Exhibition Facts

During the Centennial year of 1876, Philadelphia was host to a celebration of 100 years of American cultural and industrial progress. Officially known as the "International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine," the Centennial Exhibition, the first major World's Fair to be held in the United States, opened on May 10, 1876 on a 285-acre tract of Fairmount Park overlooking the Schuylkill River. The fairgrounds, designed almost exclusively by 27-year-old German immigrant Hermann J. Schwarzmann, were host to 37 nations and countless industrial exhibits occupying over 250 individual pavilions. The Exhibition was immensely popular, drawing nearly 9 million visitors at a time when the population of the United States was 46 million.

The most lasting accomplishment of the Exhibition was to introduce America as a new industrial world power, soon to eclipse the might and production of every other industrialized nation, and to showcase the City of Philadelphia as a center of American culture and industry.

Organization | Foreign Countries | Music | Significance | Period Testimony


The Centennial Exhibition is usually described as the sixth international exhibition of its type, after the Crystal Palace Exhibition at London in 1851, Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, and Vienna 1873. But there were many other world-class exhibitions both before and between these events. In 1853-54 New York held an exhibition at Reservoir Square (now Bryant Park), which boasted a Crystal Palace that eventually burned in a spectacular fire in 1858.

Centennial organizers learned well from the Vienna Weltanschauung of 1873. This event was a disaster of logistical planning. There was no convenient way for visitors to reach the fairgrounds, and carriage drivers charged exorbitant rates to carry visitors through mud caked fields to the site. In addition, a cholera epidemic in Vienna caused many fairgoers to stay away. Philadelphia was ready for visitors, with direct railroad connections able to service passenger trains every half hour, trolley lines, carriage routes, and even docking facilities along the Schuylkill. The city also constructed a separate water system for the Centennial with filtered water unconnected to municipal supplies to avoid any threat of epidemic.


News of the Centennial spread mostly by word of mouth. Large attendance figures were not realized until the end of the summer and the fall. Still, the Centennial was the most successful event of its kind, both in terms of attendance and admission receipts, even with fewer exhibition days than any other fair since London in 1851.

Total attendance will never really be known, since many visitors attended on more than one day, but a figure close to nine million is not unreasonable. The population of the United States in 1876 has been estimated at 46 million.

Costs to Visitors

Philadelphia hotels did a brisk business. There were at least eight hotels next to the grounds, and over 51 in central Philadelphia with over fifty rooms. The Globe had a capacity of 3,500, the Atlas 5,000, and most charged from $2.50 to $5.00 per day. The higher rates usually reflected the American plan, which included four meals per day as noted in the official guide, "breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper." Admission to the Centennial was $0.50, a guidebook cost $0.25, a glass of soda water $0.10, a ride on the West End Railway $0.05. The average daily salary of an American worker in 1876 was $1.21. For most Americans, working six days a week, ten hours a day with no paid vacation, a visit to the Centennial, which was not open at night or on Sunday, would have been a special event indeed.

Internal Transportation

Once in the grounds the visitor could ride the West End Railway to view the entire grounds. The Saddleback Railroad, the first monorail, connected Horticultural Hall with Agricultural Hall, but this was more of a novelty than a convenience. There were rolling chairs for rent at public comfort stations for $4.00 a day, quite expensive, and an internal telegraph system was available so that wealthy visitors could arrange to have their carriages waiting for them as they exited the grounds.

Food and Concessions

Visitors could dine at any of nine restaurants, including The Great American Restaurant, Trois Frères Provencaux, Restaurant of the South, Lauber's German Restaurant, the French restaurant La Fayette, George's Hill Restaurant, The Dairy, The Vienna Bakery and Coffee-House, or the New England Farmer's Home of 100 Years Ago. Diners complained of the service and the prices at most of these establishments. For quick snacks there were stands selling popcorn, a novelty, as well as waffles, soda water, root beer, and other snacks. The Sons of Temperance erected a fountain serving ice water inside a wooden structure at the intersection of Fountain and Belmont Avenue. Prominent throughout the grounds were cigar stands, bootblacks, and public comfort stations.

