Most travelers to the Centennial Exhibition approached the fairgrounds from the east, either by railroad or horse-drawn trolley across the new Girard Avenue Bridge. At the Schuylkill River crossing the first hint of the vast Exhibition grounds was the glass and steel dome of Memorial Hall and the flag-studded towers of the Main Exhibition Building as these came into view above the wooded slope of Fairmount Park. The sheer size of these structures in their natural setting must have been breathtaking.
Visitors were well advised to arrive at the main entrance across from the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on Elm (now Parkside) Avenue promptly for the 9:00 AM opening. Entrance to the grounds was 50 cents, payable only in paper scrip, which caused endless hardship to those without the proper note. What struck the visitor upon entry was the enormous Bartholdi Fountain midway between Machinery Hall and the Main Exhibition Hall. From this vantage point the first-time visitor had usually one of three objectives: hurry to the center of Machinery Hall to witness the start-up of the Corliss Centennial Steam Engine, board the West-End Narrow Gauge Railway for five cents to view the entire fairgrounds, or cross the square to the right and visit the Department of Public Comfort.
The Main Exhibition Hall was the largest structure at the Centennial and the largest building anywhere in the world at the time. The glass and steel frame was over 1880 feet long (officially 1876), and covered more than 20 acres, or six football fields, with well over eleven miles of walkways. The building was functional but also elegant. Walt Whitman approved, "looking up a long while at the grand high roof with its graceful and multitudinous work of iron rods, angles, gray colors, plays of light and shade, receding into dim outlines."
It was in the Main Exhibition Building that 13,720 exhibitors from over 37 countries displayed their manufactures, mostly household goods such as furniture, clothing, tools, clocks, ceramics, glassware, musical instruments, but also scientific and medical apparatus. A 22-year-old George Eastman, visiting from Rochester, wrote to his mother:
I intend to traverse every aisle, I have accomplished this in machinery hall & have got about half through the Main Bldg… The ingenuity that exhibitors have displayed in arranging such things as tacks candles soap hardware needles thread pipe & all such apparently uninteresting articles is something marvelous — and they command the attention of the observer even against his will.
Visitors to the Main Exhibition Building were entertained by concerts held at the central Music Pavilion within the great structure. There were also piano and organ recitals. The Centennial Organ by Hook and Hastings of Boston performed three times daily.
As large as the Main Exhibition Building was, not all of the exhibits fit. A Carriage Exhibit just north of the hall held exhibits of horse-drawn vehicles, and many manufactures exhibited independently in smaller buildings throughout the fairgrounds.
To the west of the Main Exhibition Building stood Machinery Hall, if not the largest certainly the most spectacular and the most popular exhibition hall at the Centennial. Occupying over fourteen acres, Machinery Hall served as a showcase for state-of-the-art industrial technology, which in 1876 meant almost entirely steam and hydraulic power, although electricity and the internal combustion engine were both present.
The most memorable display of industrial power at Machinery Hall was the mammoth Corliss Centennial Steam Engine, whose 56-ton flywheel revolved without noise or vibration at 36 RPM. Powered by an external boiler system, the 1,400 horsepower Corliss Engine drove about a mile of shafting throughout Machinery Hall, which supplied free steam power to exhibitors. Visitors who missed the morning start-up could gather again at mid-day after the engine had been allowed to "rest" for another demonstration. Unlike previous exhibitions, the Centennial was closed on Sundays because George H. Corliss would not allow his engine to be operated.
The nearby Hydraulic Annex housed the Cataract, a system of pumps providing a spectacular display of falling water designed to demonstrate the sheer energy of hydraulic power. Its main function was to supply waterpower to nearby hydraulic machinery, but most visitors took advantage of this display to escape the summer heat.
