by Shayna Matthews
|Opening Day – May 10th, 1876 Heedless of rain, crowds pour|
through the gates to see President Grant open the Centennial.
(Photo from the book The Way it Was – 1876 by Suzanne Hilton.)
Now, imagine you're holding such a birthday party for a rather large crowd. It's going to take some planning to get off the ground, so you need a little time to prepare for this gathering. A few years ought to do it, provided you can convince your neighbors to grant the permits to do so.
Of course, you can't very well host such a grand affair on your own property, so you look to the one place that does: the nearest park. They give you 256 acres to play with - that should do nicely, don't you think? After all, you want your celebration to go down in history. Help is needed in the construction of elaborate buildings with which to delight the masses, and then it hits you...halfway through completion, you're out of money. Months away from the date, building and plans are halted…leaning dangerously toward abandonment for lack of funds. Do you give up? Of course not - you present your problem to Congress. A vote is taken, and the results are close.
Victory! You have been granted $1,500,000 to complete the preparations! Exhibition Halls rise above the grounds, new and shimmering like the crowned jewels they were. The surrounding city is bustling with anticipation! As the halls are completed, jobs are created for a staff of the 10,000 needed to accommodate the millions expected. By now the birthday party has an official name, something simple and easy to remember: The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it? What else might you call the one-hundredth birth-date of the Nation?
Held on what is still the largest landscaped park in the United States, Philadelphia's Centennial was a crucial celebration, one the country needed to propel itself forward. The War Between the States had left Americans in a spiral of depression, both physically and financially. We needed an uplift, something to spur us into another revolution. A revolution of spirit. Some 30,000 exhibitors filled 190 buildings to celebrate a nation's birth by the signing of the Declaration of Independence 100 years earlier. This was just the ticket to heal old wounds and spur new ideas.
These new ideas would stem from the displays of nearly forty countries, everything from new hand-tools to the invention of a strange contraption which enabled two people to communicate across a wire. In 1876, the invention was nameless, and met with an equally vague interest amidst the crowd. After all, the crowds were so thick, no one could hear whether the invention even worked. Alexander Graham Bell invited the Emperor of Brazil to come out on a Sunday, when the grounds were closed to the public, to listen to his invention. Without the roar of thousands buzzing in his ear, The Emperor was astounded: Bell's invention really worked! If he had only known then what an impact it would have.
Other curiosities displayed at the Centennial included the typewriter, an electric light, the mechanical calculator, (which weighed 2,000 pounds, and included 15,000 components), Hires Root Beer, and a delightful plant which was initially used as decorative shade. This miracle plant was soon abandoned as decoration and adopted for the control of erosion. Miraculous, indeed! The name of this plant exhibited in Centennial's Horticultural Hall? Kudzu. Contemporary reports also marveled at a "extraordinary" new fire-proof material, of which large deposits of the mineral were just discovered in Quebec. Visitors were excited about the possibilities of this new material called 'asbestos'.
The inventions and ideas presented in the lavish Main Hall (covering 21 acres), and the slightly smaller Machinery Hall, were well-met inspirations. Only four years after the celebrations, more than 10,000 United States patents had been issued for a variety of machines and innovations.
|Would this hand and torch ever become a grand|
statue in New York Harbor? (Photo from the book
The Way it Was – 1876 by Suzanne Hilton.)
And what of the crowds? The people who explored these wondrous exhibits? I'm a bit envious, I must say. I believe, given the chance, the Centennial is the place I would travel back to see...provided I had sufficient time to see it all. The opening ceremonies began with a hard-to-hear speech from President Grant. It was a rainy day, but that didn't stop crowds from bolting through the ticket stands, neglecting proper admittance with their 50 cent tokens. They surged through the staff, vaulted over ropes and walls, and entered the grand celebration. From 10th of May through the 10th of November, Philadelphia suffered the ramifications of another entire city within its midst. Citizens soon found that by attending the Centennial every day, for those six months, they could not possibly see it's entirety. One local woman discovered from experience, the formula for taking in the exhibition halls. Walk the grounds every third day, leaving two days for sufficient recovery. The official count was 8,004,325 paid admissions, but the total tally estimated between 8,200,000 - 10,000,000 including those who achieved admission without pay.
With the staggering numbers in attendance, Philadelphians began coming down with severe stomach aches and illnesses reminiscent of typhoid fever. The Centennial planners had constructed sewage systems, but they were not adequate. Mixed with the brutal heat of summer, the recipe was nothing to celebrate. 'Centennial fever' was blamed on overeating and sitting on doorsteps on hot summer days. Soon, Philadelphia newspapers were urging locals to abandon the drinking of water. 'Chew bits of leather or shingle nails to allay your thirst!' Regardless, people flocked to the Centennial, and as temperatures began to cool with the promise of autumn, attendance tripled. Specific days were given to cater toward certain crowds. Ladies' Day meant token prices for men rose significantly, deterring them from attending. Children were granted days, as well as each state. A group of thieves and pickpockets began to cry out for a day of their own, in which they promised to cease their "talents" for the full day, so they might enjoy the festivities without fear of being thrown in prison.
|Devoid of brown dusters, spectators enjoy a|
bird's-eye view of the Centennial. (Photo from
The Way it Was – 1876 by Suzanne Hilton.)
With so many inspired ideas and inventions paired with the awakening of new and fresh ideas influenced from other countries, one must wonder…what would our world be like today, if Congress had not donated the extra funds toward the completion of the Centennial? Without the fair with which to showcase his invention to the President and the Emperor of Brazil, would Alexander Graham Bell have gone forth with the telephone? Would we still have Hires root beer, calculators or even exotics such as popcorn and bananas so readily available? The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine truly was a celebration for the ages...brown dusters and kudzu not withstanding.
Fairmount Park, Philadelphia exists today, boasting 4,180 landscaped acres. While we cannot *sadly* travel back in time to visit the Centennial, remnants still remain in the park, including Memorial Hall, where you can find a scale model of the entire Centennial Exposition.
In case you haven't read it yet, here's the link to Cowboys, Creatures, and Calico, Vol. 1, containing my first published story, "The Legend of Venture Canyon."
AMAZON REVIEW: "A great compilation of stories. I especially liked 'Legend of Venture Canyon' by Shayna Matthews. A great story for a first time published writer!"