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THE CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION, PHILADELPHIA, 1876

Centennial Book to Take Home The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the first exposition of its kind in the United States, was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It celebrated not only a hundred years of American independence, but also the country's recovery from Reconstruction and its emergence as an internationally important industrial power.

Ten years in the planning, the Centennial Exposition cost more than eleven million dollars and covered more than 450 acres of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. More than ten million visitors visited the works of 30,000 exhibitors during its six month run. The focal point of the exposition was Machinery Hall, where visitors could marvel at the engineering wonders of the age: electric lights and elevators powered by the 1,400-horsepower Corliss steam engine, locomotives, fire trucks, printing presses, mining equipment, and magic lanterns. Introduced to the public for the first time were typewriters, a mechanical calculator, Bell's telephone, and Edison's telegraph. These and thousands of other artifacts became the basic collection of the new Arts and Industry Building of the Smithsonian Institution.

The other major attractions were the Main Building, devoted to manufactures of the U.S. and other countries; Memorial Hall, dedicated to the fine arts; and Horticulture Hall, a conservatory for the display of native and exotic plants. Everything at the Centennial was classified by department (Mining and Metallurgy, Manufactures, Education and Science, Art, Machinery, Agriculture, and Horticulture), subclassified, and further subclassified in a logical scheme that later became a model for the Dewey Decimal System.

The greatest impact of the Centennial Exposition was on the image of the United States. Before 1876 Europe had generally considered the U.S. an upstart country, not yet quite eligible to join the ranks of first-class nations. In this country, Americans had come through a difficult period; the post Civil War years were marked by political scandal and lack of leadership. Visitors and businessmen from abroad were astonished at America's industrial productivity, its creativity, and its progressiveness. The country was hailed as the land of progress and increasing economic power. The Centennial gave Americans pride in the present and confidence in an even greater future.


The Centennial was an opportunity for the United States to highlight its industrial and agricultural products. The Country was just beginning to look towards a global economic presence. Representatives from other nations who came to display their own products also had an opportunity to see what they might purchase from American firms. Various states also were represented at the fair. Delaware, for example, emphasized its potential for economic development by describing its towns, transportation, and educational facilities.

Going to the Centennial Bricktop.
Going to the Centennial, and a Guy to the Great Exhibition. New York: Collin & Small, 1876.

Norwegian Special Catalogue Norway. Kommission for Verdensutstillingen i Philadelphia, 1876. Norwegian Special Catalogue for the International Exhibition at Philadelphia, 1876. Christiania: Printed by B. M. Bentzen, 1876

Official Catalogue United States. Centennial Commission.
... Official catalogue ... Philadelphia: Published for the Centennial Catalogue Company by J. R. Nagle, 1876.

Delaware Building Delaware Building. Centennial International Exhibition. 1876. Philadelphia: Published by Thos Hunter, Lith.

The Great Centennial Exhibition Phillip T. Sandhurst.
The Great Centennial Exhibition. Philadelphia; Chicago: P. W. Ziegler & Co. [1876].

Visitors were impressed by the engineering marvels of the age: huge engines and complex machines that could create the industrial products that would become America's economic future. Progress could be measured by the number of "things" that could be produced.

The Masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition Illustrated... Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie [1876-78].

John W. Griffiths, manufacturer. Bent Timber Ships and Universal Wood Bending Machinery: two prize medals awarded at the International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. [s.l. : s.n.]: 1876.


The Centennial was the first world's fair to have major representation of the contribution of women. A Women's Centennial Executive Committee was established to lobby, fundraise, and gain support for a women's building. Inside the building everything was by women. All disciplines within the arts, sciences, and humanities were represented with special emphasis on "women's sphere." Exhibits ranged from the significant--a night signaling device, a model house made from interlocking bricks, and a life-preserving mattress for steam-boats--to the ephemeral--flowers made from fish-scales, a whistle made from a pigs tail. Response to the Women's Pavilion was mixed, from those who thought it showed women as too assertive to those who felt that it patronized women by emphasizing the domestic arts. Susan B. Anthony and other members of the National Woman Suffrage Association attempted to read "A Declaration of Rights for Women" at the July 4th celebration, but were refused permission. They did manage to distribute broadsides of their text which demanded jury trials by one's peers, meaning the inclusion of women, no taxation without representation, and repeal of the word "male" in state constitutions.

The New Century for Woman. Woman's Centennial Committee, International Exhibition, Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Pa.: The Committee, 1876.

Memoir of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Philadelphia: J.H. Coates, 1876.

The Centennial Record. Portland, Maine: G. Stinson and Company.


Introduction Columbian Exposition Pan-American Exposition St. Louis Exposition
Sesqui-Centennial Exposition Century of Progress Exposition New York World's Fair Resources

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