Public Safety

Free medical care was given to all visitors at the Centennial Medical Department, a six-bed hospital organized by 32-year old Dr. William Pepper, already a distinguished physician, who later was to become founder of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Over 6,463 people received medical or surgical treatment. A special police force called the Centennial Guards assured public safety. There were 675 arrests recorded during the Centennial. A Fire Department responded to 36 fires.


The Centennial was the first exhibition of its kind to use the arrangement of several large pavilions surrounded by smaller exhibitors in a somewhat random pattern instead of one large building, a system that was copied at future fairs. The grounds were divided into four sectors, and buildings were numbered systematically by sector and class. Each building carried a color-coded banner: blue for Centennial Commission buildings, red for United States and State Buildings, white for foreign buildings, yellow for restaurants and places of amusement, and green for miscellaneous buildings. An elaborate numbering system was employed to classify all exhibits for display and competition by departments: Department I. Mining and Metallurgy, II. Manufactures, III. Education and Science, IV. Art, V. Machinery, VI. Agriculture, and VII. Horticulture. Subclasses were arranged within these schemes so that 206-216 represented pottery and porcelain, 410-419 painting, and 665-669 textile substances of vegetable or animal origin. Many such schemes were in vogue during the Victorian period. The Dewey Decimal System, used in many libraries, was devised at the same time and may owe its genesis to this or prior systems.


Awards were extremely important to exhibitors, and were used in marketing and sales promotion. The Centennial used a novel system in that it awarded one medal only, a bronze, instead of the system of gradations used in previous exhibitions. Great care was taken as to consistency and fairness; still many countries and exhibitors complained that they had been slighted.


Previous Exhibitions
Where Year Dates Days Acres* Cost Visitors Exhibits
London 1851 May 1 – Oct 11 141 20 $1.46 mil. 6,170,000 17,000
New York 1853 Jul 14 – Nov 10   5.75 $0.5 mil. 600,000 4,800
Paris 1855 May 15 – Nov 15 200 30 $4 mil 4,533,464 20,799
London 1862 May 1 – Oct 25 171 24 $2.3 mil 6,211,103 26,348
Paris 1867 Apr 1 – Oct 31 210 40.5 $4.6 mil 9,300,000 50,226
Vienna 1873 May 1 – Oct 31 186 50 $9.85 mil 7,254,876 70,000
Philadelphia 1876 May 10 – Nov 10 159 75 $8.5 mil 9,789,392 60,000

*acres under cover, cost in 1876 dollars

Attendance by Month
Month Days Paid Admissions Total Admissions
May 19 378,980 613,495
June 26 695,666 952,177
July 26 636,518 906,447
August 27 908,684 1,175,314
September 26 2,130,991 2,439,689
October 26 2,334,530 2,663,879
November 9 918,956 1,038,391
Total 159 8,004,325 9,789,392
Largest Single Attendance Days
Location Attendance Date
Philadelphia, 1876 257,286 Thursday, September 28, 1876*
Paris, 1867 173,923 Sunday, October 27, 1867
Vienna, 1873 135,674 Sunday, November 2, 1873
Paris, 1855 123,017 Sunday, September 9, 1855
London, 1851 109,915 Tuesday, October 7, 1851
London, 1862 67,891 Thursday, October 30, 1862

