The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition 1876 was the first World Fair held in America. It celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a manufacturing trade show extravaganza that allowed Yankee Ingenuity to shine. It changed the world’s perception of the upstart country and the rebels who founded it. The 10 million plus people who attended from May 10th to November 10th witnessed a wide range of newfangled products that included everything from bananas to telephones.
Officially, the fair was called “The 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers and Products of Soil and Mine.” At the time, electricity was still just a spark in Tesla’s eyes. (His big debut of AC electricity occurred at the 1893 World’s Expo in Chicago.) Hydraulic power and steam still powered the world. Most machines and tools were made of wood. Steel and iron were just making the scene. Most manufacturing was accomplished by hand. With the Centennial all of this was about to change.
More than 30,000 exhibitions were featured in approximately 200 buildings on the 256-acre Fairmount Park. Among the visitors and exhibitors was George Eastman (Kodak), George Westinghouse and a young Thomas Edison with his electric pen and automatic telegraph system. Countless people were inspired by the Exposition. More than 10,000 patents issued in years following the fair.
Following are a few of what would have been our “must see” exhibits.
Bananas–Until this exposition, bananas were virtually unknown in America. Bananas had a long journey that most likely began in Malaysia. By the time of the Exposition, they were wrapped in paper and eaten with a knife and fork.
Hires Root Beer—Created by local Philadelphia pharmacist, Charles Elmer Hires. Yes, root beer dated back to Colonial times, but he perfected his own recipe. He sold packets of powder for 25 cents that yielded up to five gallons of his root beer. He offered free glasses of his concoction at the Exposition, thereby building a loyal customer base.
Popcorn– Exhibitor I.L. Baker, advertised his “celebrated Sugar Pop-Corn” in Machinery Hall. The following sketch can be found in the Scrapbook Series of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Digital Scrapbooks contain thousands of images from the Fair.
Heinz Tomato Ketchup—First introduced at the 1876 Fair in Philadelphia, this became the gold standard for ketchup. The word “tomato” was added to the official name to separate it from other sauces. The iconic glass bottle was introduced in 1890. For Nellie Bly fans, that was the year she broke the fictional record around the world in 80 days.
Alexander Graham Bell and his contraption were the talk of the fair. He was granted a patent just a few months before the Exposition opened its gates. Bell gave his first demonstration in June. His audience included Emperor Pedro of Brazil who stood 20 feet away from Bell who spoke into his machine. When Pedro put the receiver to his ear he uttered his now famous words, “My God, it talks!”
This fast growing perennial vine was originally introduced at the Japanese exhibit. It was adopted in the United States to prevent soil erosion. It worked well, in fact it worked too well. It spread so quickly across the southern United States it became known as “the vine that ate the south.”
The monorail’s 170-yard elevated track in Fairmont Park connected the Horticultural Hall to the Agricultural Hall. General LeRoy Stone’s double-decker monorail featured two main wheels. The rear wheel was powered by a rotary steam engine.
According to the patent of December 12, 1876:
“Be it known that I, ETHELBERT WATTS, of Philadelphia, in the county of Philadelphia and State of Pennsylvania, have invented a certain new and useful Convertible Portmanteau and Bath-Tub. The object of my invention is to provide a portmauteau, valise, traveling-bag, or other equivalent article used for the transportation of clothing, which shall be convertible into a bath-tub, so as to afford travelers in places where such conveniences are wanting the luxury or comfort of bodily ablution.”
Also known as the Remington Typographic Machine, the Sholes and Glidden typewriter was designed primarily by Christopher Latham Sholes. The typewriter was already on its journey before 1876, but this new version was a popular show item. Its QWERTY keyboard typed only capital letters.
It was also an expensive item at roughly $125, so it was targeted primarily to business uses. Typewriters developed rapidly after the fair. In 1874, less than 4% of clerical workers in the United States were women. That number increased to 75% by 1900.
The tradition of the Centennial Exposition lives on. This year BIE will hold its exposition in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan from June 10th to September 10th.
The theme is Future Energy. Exhibits will focus on Reducing CO2 emissions, Living Energy Efficiency and Energy for all. Participants will showcase sustainable solutions and innovative technologies with the hopes of undoing some of the problems caused by earlier technology that debuted at the Centennial Exposition.
Visitors in 1876 endured a deadly heat wave that started in mid-June. Temperatures reached 100 degrees on at least ten days of through July. Fortunately, temperatures dropped for the most part starting in August and attendance rose.
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