Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

This spring marks the one hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the International Exhibition of Art, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, better known as the Centennial International Exhibition, staged to mark the one hundredth anniversary of American independence. Opening Day, Wednesday, May 10, 1876, welcome more than one hundred thousand visitors, and by closing day, Friday, November 10, nearly ten million people, – 9,910,966 to be precise – had passed through its gates.

“We are now celebrating our first Centennial Anniversary,” proclaimed the official government bulletin. “The grandest exhibition of the arts, sciences, and manufactures that the world has ever witnessed, is now in the course of commemoration.” These were encouraging and optimistic words; by 1876, the United States had survived a tragic Civil War, a horrifying presidential assassination, discouraging political scandals, and unnerving financial instability. Organizers intended the celebration to be a positive step forward for Philadelphia and the nation by showcasing American ingenuity and resourcefulness.

President Ulysses S. Grant took part in the opening ceremonies, arriving with his wife, Julia, at ten o’clock. The First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry (universally known as the First City Troop), astride magnificent steeds and smartly turned out in striking uniforms and plumed helmets, escorted the Grants to the grandstand, where they were joined by Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II and Empress Theresa, the first reigning monarchs to visit the United States. An orchestra performed the anthems of more than a dozen foreign countries and closed with “Hail Columbia,” after which it performed “Centennial Inauguration March,” commissioned to Richard Wagner, who dedicated it to the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee. The program continued with a lengthy prayer by Methodist Episcopal Bishop Matthew Simpson, considered the foremost clerical orator in the country, and a performance of “Centennial Hymn,” written by John Greenleaf Whittier. John Welsh (1805-1886), president of the Centennial Board of Finance, formally transferred the buildings to General Joseph R. Hawley, president of the United States Centennial Commission, who noted that, despite “the remarkable and prolonged disturbance of the finances and industries of the country,” the buildings and structures erected for the extravaganza were completed on time. President Grant read a brief address, which he finished at noon. Flags and banners were hoisted high on all buildings, a one hundred-gun salute reverberated throughout the grounds, and a master of ceremonies led four thousand notables organized by importance – President Grant was first in the procession – through the Main Exhibition Building, where foreign commissioners swelled the parade.

President Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro proceeded to Machinery Hall and grasped the two master levers that started the Corliss Duplex Engine, designed by George H. Corliss and manufactured by his Corliss Steam Engine Company, of Providence, Rhode Island. With the pull of the switch, the world’s largest steam engine set in motion hundreds of machines in majestic Machinery Hall, a sprawling thirteen-acre complex of specially designed buildings and annexes, each a testimony to architectural ingenuity. The monstrous engine, weighing more than seven hundred tons, was perhaps the greatest wonder at the exhibition. After the exhibition, workers dismantled the engine and hauled it back to Providence, where it was sold, in 1880, to the Pullman Company of Chicago for its new car works. The Pullman Company again dismantled the engine, in 1910, when it changed from steam power to electricity and the behemoth lay in pieces in storage until it was sold as scrap for eight dollars a ton. Vying with the Corliss for popularity among exhibits was a mechanism much smaller yet even more ingen­ious: Alexander Graham Bell’s new telephone. “My God, it talks!” a startled Emperor Dom Pedro is supposed to have remarked as he dropped the instrument in disbelief.

Manufacturers from throughout the world proffered thousands of objects for public inspection in Machinery Hall. Pennsylvania was well represented by a number of firms: R. 0. Moorehouse and Company, Philadelphia (steam engine,with gear for variable expansion adjusted by the governor); Lewistown Brass and Engine Company, Lewistown (brass goods and upright and horizontal engines); B. E. Lehman, Bethlehem (gauge clocks, water gauges, oil cups, gate valves); Jarecki Manufacturing Company, Erie (brass work for steam, gas, water, oil, and iron fittings, adjustable pipe tongs); S. D. Hubbard, Pittsburgh (steam pump); Huber and McCarter, Lancaster (steam meat chopper); Harrisburg Car Manufacturing Company, Harrisburg (eight-wheeled box freight cars); Dickson Manufacturing Company, Scranton (locomotive and mining machinery); Coxe Brothers and Compa­ny, Jeddo (working model of a coal breaker); George B. Bryant, Pottsville (self-oiling car wheels, loose pulleys, cups, car journals, vehicle and carriage wheel hubs, independent car axles); Isaiah D. Buck, Con­shohocken (suction washing machine); O.J. Bollinger, York (turbine water-wheel); Barber & Son, Allentown (globe flume, with turbine wheel); Allison and Bannan, Port Carbon (improved air compressing engines); Albright & Stroh, Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe (coal jig for separating slate from coal, model of duplex steam pump, fire plugs); and the Western File Company, Beaver Falls (machine-cut files).