*Pennsylvania Day

Principal Exhibition Buildings
Building Miles Traversed Acres Begun Completed Cost
Main Exhibition Hall 11.3 21.5 5/8/1875 1/1/1876 $1,600,000
Memorial Hall 1.75 1.5 7/4/1874 1/1/1876 $1,500,000
Machinery Hall 5.25 14 4/7/1875 10/1/1875 $ 800,000
Agricultural Hall 2.8 10.25 10/15/1875 3/25/1876 $ 300,000
Horticultural Hall .75 1.5 4/1/1875 1/1/1876 $ 300,000
Miscellaneous Statistics
Admission charge $0.50
Total revenue taken $4.8 million
Counterfeit money taken $1,001.00 or 0.00026% of receipts
Greatest attendance day Thursday
Smallest attendance day Monday
Telegrams sent and received 158,411
Water supplied 387,373,091 gallons
Children lost 504
Children returned same day 499
Children returned next day 5
Arrests for pick-pocketing 14
Arrests for fornication 1
Oldest visitor receiving medical treatment 96
Youngest receiving medical treatment 2
Persons who died at the Centennial 4

Temperature and weather conditions were recorded every hour that the Centennial grounds were open.



United States Centennial Commission

Joseph R. Hawley, President

Orestes Cleveland, Thomas H. Coldwell, John D. Creigh, John McNeil, Robert Lowry, William Gurney.

Alfred T. Goshorn, Director-General

John L. Campbell, Secretary John L. Shoemaker, Counsellor and Solicitor

Executive Committee
Daniel J. Morrell, Chairman
A. T. Goshorn, R. C. McCormack, G. B. Loring, S. F. Phillips, N. M. Beckwith, John Lynch, F. L. Matthews, J. E. Dexter, A. R. Boteler, C. P. Kimball, W. P. Blake, J. T. Bernard, J. R. Hawley, President, ex officio.
Myer Asch, Dorsey Gardner, Assistant Secretaries

Chiefs of Bureaus of Administration
Foreign — The Director General
Machinery — Jno. S. Albert
Installation — Henry Pettit
Agriculture — Burnett Landreth
Transportation — D. Torrey
Horticulture — C. H. Miller
Fine Arts — John Sartain
Medical — Wm. Pepper, M.D.
Awards — Charles J, Stille, LL.D.
Police — Col. Henry de B. Clay

Centennial Board of Finance

John Welsh, President

William Sellers, John S. Barbour

Samuel M. Felton, John Wanamaker, A. S. Hewitt, Daniel M. Fox, J. P. Wetherill, John Cummings, Thomas Cochran, Henry Winsor, John Gorham, Clement M. Biddle, W. L. Strong, Chas. W. Cooper, N. Parker Shortridge, Amos R. Little, William Bigler, James M. Robb, John O. James, Robert M. Patton, Edward T. Steel, Thomas H. Dudley, J. B. Drake, George Bain, Frederick Fraley, Secretary and Treasurer. William Bigler, Financial Agent
Henry P. Lansing, Auditor

Engineers and Architects
Henry Pettit, Jos. M. Wilson H. J. Schwarzmann

Officers of the Women's Centennial Executive Committee

Mrs. E. D. Gillespie, President
Mrs. John Sanders, Vice-President
Mrs. R. P. White, Secretary
Mrs. F. M. Etting, Treasurer

Foreign Countries

Many Centennial organizers feared that foreign nations headed by hereditary monarchs and emperors would decline to participate in the celebration of what was in fact the anniversary of a republican revolution. Moreover, many Europeans were beginning to complain of the rapid succession of fairs being held in London, Paris, and Vienna. But when the Secretary of State sent out his invitation on July 5, 1873, 37 countries accepted. Participation varied widely; eleven nations erected fifteen freestanding structures, from the Elizabethan half-timbered St. George's House erected by Great Britain, to the unusual Japanese Dwelling, which created a sensation among Americans and served as a stark and novel contrast to the Victorian structures surrounding it. Most nations, however, chose to exhibit in designated areas of the larger exhibition halls. The Egyptian section in the Main Exhibition Building included a reconstructed temple with the inscription:


The products and manufactures on display by foreign nations impressed Americans, although foreign visitors who had seen the European exhibitions noted repeatedly that Europe was not sending its best in either art or industry. Still there was an impressive selection: coffee from Liberia, weapons and chemical products from Germany, a log house from Canada, Bedouin tents from Tunis, cotton cloth from Egypt, ivory work from China, a four thousand pound block of silver from Mexico, Inca relics from Peru.