It was in Machinery Hall that most of the industrialized world, and most Americans themselves, first came to realize the potential of American technological development. Popular and innovative exhibits included the Brayton Ready Motor or Hydrocarbon Engine, an early practical internal combustion engine, the Line-Wolf Ammonia Compressor for refrigeration and ice-making, the Otis Brothers & Co. Steam Elevator Machine, the Baldwin Locomotive Works Engine, the Lightning Rotary Cylinder Press, Seth Thomas's Great Clock, the Wallace-Farmer Electromagnetic Generator, and Alexander G. Bell's Telephonic Telegraphic Receiver.
Most foreign visitors were impressed with American techological know-how. Engineer John Anderson noted in the official British Reports on the Centennial:
If we are to be judged by the comparison with Americans in 1876, as doubtless we shall be in the minds of other nations and in their official reports, it is more than probably that the effect will be to confirm… that we are losing our former leadership and it is passing to the Americans.
The Times of London reported that "The American invents as the Greek sculpted and the Italian painted: it is genius." The report of the German Commissioner General, Franz Reuleaux, was unsparing in its praise for the American exhibits and its contempt for Germany's showing:
In arts and crafts Germany has nothing to show but propaganda and patriotic motifs… We have a feeling of shame as we wander through the German section… It seems seven eighths of the space are occupied by Krupp's giant guns, the 'killing machines' which stand like a menace among the peaceful works of the other nations.
Designed as a permanent monument to the Centennial, Memorial Hall was to become the most enduring and influential architectural achievement of Hermann J. Schwarzmann. The massive granite structure, surmounted by a glass and steel dome, was built to a design called Modern Renaissance, and held the Centennial art exhibition. John Sartain, chief of the Centennial Bureau of Art, gathered over 3,256 paintings and drawings, 627 works of sculpture, 431 works of applied art, and nearly 3000 groups of photographs, from 20 nations. So great was the response from exhibitors that a separate Art Annex had to be built, and photographs were displayed in a nearby Photographic Hall.
The paintings exhibited represented for the most part the prosaic art that was so popular at the time, when every picture had to tell a story and, if possible, point a moral. The most popular painting at the Centennial was perhaps The Marriage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales by W.P. Frith. An official report noted:
the crowd in front of this picture was impassable from the opening to the closing of the doors, and it was necessary to have a guardian continually stationed there to protect the picture, and keep the crowd moving.
The most popular exhibits were the Italian and French sculptures, such as Aurora by J. Bailly. Americans were unaccustomed to artistic license in general, and to nudity in particular, and were variously captivated and appalled by the Europeans. A 34-year-old William James wrote to his brother Henry in Europe:
France has nothing to show… Not that there were any great American works, but there was nothing vile, such as every foreign school gives you in its degenerate pupils… without a grain of inward decency.
No doubt that some of the exhibits were indeed "vile." William Dean Howells remarked on a popular likeness of Cleopatra in Memorial Hall, done in wax and animated:
Attended by a single Cupid, whose ruff, as he moved his head, shows the jointure of his neck; a weary parrot on her finger opens and shuts its wings, and she rolls her head alluringly from side to side and faintly lifts her right arm and lets it drop again — for twelve hours every day. Unlike many sculptures this has no vagueness of sentiment, and it explicitly advertises a museum of anatomy in Philadelphia.
Works exhibited were not avant-garde. The first Impressionist exhibition was held at Paris in 1874, and none of these painters were represented at Philadelphia. Auguste Rodin did exhibit some pieces in the Belgian section. More typical were works such as Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, by the dean of American sculptors Randolph Rogers, William Wetmore Story's Medea, and Howard Robert's Premiere Pose, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. More popular among some visitors were works such as The Dreaming Iolanthe, sculpted by the famed Butter Lady of Arkansas, Caroline S. Brooks, and packed in ice throughout the Centennial.
Memorial Hall became the model for a series of public buildings in Europe: the Reichstag Buildling in Berlin, designed 1882, built 1884-94; Reichsgericht in Leipzig, Czech National Museum in Prague, University Library in Strasbourg, etc.