Philadelphia, naturally; dominated the Centennial’s 3,177 Pennsylvania exhibitors not only at Machinery Hall but in Agricultural Hall, Brewers’ Building, Carriage Annex, Main Exhibition Building, Memorial Hall, Photographic Building, Shoe and Leather Building, and the Women’s Pavilion with a total of 2,366 exhibitors, followed by Pittsburgh with 98, and Lancaster with 26. Many modest-sized communities – even remote hamlets and crossroads villages – enjoyed representation, including Shenan­doah, Towanda, Pine Grove, Emporium, Mahanoy City, Cogan Station, McAllisterville, Union Deposit, Trevorton, Montrose, Honesdale, Girard Manor, Newville, Hamburg, and White Haven.

Selected over other cities around the nation that had competed for the pomp and prestige, Philadelphia offered its spectacular Fairmount Park of nearly three thousand acres for the splendid assortment of exhibition halls and pavilions. The Schuylkill River coursed through the park and the buildings and structures lined the picturesque banks of the waterway. Philadelphia, which had enjoyed enviable status as the nation’s principal city for nearly one hundred years, entered a period of stagnation after the federal government relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1801. The Centennial International Exhibition proved to be a triumph, focusing national and international attention on Philadelphia once again. Throughout the expansive exposition grounds, a wide-eyed public witnessed an international display – and the first official world’s fair hosted by the United States­ – that dazzled one and all with the promise of American innovation and invention.

Two dozen buildings represented various states, including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, and Delaware. Centennial organizers stipulated that state exhibitions make no reference to the Civil War that could be construed as political or offensive. Southern states, with the notable exceptions of Mississippi and Arkansas, declined to participate, generally because of financial difficulties resulting from the war. Displays mounted by individual states tended to be innocuous but nevertheless curious, many showcasing agricultural produce and homegrown items. Kansas created a twenty-foot tall replica of the nation’s capitol in corn, capped by a statue of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees.

In addition to buildings erected by the United States, pavilions represented the newly formed German Empire, as well as Brazil, Japan, Spain, Canada, Chile, and France. Great Britain alone required three buildings. Visitors appeared agog at the seemingly endless avenues of structures and pavilions, among them, a “genuine” French restaurant, Swedish School House, Moorish Villa, police stations, fountains, fire companies, boiler houses, monuments, and public comfort stations. The grounds also featmed a Vienna bakery, a branch of the Centennial National Bank, cigar stands, and the “Colossal Arm [of the Statue of] Liberty.” Dominating the wildly flamboyant architectural array was the Main Exhibition Building. Designed by Henry Petit and Joseph M. Wilson in the form of a parallelogram, it stretched upward from the Schuylkill River, across the exhibition grounds, to a length of – not coincidentally – 1,876 feet.

The largest structure of its kind in the world, the Main Exhibition Building covered more than twenty-one acres, equivalent to six football fields, with eleven miles of walkways and aisles. Nearly fourteen thou­sand exhibitors from thirty-seven countries showed their wares, mostly household goods and products such as clothing, furniture, clocks, tools, and musical instruments. “The ingenuity that exhibitors have displayed in arranging such things as tacks candles soap hardware needles thread pipe & all such apparently uninteresting articles is something marvelous – and they command the attention of the observer even against his will,” wrote twenty-two-year-old George Eastman, inventor of the Kodak camera, to his mother in Rochester, New York. Visitors to the immense building were treated to concerts given in its Music Pavilion, in addition to piano and organ recitals. The Centennial Organ, built by the Hook and Hastings Company of Boston, performed three times daily, for a total of one thousand recitals. Following the close of the Centennial Exhibition, the grand organ – replete with fifty-three hundred pipes – was installed in St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, where it is still in use. Immediately after the event’s closing, demolition of the monolithic Main Exhibi­tion Building commenced.