The Centennial served to bring Americans into contact with foreigners as never before. One veteran observer noted:

I have watched the faces of [American] country people as they here — undoubtedly for the first time in their lives — look upon Japanese, Turks, Greeks or Moors; and I have not yet discovered the slightest expression of repulsion or instinctive prejudice of race. On the contrary, it is easy to detect an agreeable surprise, in most cases, — as if the spectator had found an unexpected likeness to his own stock, and recognized, if unconsciously to himself, that the ends of the earth are not so very far apart, after all.

The eleven nations who erected buildings were: Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Tunis, and Turkey. Other nations who participated: Austria, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Norway, Egypt, Denmark, Switzerland, Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Chile, Peru, Argentine Confederation, Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], China, Australia, Greece, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Liberia, Ecuador, Orange Free State, Guatemala, Honduras.

Occasional Music

Music was an important part of the Centennial experience for every visitor. In the exhibition halls, along the garden walkways, in restaurants, there were concerts, choirs, organ recitals, chimes, minstrel shows, and musical instrument demonstrations adding to the hum of machinery, the rattle of the West End Railway, and the voices of thousands of visitors.

Opening Day ceremonies provided an indication of things to come and an example of the musical taste of the time. After Hail to the Chief upon the entrance of President and Mrs. Grant, the orchestra under the direction of Theodore Thomas, began the inaugural performance of the Centennial March by Richard Wagner, a piece commissioned by the Women's Centennial Committee. Although Wagner had stated that he was moved by "the inspiration of the beautiful ladies of America," even he admitted in private that the best thing about the piece was his $5,000 commission. Prayers and benedictions followed, then a cantata by Sidney Lanier, Centennial Meditation of Columbia and a hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier. Speeches by President Grant and other dignitaries followed, and then a rendition of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus accompanied by the Centennial Chimes, church bells, factory whistles, and a 100-gun salvo, after which the President and Dom Pedro, the visiting Emperor of Brazil, walked to Machinery Hall to start the immense Corliss Engine.

Opening Day Musical Program

The main source of music during the Centennial was the Music Pavilion at the central transept of the Main Exhibition Hall, which was usually occupied by popular bands. In the same building were two immense organs, the Centennial Organ by Hook and Hastings of Boston, and the Roosevelt Organ by Hilborne L. Roosevelt of New York, which had a special "electric echo" effect. A second Music Pavilion was located outdoors in Lansdowne Valley between Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall.

Machinery Hall, of all places, was home to the Centennial Chimes, 13 chimes representing the 13 original colonies, played three times daily by a professor Widdows of Washington, D.C. There were daily concerts arranged by manufacturers of musical instruments. Visitors flocked to hear the Steinway Centennial Concert Grand Piano. A series of concerts was arranged by the Women's Committee at the Edwin Forrest estate. The Great American Restaurant offered a beer garden with concert music, and the Restaurant of the South featured an "Old Time Darky Band." In addition, every state day, every special event, was the occasion for more concerts, marching bands, and choruses.

Centennial Sheet Music Collection


Although not a financial success for its investors, the Centennial Exhibition was an immense success in showcasing American culture and industry in a world setting. The benefits of the Centennial to the American economy, foreign relations and wartime recovery were impressive. In 1851 America had been embarrassed by its inability to compete on a par with other nations at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. By 1876 foreign visitors were impressed and captivated by American progress and industrial know-how. The writer and critic William Dean Howells observed, "no one can see the fair without a thrill of patriotic pride."

