That Was Quite An Exhibition!

centennial programPhiladelphia, July 4th, 1876. America’s Centennial. From all across the country and the world, people gathered in the birthplace of our nation, the home of Independence Hall, site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The United States was a hundred years old, and in that time it had already been through wars abroad, a great Civil War at home, expansion westward as the frontiers were settled, expansion upward as cities began to tower above their original structures, and expansion abroad as its influence in the world increased. America was on the rise.

What better way to celebrate than by holding a massive Centennial Exhibition?

Exhibitions were one of the most marvelous and exciting inventions of the second half of the 19th century. In fact, Exhibitions and Worlds Fairs could be said to define everything that the late 19th century was. They were museums of modern thought and technology. They were showcases for the best that mankind had to offer. They were glimpses into the future, real and imagined.

Okay, so what exactly were these things and how did they get started?

Actually, you could say that the Industrial Revolution started them. The world underwent massive changes through the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. The old ways were wiped out as new ways poured in. The changes were cataclysmic, but it was the French who first thought up the idea of showing off everything that science, industry, and technology had been up to. There were several smaller exhibitions around France, but the beginning of the great exhibitions was held in 1844 in Paris. Here all of the new things that the Industrial Revolution had to offer were on display for anyone to come and see.

The Crystal Palace, 1851

The Crystal Palace, 1851

Of course, what we think of as the first Great Exhibition with capital letters happened when the French concept floated across the pond and stuck in the mind of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband. The Great Exhibition, the first true World’s Fair, was held in 1851 at The Crystal Palace, which Prince Albert had had constructed for the event. The Great Exhibition was the first international display of the variety of mechanical devices that had come to be as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Stop to think about that for a second. It’s almost impossible for out 21st century minds to grasp the concept. We can talk to people from around the world in real time with the click of a mouse. We can look up any information in an instant. News stories that break on the other side of the planet come into our Twitter feed within seconds. Not so in 1851. For most of the attendees of The Great Exhibition, anything outside of England, let alone Europe, was the stuff of legend. The likelihood of some of these people ever having seen someone from the orient was almost nil. Their minds were thoroughly blown on a level that we can only begin to grasp. The only comparison I can think of would be if we were to suddenly have a Milky Way Exhibition where we pitiful Earthlings could go to see the people and technology of all the stars that we only dream about now. Un. Believeable.

And London was only the beginning. Minds continued to be blown throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th with major world’s fairs in New York (1853), London again (1862), Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1889), Chicago (1893), Paris again(1900), Buffalo (1901), St. Louis (1904) and San Francisco (1915). These weren’t the only world’s fairs, but they were the most significant in that some of the greatest inventions of the time were brought to them, marketed at them, or, in the case of the ice cream cone at the St. Louis Exhibition in 1904, created at them. (Well, not entirely created, but definitely popularized)

I could write an entire long blog post about the wonders and mysteries of any one of these exhibitions, but since we just celebrated July 4th, and because it’s home, let’s look at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia.

The main building of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876

The main building of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876

How long did it take in the 19th century to plan a World’s Fair? Well, the Centennial Exhibition was first suggested in 1866. Yep, ten years before it took place. Planning began to be finalized and fundraising and construction started around 1870. This was not a minor event. When a city hosted a World’s Fair, it was the center of the world scene. The worry of civic leaders in Philadelphia in the 1860s and 70s was that Philadelphia wouldn’t be enough of a world draw. They also worried that they wouldn’t be able to raise enough money. Fortunately, The Franklin Institute (which still exists today, btw, and is awesome) stepped in as an early supporter.

What else did it take? Try a loan of $1.5 from the U.S government (which they had to sue to have repaid), $1 million given by the state of Pennsylvania, $1.5 million given by the city of Philadelphia, and over $1.7 million in stock shares sold to investors. In 1870s currency. On top of that, exhibition halls, hotels, infrastructure, and rail lines had to be constructed to accommodate the crowd. Years before the exhibition happened! This was planning and execution on an epic scale.

The history apologist in my would like to take this opportunity to point out just how fabulous the people of the 1870s who pulled off this endeavor were. No namby-pamby, backwards-thinking, technologically inferior historical peons here! The exhibition itself was a show of astounding organizational and technological skill. It was big. Beyond big! And it was pulled off in an age before electricity. The main building of the exhibition was the largest building in the world at the time, enclosing 2.5 acres!

So what might you have seen if you attended this exhibition?

Well, some of the products that were introduced to the world in Philadelphia in 1876 were a little device from Alexander Graham Bell called the “telephone”, the Wallace-Farmer Electric Dynamo (precursor to the light bulb), the Remington Typographic Machine (aka typewriter), Heinz Ketchup, and my personal favorite (and still the best) Hires Root Beer. If you had attended you might also have seen a full recreation of a colonial-era kitchen (yes, even in 1876 there was an interest in reenactment and reproducing the past) and the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch. Not too shabby!

So there you have it! Mass entertainment and enlightenment for the 19th century. It was astounding then what the world had and could achieve, and it is astounding now.

[all images courtesy of Wikicommons]