Although the Centennial is remembered today as America's formal entry into the exclusive group of industrialized powers, the United States in 1876 was still an agricultural country. Most Americans lived on farms or in very small towns whose economies reflected the surrounding agricultural life of the nation, and most visitors expected to see the latest in farm machinery and produce. Individual states and exhibitors sent prize-winning farm specimens as if they were attending a county fair. South of the main exhibition grounds was a livestock exhibition area, and the Centennial calendar of events included the Strawberry Display, Trial of Reaping Machines, and the Exhibit of Sheep, Swine, and Goats.
Agricultural Hall, a wooden structure designed in what was termed a Gothic style, covered over nine acres, and was one of the largest buildings at the Centennial. It was host to innumerable displays of produce, agricultural implements, and farm machinery. The only really new devices were the portable steam engines such as the Frick Eclipse. used to power threshing machines, mills, and saws. The steam powered plow was not to become a common sight until late in the 19th Century.
Despite the great size of Agricultural Hall, many exhibits had to be displayed in adjacent structures such as the wagon exhibit, brewery, and the "model butter and cheese factory." In a nearby New England Log House, women in period costume demonstrated cooking and household chores of 1776, one of the few exhibits of America's past. A hastily constructed
served as an annex for the exhibition of fruit products, and was exceptional for its functional, almost modern design among the Victorian structures.
By most contemporary accounts the most beautiful building of the Centennial, Horticultural Hall was intended to remain after the Exhibition as a permanent botanical conservatory. The structure, designed in what was described as the Moresque style of the 12th Century, was one in a long tradition of glass and steel houses made popular after the Crystal Palace Exhibition at London in 1851. It was the largest building of its kind yet constructed, seeming to float over the surrounding pools and flower beds, a reflection of the Victorian passion for nature.
The interior of the main conservatory, a light-filled expanse of exotic greenery, was centered on a marble fountain designed by American sculptor Margaret Foley, disappointed at the time that her work was not to be exhibited in Memorial Hall. The natural and singular setting afforded her work far more attention than it would have received in the crowded art gallery.
Horticultural Hall was a revelation to most Americans who were not used to seeing such exotic flora, and if some of the specimens exhibited —gladiolus, hyacinths, eucalyptus, ferns, date palms, orange trees, bananas, orchids, cacti— do not seem exotic to us, it should be remembered that many species, such as the chrysanthemum, had been introduced to America barely a generation before.
The conservatory included not only plantings but also extensive displays of seeds, gardening implements, and propagation rooms, and was surrounded by 35 acres of outdoor gardens. In addition, the Centennial was extensively planted in gardens along Fountain Avenue and throughout the grounds.
When a group of women was denied permission to exhibit independently in the Main Exhibition Building, the result was one of the novel and more controversial exhibit buildings of the Centennial. The Womens Pavilion was the brainchild of Mrs. Elizabeth Duane Gillespie and her committee of thirteen Philadelphia ladies. Intended to showcase the abilities of women in all spheres of activity, the Pavilion displayed not only needlework, corsets, and household items, but new inventions such as emergency flares, model interlocking bricks, and a patent land pulverizer. Mrs. Gillespie was adamant in her insistence that every item in the Pavilion be the work of women. Only the structure itself was designed by Schwarzmann, a woman architect from Boston having applied too late for consideration.
A popular attraction was Emma Allison who, dressed in formal attire, tended a steam engine, which in turn powered several other machines in the pavilion, including a printing press, which was used to publish The New Century for Women, the official voice of the Womens Centennial Committee. To visitors who worried about her safety, Miss Allison replied that tending the steam engine was less tiring and dangerous than working over a kitchen stove.