All manner of transportation whisked visitors to and from the thirteen entrance gates. Both the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the Reading Railroad Company laid special tracks to stations at the site. In addition to transportation by steam locomotives, visitors arrived by horse-drawn street cars, carriages, and steamboats, as well as by foot. Upon arriving, Americans from Maine to California could pick up a complimentary copy of the facsimile of the first issue of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, purchase a vase or bowl as a souvenir at the Japanese Bazaar, sample exotic foods from faraway lands, and throng to see the sculpture and the paintings exhibited in Memori­al Hall. Visitors particularly crowded the Italian Gallery, after which they were able to publicly disapprove of the nudes in sculpture-provocatively titled – Love’s First Whisper, The Mirror of Love, and Lurking Love – they had so eagerly sought out.

Exhibition planners intended Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall to be permanent, to stand as lasting memorials to the extravaganza, but only Memorial Hall survives. Designed by Hermann J. Schwarzmann, a twenty-seven-year old German immigrant and a Fairmount Park engineer, Memorial Hall took eighteen months to construct. Built of iron, granite, brick, and glass, the building, described by Schwarzmann as “thorough­ly fire-proof,” cost $1.S million, of which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided two-thirds and the City of Philadelphia the balance. Named to honor the soldiers of the Revolutionary War, the building served as the Centennial’s art museum. Schwarzmann designed the main entrance with three enormous arched doorways, readied by climbing thirteen steps, each a symbol of an original colony. When the extravagant building opened, it was reported to be the largest such structure in the nation, capable of accommodating eight thousand people.

Philadelphia artist John Sartain, chief of the Centennial Bureau of Art, gathered 3,256 paintings and drawings, 627 pieces of sculpture, 431 works of applied arts, and nearly 3,000 groups of photographs, from twenty nations, for Memorial Hall’s gal­leries. One of the highlights, Peter Frederick Rothermel’s The Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge, a monumental narrative painting measuring thirty-two by nearly seventeen feet, is now the centerpiece of The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s recently renovated Civil War Gallery. The exhibits included works by Franklin Dullin Briscoe, Thomas Eakins, Herman Herzog, Edmund Darch Lewis, and Peter Moran, Philadel­phia; Isaac Broome and George Hetzel, Pittsburgh; Lloyd Mifflin, Columbia; and Russell Smith and his children Xanthus Russell Smith and Mary Russell Smith, Jenkintown.

On May 10, 1877, exactly one year after the grand opening of the Centennial International Exhibition, Memorial Hall reopened as the Pennsylvania Museum “for the improvement and enjoy­ment of the people of the Commonwealth.” Memorial Hall housed the museum until 1928 when major works of art had been transferred to the new Philadelphia Museum of Art, across the Schuylkill River, at the western terminus of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Memorial Hall continued to house the institution’s less important collections until 1954 when it ceased to serve as a museum. The building was returned to the Fairmount Park Commission and rehabilitated to house administrative offices and to serve Philadelphians as a sort of community and recreation center with the installation of an indoor swimming pool in the East Wing and a basketball court in the West Wing. The Great Hall, one of the country’s most impressive interior spaces, was used for civic and cultural events.

Recognized as one of the premier examples of Beaux-Arts-style architecture in the United States, Memorial Hall – which influ­enced the design of a number of European museum buildings, exposition halls, and government edifices – is being returned to its original use as a museum. The Please Touch Museum, currently located in Philadelphia’s museum district, at Twenty-First and Race Streets, is rehabilitating the historic building, which it will open in 2007. Since 1976, the Please Touch Museum has enriched the lives of children by providing learning opportunities through play. It was the nation’s first museum designed for visitors age seven and younger.

