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When The New World Dazzled The Old

July 2024
18min read

Fifty European nations came to America on her hundredth birthday—and, for the first time, took her seriously

Centennials don’t make sense. It should be evident that a hundredth anniversary is a mere numerical happenstance without historic significance. Yet our schools teach history by the numbers, and we talk about “Eighteenth-Century Civilization” or “The Gay Nineties.” These decimal labels derive from the simple fact that we have ten fingers; this kind of numerology is not helpful to an understanding of the past. History is a flowing stream that must not be dammed into stagnant puddles of decades or centuries.

But if anniversaries are illogical, their observances may be significant. They are, in fact, of great historic interest because they reveal the self-images of nations. The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was such a revelation.

The idea to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of American independence by an international exposition in Philadelphia first occurred to a little-known professor from Indiana, John L. Campbell, in 1864. The idea was in the air—at least three other Americans independently proposed the same plan in the 1860’s. The international expositions in London and Paris were the great showcases of the industrial revolution, the arenas where the nations battled in the contest for prestige; they were also brilliant social events that thrilled the public. These ever-growing “world’s fairs” required government backing and enormous expenditures. Nothing on their scale had yet been attempted in the United States. The Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations of 1853-54 in New York was a commercial venture, and it was not a success.

It took five years to persuade the United States government to endorse the Centennial, but in 1871 Congress passed an act to hold “an International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine.” At first Congress did not provide funds, and the Centennial year fell in the middle of the worldwide economic depression of 1873-78. Financial difficulties almost put an end to the exhibition before it began, but all obstacles were overcome. To the general surprise of press and public, when the Centennial opened on May 10, 1876, every one of the 249 large and small structures among the thousands of trees and millions of flowers of beautiful Fairmount Park was ready.

But the punctual opening of the exhibition did not assure success. Would the public support this venture? Would Americans travel to Philadelphia just to see a big fair? On opening day 187,000 people came, 110,000 of them admitted free of charge. But two days later attendance fell to a low of 12,720. The daily average in May was 36,000. It was 39,000 in June. In July a terrible heat wave kept it to 35,000. In August it rose to 44,000. In September it more than doubled, to 94,000. In October it mounted to 102,000. In November it reached 115,000—over three times as many people in rainy November as in sunny May. This is a most unusual pattern for any public event, and there is only one explanation: word of mouth. The visitors returned home and told their friends that the Centennial was a wonderful show for the money (admission was a modest fifty cents a day).

To understand the Centennial’s appeal we must visualize the rather austere and parochial life led by most Americans in the iSyo’s. Employees worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. There were no museums worthy of the name. The Chautauqua movement was only just beginning. Outside the large cities theatre, minstrel show, and circus were rare events. There were no vacations with pay. Only affluent families traveled for pleasure. Only the rich ever traveled abroad. The exhibition was the nineteenth century’s unique opportunity for the common man to see what the rest of the world was like—and to see the glories of his own country. And it was no frivolous self-indulgence to buy reduced-rate round-trip tickets to Philadelphia, for the Centennial was patriotic and educational too. There were some thirty thousand exhibitors, and two thirds of them were from foreign nations.

So the Centennial was not just a big fair, it was a world’s fair. International participation was the most significant aspect in 1876; it made the Centennial a historic event that is still relevant today. Opponents of the exhibition predicted that Europe would boycott it. Crowned heads reigned in every European country but France and Switzerland, and monarchies would certainly not participate in an event that celebrated a successful revolution. But the skeptics were wrong. One by one the foreign ministers sent formal and florid letters expressing their august sovereigns’ acceptance and delight. Not a single European nation declined, and fifty countries were represented in Philadelphia.

Americans took pride in this worldwide response. In the words of an anonymous poet of 1876:

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 half-civilized 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.

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.

