Today in History:

1868-1888 Chapter VI THE EXPOSITION OF 1876



It was fitting that the one hundredth anniversary of a great industrial nation should be celebrated by a World's Fair. Such a plan was first publicly proposed for the United States in 1870, by an association of Philadelphia citizens. It was adopted by Congress in the following year, when an act was passed creating a Centennial Commission, to consist of a delegate and an alternate from each State and Territory. The commission organized for the great and difficult work before them by choosing General J. R. Hawley, of Connecticut, president, and by appointing an executive committee, a board of directors, and heads of various administrative bureaus.

The Government declined to assume the financial responsibility of the enterprise, but in 1872 Congress appointed a Centennial Board of Finance with power to raise a capital stock of $10,000,000. Shares to the amount of $2,400,000 were soon sold to private citizens. Philadelphia appropriated $1,500,000, and Pennsylvania $1,000,000. In 1876 Congress made a loan to the Board of $1,500,000. Thus the great problem of a financial basis for the enterprise was solved.

At the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876

At the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876.

The first thought had been to make the exposition exclusively national, but subsequent deliberation made it seem best to widen the plan so that the arts and industries of the entire world should be represented. President Grant formally proclaimed the Exhibition in 1873, and in the following year foreign governments were invited to participate. Thirty-three cordially responded.

Meanwhile, the commission was pushing preparations. Philadelphia, the birth-place of the nation, was rightly chosen as the place for this unique memorial of that event. In the beautiful and spacious Fairmount Park, on the high bank of the Schuylkill River, an area of 285 acres was inclosed, and here five main buildings were soon rising rapidly as by magic. Besides these, there were at the time of opening, smaller structures to the number of 175, filling every available space.

On May 10th the Exposition was opened with appropriate exercises, in the presence of 100,000 people. Wagner had composed a Centennial March for the occasion. Whittier's Centennial Hymn was sung by a chorus of 1,000 voices. The restored South chanted the praises of the Union in the words of Sidney Lanier, the Georgia poet. President Grant, in a short speech, then declared the International Exhibition open. A procession of dignitaries moved to Machinery Hall, where the President of the United States and Dom Pedro II., Emperor of Brazil, set in motion the great Corliss engine, and with the whirr of spindle and clatter of machinery the world's seventh great fair began.

Weeks and months of inspection were necessary to grasp the Exhibition as a whole and in detail, but an imaginary stroll through the grounds will give the reader some general idea of it.

Entering through one of the 106 gates, the sight-seer naturally turned his eye first toward the colossal Main Building. A parallelogram in form, 1,880 feet long by 460 wide, and 70 high, it covered twenty acres. At the centre and ends were projecting wings, large buildings in themselves.

In the middle and at the four corners rose towers. In spite of its size the building seemed light and almost graceful. Its brick sub-structure, seven feet high, stood upon massive masonry foundations. The rest of the building was mainly glass and iron. The iron trusses of the roof rested upon 672 slender iron pillars. This hall had been erected in a year, at a cost of $1,700,000.

In the Main Building manufactures were exhibited, also products of the mine, along with various other evidences of the condition of science and education. The broad aisles ran the whole length of the interior, flanked on either side by exhibits. More than one-third of the space was reserved for the United States, the rest being divided in varying proportions among foreign countries. The products of all climates, tribes, and times were here crowded together under one roof. The mighty states of Great Britain, France, and Germany exhibited the work of their myriad roaring looms side by side with the wares of the Hawaiian Islands and the little Orange Free State.

Here were the furs of Russia with other articles from the frozen North; there the flashing diamonds of Brazil and the rich shawls and waving plumes of India. At a step one passed from old Egypt to the latest-born South American republic. Chinese conservatism and Yankee enterprise confronted each other across the aisle. All civilized nations but Greece were represented--more than ever before took part in an international fair.

From the novelty of the foreign display the American visitor returned proudly to the display made by his own land. Textiles, metal work, arms and tools, musical instruments, watches, carriages, cutlery, books, and furniture--a bewildering array of all things useful and ornamental--made Americans realize as never before the wealth, intelligence, and enterprise of their native country and the proud station she had taken among the nations of earth.

Machinery Hall came next to the Main Building in size. Of plain architecture, built of wood, with iron ties, 1,402 feet by 360, it covered, with an annex, about thirteen acres. Here, with infinite clatter and roar, thousands of iron slaves worked their master's will. Three-fourths of the space was taken up with American machines. Visitors from the foremost foreign nations marvelled at the ingenuity of the Yankee mind here displayed. Great Britain led the foreign nations in the size and number of articles exhibited. Canada, France, Russia, Sweden, Brazil, and other countries sent ingenious or powerful machines.

But as a Titan, towering above all these and all others, stood the great Corliss engine, built by George H. Corliss, of Providence, R. I., one of the most remarkable mechanicians and inventors of the century. A modern Samson, dumb as well as blind, its massive limbs of shining steel moved with voiceless grace and utmost apparent ease, driving the miles of shafting and the thousands of connected machines. The cylinders were forty inches in diameter; the piston stroke, ten feet. The great walking-beams, nine feet wide in the centre, weighed eleven tons each. The massive fly-wheel, thirty feet in diameter, and weighing fifty-six tons, made thirty-six revolutions a minute. The whole engine, with the strength of 1,400 horses, weighed 700 tons.

