memorial hall philadelphia

Centennial Exposition Extravaganza Celebrated 145 Years Ago

Since the late 1700s, cities worldwide have hosted World’s Fairs and exhibitions to showcase their history, industry, and country. The United States has hosted thirty since its first one in New York in 1853, and the most recent one was held in New Orleans in 1984. Newspapers around the globe documented the fanfare surrounding these elaborate events.

The Centennial Exposition of 1876, set in Philadelphia, was an historic fair that celebrated the 100th birthday of the United States. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the exposition was set to be “national and purely patriotic in its scope”. They hoped Congress would give “whatever assistance was required” to help fund the exposition. 

The stockholders in the United States Centennial Exposition held their third annual meeting in April of 1876 to discuss the cost of the venture – estimated at $8.5 million – and the sources of revenue to date that had helped fund it. At the time of publication, the stockholders were still $1.5 million short of the goal; their expectation was that admissions would make up the deficiency.

States around the country did their part to contribute to the Centennial Exposition. In the Madison Wisconsin State Journal on January 29, 1876, the Wisconsin legislature offered a resolution to appropriate $25,000 for the Centennial Exposition to have Wisconsin represented. Today, that amount would be well over $600,000!

In addition to providing monetary support, states also sent items for display at the exhibit. In the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye Gazette, the executive council of Iowa established “rules” for entry. The newspaper even included a “tag” that could be used to send in items.

opening ceremonies of the centennial exposition

May 1876 brought the official opening ceremonies and start of the Centennial Exposition, including a speech from President Ulysses S. Grant. According to a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper, the commencement of the exposition was a “great” success, with attendance recorded over the 300,000 mark on the first day!

The Indiana Journal provided a program for the first day in Philadelphia, and their May 13, 1876, edition included an incredible three-page spread dedicated to the “International Exposition at Philadelphia” with images, a diagram of the main building, who paid the bills, Indiana’s display, and much, much more.

It was popular to have intricately detailed accounts from individuals and their trips to Philadelphia. The Rome Weekly Courier shared an incredible first-hand perspective of the exposition by W.S. Crane. The correspondent goes so far as to assure readers that costs in Philadelphia were not exorbitant, and he would gladly give information to those seeking to attend.

In the Wichita City Eagle, Col. John A. Martin, the United States Centennial Commissioner for Kansas appointed by the President, shared his adventure to the exhibition in intricate detail like his description of displays that “cover acres upon acres of floor and wall space” and that the two days he spent visiting could certainly not do it justice – “to view the Centennial Exposition as it ought to be seen, in detail, would require six months.”

In November of 1876, the great “World’s Fair” came to a close. The Philadelphia Inquirer published two articles – one in tribute of the closing ceremonies and the important people responsible for the success of the exhibition and the other officially closing the event ending with “It was a superb triumph; it is a superb triumph.”

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