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Wednesday, June 24, 2015


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.)
We as a nation celebrate many, many successes, and throw parties for an infinite number of reasons...and, sometimes, for no reason at all. People love a good party, but there's something... Well, special about the celebration of a birth.

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.)
About mid-August, a large parcel arrived from France...spectators watched the large crates unpacked, revealing several pieces of a giant statue cast in virgin metal. Watching the statue come to life by the sweat of workers became a main attraction. Soon, a forearm, wrist and hand emerged, holding a torch and flame. Upon completion, workers found an extra thumb, and merely packed it back up in a crate. A stairway was built to admit visitors into the top of the hand to walk around the torch. Rumors, from reliable sources, promised the hand was to be but a small portion of a grand statue to be erected over the harbor of New York. While the hand was a fun attraction to visit, many people laughed at such an absurd rumor...such a colossal monument could not be done. Could it?

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.)
At the time, Americans were quite conscious of 'class'. Before the opening of the Centennial, many had never before rubbed elbows with the 'flip side' of society. People were roaming the streets of Philadelphia wearing leather moccasins, fringed coats with holes in the sleeves, or worn out linen dusters and dirty britches. This was a new and sobering experience for the upper-crust; ladies who donned their latest frocks and plumage from the Centennial line of Godey's Lady's fashions were outraged. Gradually, however, fancy dress became less and less frequent. Tromping through hundreds of acres in the sweltering heat, battered about by a daily crowd of thousands, often won out over tasteful fashion sense. Sensible dress with brown linen dusters became the norm, to the dismay of the fashion-oriented catalogs, who threw their hands in the air as the sale of Centennial gowns plummeted. 'Other countries will believe the duster is our National costume!'

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!"


  1. Shayna,
    I felt like I was right there. Great post!

    1. Hi Kristy, and thank you so much for reading it! I love taking my research trips to the Centennial for my "WIP" - it's such a fascinating era. Wish I could time travel...though I'd bring my own water. :-)

  2. We do love our celebrations. The World Fairs, Expositions, etc. This is one that goes down in history. Thanks for the 'trip' there. Doris

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the 'trip' Doris! I've been contemplating taking a literal trip out to Fairmount Park to visit the location. I have grandparents who attended the World Fair, need to record and preserve some stories about that.

  3. I didn't know there was still such class distinction in the US at that time--except for Boston aristocrats. I liked reading the factoids you put in this article. It was all so very interesting. Loved the picture of the arm from Miss Liberty.
    Venture Canyon was a great story, Shayna.
    All the best to your end of Mother Earth...

    1. Thank you for the wonderful comment, Sarah! Yes, it is surprising, but class distinction was still prevalent in the East. I think the Centennial was overwhelming leverage to broaden the minds of citizens, since ideas stemmed from so many countries. I am in love with this era, and cannot seem to get enough research material on the Centennial, perhaps because my grandmother is a Philly girl by birth. And thank you for the compliment on Venture Canyon, I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed it! :-) All the best to you as well.