What most impressed foreign visitors most was America's growing industrial and commercial advantage. The Times of London, while noting America's home ground advantage observed, "the products of the industry of the United States surpassed our own oftener than can be explained by this circumstance — they revealed the application of more brains than we have at our command." In 1899 the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Statistics was able to prove

conclusively that the international exhibitions in which the United States has been interested have had an important and direct effect in its increasing exports. Prior to 1876 the balance of trade had been against the United States. After the [Centennial] exposition the tide turned in favor of this country.

U.S. Foreign Trade [in millions of dollars]

Year Imports Exports Balance
1875 533 499 -34
1876 461 526 +65
1877 451 590 +139

The Centennial fixed America in the minds of the outside world as a nation of inventors and mechanics instead of a nation of farmers. In The Brothers Karamazov (1882) when Dmitry considers escaping to America he is unable to bear the thought of leaving his beloved Russia "though they were all of them there marvelous engineers, or whatever it is they are there- to hell with them!"

The Centennial Exhibition was not intentionally a showcase for technological invention or innovation. Nations and industries wanted to show the best they had to offer, and while this meant newer and advanced models, few were willing to risk demonstrating unproven prototypes. Nevertheless, the Centennial ushered in an unprecedented era of invention as America moved from the age of steam to the age of electricity and the internal combustion engine. The Centennial served to prepare Americans for changes to come, and to prepare them for a wider international role.

Period Testimony: Quotations & Random Thoughts

As we turn and look back towards the Main Building, we are treated to one of the most beautiful sights it has ever been our fortune to witness. We are on a slightly rising slope, and the whole extent of the Main Building and Machinery Hall — come into view. The Main Building is one blaze of light, of flaming fire, from end to end, owing to the reflections on the glass of the rays from the departing sun. It is a grand illumination. In the foreground the fountain has ceased to play, and the now quiet lake, a bright gem in its green setting, reflects every line and flash. The dome of Memorial Hall looks up over the trees — Restless, happy crowds are flitting from point to point, and the whole looks like a fairy-land, an incantation scene, something that we wish would never pass away.

Architect of the Main Building from narrow-gauge railway, Joseph M.Wilson or Henry Pettit

The oddest collection of structures that had ever been assembled in America, and assembled in that rather careless way which was still a convention in landscape architecture, with winding paths and unexpected openings. Here a Swiss chalet rose above its shrubbery and turned out to be the New York State Building

Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America, 1949 (won Pulitzer Prize for History)

Critics today look back upon the Centennial Exhibition as an architectural and artistic calamity that produced not a single new idea but was, rather, the epitome of accumulated bad taste of the era that was called the Gilded Age, the Tragic Era, the Dreadful Decade, or the Pragmatic Acquiescence, depending on which epithet you thought most searing.

Russell Lyons, The Tastemakers, 1954

The first day crowds come like sheep, run here, run there, run everywhere. One man start, one thousand follow. Nobody can see anything, nobody can do anything. All rush, push, tear, shout, make plenty noise, say damn great many times, get very tired, and go home.

Fukui Makoto, Japanese Commissioner, in Harper's Weekly, July 15, 1876

It is hard to conceive anything lower than the architecture of the Centennial Exposition

Lewis Mumford, The Brown Decades, 1931

I went there in July, & staid nearly a whole day; then I got discouraged & returned home. I became satisfied that it would take me two, or possibly three days to examine such an array of articles with anything like just care & deliberation.

Mark Twain, letter to William Dean Howells

From my soul I hate and contemn these big shows — It is bigger, noisier, more crowded, and its contents more uniformly indifferent and vulgar than any of its predecessors. I enjoyed the expedition, for our party was pleasant, but I have registered an oath never to visit another of these vile displays. The crowd there was appalling and there was a great deal of sickness and alarm — Much typhoid is caught there and if they are not lucky, they will have yellow fever.

Henry Adams, letter to Charles Milnes Gaskell

You will be much impressed with it; it is immense — a sort of Vanity Fair.