. The air brake of George Westinghouse and the palace cars of George Pullman set new standards of railroad safety and comfort. Eduard Bally, a Swiss maker of elastic for shoes and sleeve garters, was a careful observer at the Centennial. On his return he introduced American methods in his little factory and eventually made Bally one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the world.

The influence of the Centennial went beyond such improvements to various products; the Centennial changed the world’s image of America. Before 1876 Europeans generally thought of the United States as an underdeveloped and second-rate country at the outer fringe of Western civilization. After 1876 they regarded America as the land of progress. “American efficiency” now became a familiar saying. There are hints and clues to this new respect for America in many—and sometimes unexpected —places.

In Paris, Jules Verne writes a science-fiction novel about the American inventor of a giant helicopter. A climactic scene in the story is an aerial duel above an immense crowd in Fairmount Park—the place of the Centennial.

In Russia, Leo Tolstoy writes an episode of Anna Karenina . Count Vronsky is building a hospital on his estate. The architect speaks: “I merely report to the count, we talk it over, and in a few moments the business is settled.”

“American methods,” said Sviazhsky with a smile.

“Yes, sir. There they put up buildings in a rational manner.”

Tolstoy wrote this passage in January, 1877, a few weeks after the close of the Centennial Exhibition.

In London, Karl Marx writes a new preface for his Communist Manifesto of 1848. The author recalls that this famous document did not even mention the United States, which was then a mere dumping ground for European surplus goods and surplus people. Now the tremendous industrial resources and energies of America are breaking the monopolies of Europe.

So it was that in 1876 the United States first emerged as a major power that, for better or for worse, would eventually become an economic, political, and even cultural superpower. This American dominance was, of course, not caused by the Centennial, but it first became manifest during those six months in Philadelphia.