Mrs. Gillespie was careful not to align herself too closely with what was considered the radical element in the womens movement at the time. Womens suffrage was not mentioned, and no attempt was made to identify with the demonstration led by Susan B. Anthony on July 4 at the Independence Hall ceremonies. In a final insult, Womens Day at the Centennial was celebrated on November 7, Election Day because, it was argued, men would be at the polls and would not mind missing this event.
The United States Government Building, although often omitted, deserves to be ranked among the largest and most important exhibit buildings of the Centennial. Built in the shape of an immense cross whose arms extended 480 by 340 feet, the building was intended to "illustrate the functions and administrative facilities of the Government in time of peace, and its resources as a war power, and thereby serve to demonstrate the nature of our institutions and their adaptations to the wants of the people." Seven departments were featured: the Agricultural Bureau, the Interior Department, the Smithsonian Institution, the Army, the Navy, the Treasury, and the Post Office.
The Government Building, strange to say, was in many respects the only venue for exhibits of purely scientific and anthropological interest. The Smithsonian mounted an impressive Centennial Indian exhibit, a display of stuffed and mounted wildlife, including plaster and "alcoholic" fishes, and an exhibit of "choice and rare crystalline minerals." The Patent Office showed off some of its more impressive models, while the War and Navy Departments displayed uniforms, artillery, ship models, navigation devices, and astronomical images from the U.S. Naval Observatory.
A small arsenal of weaponry was on display, including Gatling Machine Guns, Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon, and 20 inch Rodman Guns just outside the entrance to the building. Despite this impressive arsenal, Americans were intimidated by the breech-loading Krupp Guns from Germany. War Department representative S.C. Lyford observed:
If this exhibition should be the means of awakening our people to a sense of our national danger and defenseless condition the display of the Government will not have been in vain. It is useless to attempt to conceal from foreigners that against their fleets we have nothing to offer worthy of the name, and it is criminal to allow our own people to remain in ignorance of our condition we offer ourselves a willing sacrifice to any feeble power that may wish to enforce an unreasonable demand.
Twenty-four buildings were constructed by various states along State Avenue in the northwest corner of the exhibition grounds and elsewhere. Most of these were not designed as exhibition buildings, but were modest wooden structures that served as headquarters of the individual state Centennial commissioners and as reception rooms where visitors could sign a guest book.
One clear stipulation for state exhibitions was that no reference to the recent Civil War be made that could be construed as political or offensive. Still, most southern states declined to participate. Some were still recovering financially from the War. Mississippi and Arkansas were notable exceptions. Both Virginia and Tennessee were represented by private citizens, Virginia by a guesthouse behind the Womens Pavilion, and Tennessee by a tent between the Iowa and Maryland buildings. States that mounted exhibits tended to display agricultural produce and other homegrown items. Kansas produced a 20-foot replica of the national capital in corn, topped by a statue of Pomona, the fruit goddess. Iowa displayed 35 giant glass cylinders, each over six feet tall, containing soil samples from its 35 counties
Each state had its designated state day at the Centennial, which included parades along State Avenue, music, and speeches. These days recorded the highest attendance, foremost being Pennsylvania Day, September 28, with 274,919 visitors. Both presidential contenders Samuel J. Tilden of New York and Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio used their state days to campaign. Delaware-Maryland-Virginia Day featured a jousting match with knights in medieval costume.
Philadelphia newspapers noted with dread the possibility that the state buildings would be donated to the city after the Centennial. Only the Ohio House, constructed of stone quarried in each county, remains to this day on its original site.
The only buildings remaining on site at the Centennial grounds today are Memorial Hall, Ohio House, and two small brick outbuildings just south of the present Horticultural Center. Several buildings have been moved to other locations.
These are far too numerous to mention or trace, although unlike the machinery, they can probably be found. Many sculptures went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and were considered at the time to be the best ensemble collection in America. By mid-20th Century they were mostly dispersed or sold. Many pieces were purchased by Anthony J. Drexel, including Bartholdi's Young Vintner, and are now part of a collection at Drexel University.