The 1876 centennial exposition

In the years leading up to 1876, a groundswell grew steadily for an appropriate commemoration of our country's 100th birthday. Undaunted by the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent three years of depression, a great national exhibit was proposed.  It was designed not only to celebrate a century of American liberty, but to promote national unity after a disruptive Civil War, and to display to the world the industrial might of the United States.

Philadelphia was selected as the seat of the exhibition because of its historic significance and transportation facilities.  Congress decided to make the affair international in scope and invited foreign nations to join in, thus making it the first great international exhibition held in this country.

On May 10, 1876, a rainy, windy and miserable day, President Grant, accompanied by Emperor Don Pedro of Brazil, officially opened the "International Exhibition of Arts,   Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine."  The 100,000 people who were there on opening day called it simply the "Centennial Exposition," a name it was forever known by.

The Fair was situated on 236 acres in Fairmount Park and had over 30,000 exhibitors contained within the walls of its 170 buildings.  Included in this number were the pavilions of 37 exhibiting nations.  There were seven principal divisions: mining, metallurgy, manufactured products, science, education, fine arts, and a new innovation, the Women's Building, to demonstrate the American woman's newly found importance.

The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was the big event of the year, if not the decade.  Victorians had never seen anything like it before in size, grandeur or awesome diversity.  They had literally walked into a world of tomorrow. Memories of their visit would remain forever and folks proudly displayed the mementos and novelties picked up at the Centennial celebration.

And there were many to be found at the exposition, so much so that at times it came close to resembling a bazaar.

Favorite souvenirs - and greatly cherished collectibles of today - included medals, tokens, scarves, handkerchiefs, advertising fans, sets of pictures, and pins.  Also, Liberty Bell glass (a pressed glass pattern) and other china, games, and toys.

All sorts of ephemera were produced for and about the Centennial Exposition and much has survived down to the present time to be collected and admired.

The 1870s was the beginning of the nation's craze for trade cards.  The transition of such cards from black and white to color as well as a trend toward a high caliber of illustration came about in the middle years of the decade.  Americans went card crazy.  It was a way to see what the world was like and a means to collect wonderful artistic miniatures.

Thousands of trade cards were handed out at the Fair. Few exhibitors dared not to have a pile of them to distribute freely.  The largest majority were black-and-white illustrations of poor quality, which most people did not bother to save.  On the other hand, color cards, with well-designed and printed artwork, were enthusiastically collected and preserved.

Prints of the Exposition, especially those by Prang, were popular.  These were often patriotic or heroic in tone.  One depicted a stout woman in armor fighting the British in the Revolutionary War, another of her drinking with Uncle Sam from the same glass.

America's tunesmiths kept themselves very busy in 1875 and 1876 writing a seemingly endless parade of songs celebrating the exposition.  So many were there that nearly every building on the grounds had a song dedicated to it.  The Corlis Engine (situated in Machinery Hall), which provided power for the entire exhibition, even had its own song - "The Corliss Engine Characteristic Grand March," by Sep. Winner.

Two other songs, "Agricultural March" by E. Mack, along with his "Horticultural March," kept America singing.  A piano-playing public, enamored with the Centennial Exposition, eagerly bought sheet music of all these tunes. Well over a century later, these many pieces of sheet music continue to be big hits with collectors.

Several publishers sold sets of stereo views picturing buildings and other exhibits.  They varied from poor quality, mass-produced pictures to the much sought-after type with real photos.  Those made by Centennial Photographic Co. are held in high regard by collectors.

Illustrated envelopes were readily available to fairgoers. Most had images of fair buildings on the back; on a few the picture was located on the narrow back flap.  Commemorative and patriotic envelopes go back to the Civil War and beyond, but the Centennial celebration marked their demise.

There was also a large selection of hard and soft cover souvenir booklets to be had.  These contained numerous illustrations of the exposition.  A popular style was a large sheet which unfolded to a giant size panorama of tiny vignettes of the fair.  Many of the books were visitors’ guides with maps and information about buildings, exhibits and special attractions.

Admission tickets, magazine articles, and railroad promotionals for special trains to the fair, as well as daily programs, continue to enchant collectors.

America's Centennial Exposition of 1876 celebrated 100 years of independence, offered a fun-filled expedition into the nation's past and present, and allowed a peek into the future. Over six million people came to Philadelphia during the World's Fair six-month run; they went home with a renewed faith in the United States and a vision of the road ahead.