The Please Touch Museum will occupy 135,000 square feet of Memorial Hall, tripling its exhibition space. “When we are finished, we will have restored this building to its original use as a museum,” said Nancy D. Kolb, museum president and CEO, at a groundbreaking ceremony in December 2005. She added that the new-and significantly younger-museum-goers will undoubtedly be “much noisier” than the 1876 visitors. Because the building has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it will be renovated according to strict standards issued by the Secretary of the Interior. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) has contributed to the preservation of Memorial Hall by providing funds through its Keystone Grants Program for exterior masonry work.

The smallest of the exhibition’s five principal buildings, but the largest botanical conservatory erected up to that time, Horticultural Hall, also designed by Schwarzmann, cost $251,937 to construct. In Horticultural Hall, visitors could examine all manner of exotic tropical plants and fruit-bearing trees in a grandhall flooded with light. Many of the plants on display were considered rare and valuable. With his design of Horticultural Hall, Schwarzmann won the admiration of both professionals and the public; in fact, the event’s international jury presented him with an award for its design. For decades, the giant glass house offered a place for repose and reflection for visitors who strolled among its palms and showy plants. In 1911, the Fairmount Park Commission learned that inadequate and deferred mainte­nance rendered the building a hazard. Nevertheless, Horticultural Hall survived for nearly another half-century. On October 15, 1964, Hurricane Hazel damaged the structure, after which park officials ordered its demolition. The following spring the structure was razed, its plant collections dispersed, and its statuary relegated to storage. A modern exhibition building and green­house, the present-day Horticulture Center, was built on the footprint of the original building in 1976 to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial.

The only other extant Centennial edifice is the Ohio Building, often called the Ohio State Building or the Ohio House, located at the eastern end of State Avenue, immediately west of Belmont Avenue. The building was constructed of dressed stone quarried at twenty-one locations in Ohio. Designed by the Cleveland architectural firm of Heard and Sons, the building is a rare example of architectural advertising with the names of various Ohio stone dealers, cutters, and quarries carved in its stones. The building handily accommodated reception and reading rooms and the offices of the state commission. A commodious annex in the rear provided space for exhibits and for public meetings. A report documenting the condition of the building was provided by the PHMC with a historic preservation project grant. The most Ohio likely Building an will be old-fashioned preserved and cream reused as a commercial food venture, most likely an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor to recall the Centennial.

Various local ethnic groups clamored for representation in the celebration. The German community unveiled a statue of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the first meteorologist, which stands today on Fairmount Park’s West the River first Drive. The Jewish which Order of B’nai B’rith contributed a monument to Religious Liberty, which originally stood at the end of the Sunken Gardens and is now locate outside the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Fifth Street, north of Independence Hall.The Catholic Jewish Total Abstinence Union erected an enormous marble fountain on the Centennial grounds at North Concourse Drive and State Street, just east of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Designed by the Isaac H. Hobbs and son and sculpted by German artist Hermann Kirn, the fountain cost $54,000, the equivalent of nearly $908,000 today.

It took individuals of extraordinary vision, such as finance board president John Welsh, and a community attuned to the voluntarism that had become commonplace during
the Civil War to create and manage the mammoth event. The practice exercise for Welsh and his fellow citizens had been the Philadelphia Great Central Sanitary Fair, held in the city’s Logan Square in June 1864 which raised one million dollars for the care of sick and wounded soldiers. A dozen years later, Philadelphia enjoyed repeat success with the4 Centennial International Exhibition. Among its organizers was Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, an energetic proto-feminist and the great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin. Gillespie and her Women’s Centennial Executive Committee quickly raised forty thousand dollars, but after it became obvious that the exhibition’s all-male leadership would not display women’s work, she marshaled her forces and she and her committee of thirteen Philadelphia women raised an additional thirty thousand dollars. Gillespie and her followers approached Schwarzmann to design a special pavilion and, for the first time in history, a world’s fair had a building by and for women.