The great physicist Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) was struck by American leadership in electric and telegraphic apparatus. He tested the instrument of a young and previously unknown inventor: I need scarcely say I was astonished and delighted. … This, perhaps the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric telegraph, has been obtained by appliances of quite a homespun and rudimentary character. With somewhat more advanced plans, and more powerful apparatus, we may confidently expect that Mr. Bell will give us the means of making voice and spoken word audible through the electric wire to an ear hundreds of miles distant.

Another young inventor, Thomas A. Edison, exhibited his Quadruplex Telegraph, which simultaneously transmitted several messages at record speed.

The British reports were confirmed by the French, though the commissioners Ozenne and du Sommerard started on a condescending note. They praised their own devotion to duty in staying at their Philadelphia post despite the insufferable heat and living conditions, which were unlike the Parisian way of life. But the French judges were impressed. Commandant F. Périer noted that many European manufacturers had failed to participate: That was a great mistake. Some industrialists feared that their machines, their inventions, their processes would be copied in America. Such fears were not justified. The Americans possess the genius of invention to the highest degree, and if they still have something to learn from us, we have much to learn from them.

The chemical manufacturer Kuhlmann predicted great progress for the United States because the Americans were enterprising, resolute, and “confident of their institutions which are admirably suited to their nature.” The Marquis de Rochambeau found American furniture “truly remarkable” and consoled himself with the fact that many American furniture craftsmen were of French origin. M. Dietz-Monnin, a judge of fashion, was alarmed: Fifteen years ago American production counted for nothing; today it is a menace. The recruits have become excellent soldiers, proud and sure of their courage, marching with a firm step, sometimes a little too fast, for the conquest of independence at home and to the invasion of the foreign market.

Dietz-Monnin found at least one class of products in which the American manufactures were inferior: The French corset, like the French woman, is the most supple and the most elegant; it protects the strong, it supports the weak. The American corset is a graceless instrument of torture which disfigures and deforms.

Courage is ascribed to Americans throughout the French report; American architects are “daring men par excellence,” American bridge engineers built “some of the boldest works ever undertaken,” and even American publishers are characterized by “audacity.”

In the Swiss report the engineer John Icely looked for reasons behind the “astonishing performance” of American industry. He was greatly impressed by the mutual respect between American workers and their employers, and he noted a distinctive American approach to work: We build our machines to imitate manual operations as completely as possible; the American designs machine tools to produce a given object without keeping manual processes in mind. He usually arrives at a solution not by developing his from a theoretical basis but by practical experiments.

The Swiss engineer here observed a characteristic American way of thinking and acting that William James later called pragmatism.

The most influential foreign report on the Centennial was an unofficial one. The German commissioner, Professor Franz Reuleaux, a brilliant scientist and perennial official at international expositions, wrote a small book entitled Letters from Philadelphia . Reuleaux saw the superb exhibition as a great triumph for the United States and a defeat for Germany. America had bested Britain in this tournament of industry. American workers and processes were so efficient that the twenty-two Bessemer converters in American steel plants produced as much steel as the seventysix units in Germany. Reuleaux called German products “cheap and bad” and urged German industry to stop trying to compete by low prices. The way to increase worldwide sales was to improve quality while maintaining the price. How could this be done? By emulating the Americans, who had mastered mass production of quality goods. Reuleaux’s candid book caused a storm of controversy, but his advice was taken. Historians have credited Letters from Philadelphia with having a decisive effect on the development of modern Germany. The book was long remembered. In July, 1941, a month after his invasion of Russia, Adolf Hitler was at his headquarters in East Prussia; the F’fchrer lectured his entourage on diverse topics: Busy as bees, we were able to mass produce goods. They were cheap but at first they couldn’t have the quality of the English products. We were beginners and didn’t know the secrets of production. That’s how, at a world’s fair in Philadelphia in the eighties, German products got the adjectives “cheap and bad.” But then three fields were developed in which our work was superior to the English … chemical, electrical, optical.

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.

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.

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 re-erected 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.

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