Agricultural Hall, built of wood and glass in the form of a nave with three transepts, covered ten acres. The display it contained of agricultural products and implements was the largest ever made. Here the United States stood forth far in advance of all sister nations. Specimens of the rich and deep prairie soil excited the wonder and envy of tillers of impoverished European lands. The great West, with its monster steam-ploughs and threshing machines, placed before the eye the farming methods of a race of giants. The choice and delicate fruits of sunny lands mingled with the hardy cereals of Canada and Russia.

Memorial Hall, a beautiful permanent building of granite, erected by Pennsylvania and Philadelphia at a cost of $1,500,000, was given up to art. This was on the whole the poorest feature of the Exposition. America had few works of the first order to show. Foreign nations, with the exception of England, feared to send their choicest art products across the ocean. France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with some other countries, were all represented. Italy, besides paintings, sent many pieces of sculpture. England contributed a noble lot of paintings, including works by Gainsborough and Reynolds. In spite of all, the collection was the largest and most notable ever seen in this country, and throngs crowded the galleries.

Horticultural Hall, built of iron and glass in the Moorish style of the twelfth century, also a permanent structure, was erected by Philadelphia. Here, one walked amid the glories of tropical vegetation. Palm, orange, lemon, camphor, and india-rubber trees rose on every hand. The cactus of the desert, rare English flowering plants, strange growths from islands of the sea, here flourished each in its peculiar soil and climate. Outside the building were beds of hardy flowering plants covering twenty-five acres.

Besides these five main structures, the United States Building, where the working of the various administrative departments of the Government was shown, attracted thousands of visitors daily. A Woman's Pavilion contained products of female industry and skill. A narrow-gauge railway ran in great loops from building to building.

Twenty-six States erected buildings of their own. These served mainly as headquarters, but two or three contained large exhibits of state products. Thirty or more buildings were put up by private enterprise to illustrate various manufacturing and industrial processes. Before the close of the Exposition more than two hundred buildings stood within the enclosure. Several foreign Governments erected small structures of various sorts.

Through the summer months, in spite of the unusual heat that season, thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the country found their way to this shrine of the world's progress. The quiet old Quaker city was moved with unwonted life. Amidst the crowds of new-comers its citizens became strangers in their own streets.

On July 4th, simple but impressive ceremonies were held in the public square at the rear of Independence Hall. On temporary platforms sat 5,000 distinguished guests, and a chorus of 1,200 singers. The square and the neighboring streets were filled with a dense throng. Richard Henry Lee, grandson of the mover of the Declaration of Independence, came to the front with the original document in his hands. At sight of that yellow and wrinkled paper, the vast audience burst forth into prolonged cheering. Mr. Lee then read the Declaration. The recitation of an ode by Bayard Taylor and the delivery of an oration by Hon. William M. Evarts were the other main features of the exercises.

Through the early fall the interest in the Exposition spread farther and farther over the land, and the attendance steadily increased. On September 28th, Pennsylvania day, 275,000 persons passed through the gates. During October, the visitors numbered over 2,500,000. From May 10th to November 10th, the total admissions were 9,900,000; 8,000,000 admission fees were collected, amounting to $3,800,000. The fair was brought to an end on November 10th. After brief closing exercises, President Grant gave the signal to stop the Corliss engine. The giant slowly came to a standstill, the hum of the machinery died away, and the International Exhibition of 1876 was closed.

The Centennial Exposition was not a complete financial success. After returning the United States loan of $1,500,000, the stockholders could not be paid in full. The attendance was, however, larger in the aggregate than at any previous international exhibition, except that of Paris in 1867. The admissions there reached 10,200,000, but the gates were open fifty-one days longer than at Philadelphia. At Vienna, in 1873, there were but 7,255,000 admissions in 186 days against 159 days at Philadelphia.

The larger and more important results of this exposition cannot be measured with precision. A thousand silent influences were set at work upon our social, intellectual, and political life, which operated in secret for years afterward. The most obvious, and perhaps the most important, effect was the broadening of sympathies and mental outlook. Visitors to Philadelphia got something of the benefit of foreign travel. Local prejudices were broken down. New ideas of life and civilization were planted in hitherto sterile minds. The plodding Eastern farmer caught something of the Westerner's dash and swing. North and South, East and West, drew nearer together. A narrow patriotism caught glimpses of a great and noble world without.

These influences touched the most careless observer. Special classes derived each a peculiar benefit. Mechanical invention was stimulated. Art received an impetus which can never cease to be felt. To our household art, especially, came much quickening from the sight of England's beautiful display of home decorations.

The Exposition exalted the United States in the eyes of her foreign guests. Many were amazed at such proofs of the wealth, intelligence, and progressive spirit of the great republic. A correspondent of the London Times wrote, in 1876: "The American invents as the Greek sculptured and the Italian painted; it is genius." We may hope that the exhibits were educators to Europe as well as to America.

Lastly, the American returned from the great fair with an opinion of his own country which, if more sober and just than he had previously entertained, was not less proud but far prouder. The Nation laid aside its holiday attire, and, despite manifest defects and dangers in our national life, settled down to another century of work with increased pride in its past and stronger confidence for its future.