Formally opened by the Empress of Brazil, the Women’s Pavilion featured displays of needlework, corsets, and household items, as well as new inventions such as emergency flares, model interlocking bricks, and a patent land pulverizer. Gillespie’s old edict was that was object be the work of a woman. One of the pavilion’s most popular attractions was Emma Allison who, dressed in formal attire, tended a steam engine which powered several machines, including a printing press used to churn out The New Century of Women, the official voice of the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee. Exhibitors included M. Hazlewood, Pittsburgh (a watercolor, Wild Grapes); Madame Katharine Schmitt, Philadelphia (hair jewelry); and Glory Anna Wells, Luzerne (dish washer). Three days before the extravaganza closed, participants celebrated Women’s Day, but many women considered the scheduling to be an affront. Even more insulting, Tuesday, November 7, was Election Day, and organizers generally believed that men would be at the polls and wouldn’t mind missing the festivities.

One of the methods used to finance the Centennial Exhibition was the sale of stock at ten dollars a share, and more than twenty thousand individuals invested $2,800,000. Purchasers received only twenty-three cents on each dollar invested, in part because the federal government, claiming its $1.5 million contribution was a loan rather than a gift, sued to get it back. However, Congress agreed to use this money to build a new building to house the United States National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian Institution. Thousands of new (and newfan­gled) devices, instruments, and inventions, such as printing presses, magic lanterns, steam engines, fire trucks, and mining equipment, introduced to the public in 1876 at Philadelphia, eventually made their way to the museum­ thanks to Spencer Fullerton Baird.

A native of Reading, Berks County, and an 1840 graduate of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Baird served as the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, from 1850 to 1877, and then as the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, from 1878 to 1887. Given full responsibility for the National Museum in 1872, he devoted much of his time to preparing budgets and acquiring collections for the institution. The work suited him well; he was an insatiable collector. For the Centennial International Exhibition, Baird developed award-winning exhibits that garnered public acclaim and gave public prominence to the Smithsonian Institution. His greatest triumph in connection with the Centennial was his success in convincing many of the exhibitors to avoid the expense of shipping their displays home and, instead, donating them to the Smithsonian Institution. A steam engine hauled sixty railroad box cars crammed with all sorts of materials from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for the National Museum. Upon its opening in 1881, the museum became immensely popular with residents and visitors alike. Much like the Centennial International Exhibition, the United States National Museum played an important role in history by creating and reinforcing a national identity for the country.

In its run of just six months, the Centennial Exhibition forced the world to take note of the nation’s contributions to art, technology, science, industry, architecture, transportation, and culture. Its success was considerably more than the nearly ten million visitors who traveled to Philadelphia to experience, firsthand, the first world’s fair staged by the United States. The Centennial celebrated ingenuity and invention, innovation and, imagination, inspiration and information. And it also served to educate and enlighten, entertain and enchant, and engage and energize. It became a benchmark, a milestone, by which Americans – and the rest of the world – measured success in so many arenas of life and work.


For Further Reading

Giberti, Bruno. Designing the Centennial: A History of the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2002.

Jackson, James B. American Space: The Centennial Years, 1865-1876. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972.

Maass, John. The Glorious Enterprise: The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and H.J. Schwarzmann, Architect-in-Chief. Watkins Glen, N.Y.: American Life Founda­tion, 1973.

Nicolai, Richard R. Centennial Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Bryn Mawr Press, 1976.

Post, Robert C., ed. 1876: A Centennial Exhibition. Washington, D.C.: Smithson­ian Institution Press, 1976.

Rydell, Robert W. All The World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American Interna­tional Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.


James McClelland is a native of Philadelphia. In 2004, he was named executive director emeritus of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, from which he had retired to devote more time to writing. His arts features, celebrity interviews, and profiles have appeared in a number of publications, including People on Parade, The Magazine Antiques, Ceramics Monthly, Dance Interna­tional, and Art & Antiques. He is the author of Fountains of Philadelphia: A Guide, published in 2005 by Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg. He is currently working on a guide to the arts in Philadelphia, which will be published by Stackpole Books.