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All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916

All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916

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All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916

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Aug 16, 2013


Robert W. Rydell contends that America's early world's fairs actually served to legitimate racial exploitation at home and the creation of an empire abroad. He looks in particular to the "ethnological" displays of nonwhites—set up by showmen but endorsed by prominent anthropologists—which lent scientific credibility to popular racial attitudes and helped build public support for domestic and foreign policies. Rydell's lively and thought-provoking study draws on archival records, newspaper and magazine articles, guidebooks, popular novels, and oral histories.
Aug 16, 2013

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All the World's a Fair - Robert W. Rydell

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 1984 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. Published 1984

Paperback edition 1987

Printed in the United States of America

08 07 06 05 04 03 02      6 7 8 9

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Rydell, Robert W.

All the world’s a fair.

Bibliography: p.

Includes index.

1. Exhibitions—History.   I. Title.

T395.5.U6R93      1984      909.81'074'013      84-2674

ISBN 0-226-73240-1 (paper)

ISBN 978-0-226-92325-3 (e-book)

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48–1992.


All the World’s a Fair

Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London

To Kiki and to the memory of my parents




1. The Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876

The Exposition as a Moral Influence

2. The Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893

And Was Jerusalem Builded Here?

3. The New Orleans, Atlanta, and Nashville Expositions

New Markets, New Negroes, and a New South

4. The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, Omaha, 1898:

Concomitant to Empire

5. The Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo

Pax 1901

6. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Saint Louis, 1904

The Coronation of Civilization

7. The Expositions in Portland and Seattle

To Celebrate the Past and to Exploit the Future

8. The Expositions in San Francisco and San Diego

Toward the World of Tomorrow






The intellectual debts I have accumulated in completing this book can never be adequately repaid. They begin with public school teachers up and down the state of California who taught me the value of studying history. My interest in American culture generally, and world’s fairs specifically, developed while I was an undergraduate at Berkeley. Michael P. Rogin and Kenneth M. Stampp sparked my interest in American culture, and John Lottier and Mark Wilson called to my attention the importance of international expositions.

That my curiosity about world’s fairs and American culture ever developed into a book is due in large measure to Alexander P. Saxton and members of his UCLA graduate seminar on race, culture, and ideology. From the beginning, I have relied on Alex for guidance, inspiration, and friendship. At one critical juncture, he shared with me his appreciation of cacti blooming in the desert mountains, and I will never forget.

Other members of the UCLA faculty were generous with their advice, and the end product has benefited immensely. Thomas S. Hines served as my committee co-chair and led me to think hard about the relation between architecture and social change. Daniel Walker Howe offered valuable insight into the meaning the fairs held for Victorian America. Richard Lehan and Gary Nash also helped clarify my thoughts with their thorough readings of the manuscript, and Fawn Brodie and Blake Nevius offered constant encouragement that hastened its completion.

While this project was developing, many people took time to offer valuable suggestions for improvement. Merle Curti read an early draft of my research proposal and encouraged me to pursue my work. Neil Harris and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz read the entire manuscript, and the book is much better as a result. I am particularly grateful to David Hollinger for his critical insights and for his helping hand along the way. Robert Abzug, Edward Barry, George B. Cotkin, George A. Frickman, James Henretta, Norris Hundley, Josiah Ober, Edwin J. Perkins, G. Terry Sharrer, Billy Smith, Robert Twombly, and Herman Viola also tendered advice that saved me from many pitfalls. I am equally indebted to the following individuals for reading and improving drafts of my chapters: Pete Daniel, Deborah A. Forczek, David A. Johnson, Lesley Kawaguchi, Harry Liebersohn, Jonathan McLeod, Janet T. Marquardt, Adrienne Mayor, Judy Powers, Marianne Roos, and Patricia A. Roos. In the course of completing this study, much of the burden fell on Jonathan and Nantawan McLeod. I shall always treasure their friendship.

My colleagues in the Department of History and Philosophy at Montana State University and members of the Society of American Historians, especially Kenneth Jackson, have my lasting gratitude for their support.

To librarians and library staff at the following institutions I owe a special debt: the Atlanta Historical Society; the Bancroft Library; the Beinecke and Sterling libraries at Yale; the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society; the Department of Special Collections at California State University, Fresno; the Chicago Historical Society; the City Archives of Philadelphia; the Honnold Library at Claremont Colleges; the Denver Public Library; the Perkins Library at Duke University; the Georgia State Archives; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division; the Missouri Historical Society; the National Anthropology Archives; the National Archives; the National Museum of American History Library; the New York Public Library; the Oregon Historical Society; the Portland Public Library; the San Diego Historical Society; the Smithsonian Institution Archives; the Southwest Museum; the Tennessee State Library and Archives; the Department of Special Collections at UCLA; the Western History Collection at the University of Colorado; the University of Oregon; and the University of Washington. Without their cooperation, I could not have written this book. Members of the interlibrary loan and reference departments at UCLA deserve special mention for their support. Edith Fuller, Janet Ziegler, Norma Pasillas, Jo Crawford, and Carolee Shoemaker did a first-rate job in tracking down my endless requests, and their unfailing cheerfulness made the research a pleasure. At the Smithsonian Institution, Scott Berger, William Cox, William Deiss, James Glenn, William Massa, Rhoda Ratner, and Rich Szary helped me to mine the rich resources of the archives with their knowledge and skill. Ron Mahoney, head of the Department of Special Collections at California State University, Fresno, has turned the exposition collection into one of the finest in the country. Ward Childs, James Hoobler, and Renée Jaussaud—respectively at the City Archives of Philadelphia, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the National Archives—also have my gratitude for their assistance.

Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the editors of American Quarterly, Journal of American Culture, and Pacific Historical Review for permission to reprint revisions of articles that first appeared in those journals.

Completion of the book was aided by grants from Montana State University, the Institute of American Cultures at UCLA, and the Smithsonian Institution. I deeply appreciate their support for this project.

Brett Gary, Nanci Brug, and Dianne Ostermiller typed the manuscript and endured my requests for last-minute changes.

Finally, who could be more fortunate? My mother and father encouraged my love for history and urged me to become a teacher. They also encouraged me to pursue a dream that my wife, Kiki Leigh Rydell, has helped me fulfill.


And when these days were expired, the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace, both unto great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace; where were white, green, and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble: the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black marble. And they gave them drink in vessels of gold, (the vessels being diverse one from another,) and royal wine in abundance, according to the state of the king. And the drinking was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure. Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus.

Esther 1:5–9

BETWEEN 1876 AND 1916, nearly one hundred million people visited the international expositions held at Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, Omaha, Buffalo, Saint Louis, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego.¹ The promoters of these extravaganzas attempted to boost the economic development of the cities and regions in which they were held as well as to advance the material growth of the country at large. Fairs provided manufacturing and commercial interests with opportunities to promote the mass consumption of their products. They showed off the nation’s economic strength and artistic resources, highlighting new architectural forms and offering models for urban planning. They presented new mediums of entertainment and opportunities for vicarious travel in other lands. Diversity characterized the expositions, and this heterogeneity was part of their attraction. Diversity, however, was inseparable from the larger constellation of ideas about race, nationality, and progress that molded the fairs into ideologically coherent symbolic universes confirming and extending the authority of the country’s corporate, political, and scientific leadership.²

Sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann have described a symbolic universe as a structure of legitimation that provides meaning for social experience, placing all collective events in a cohesive unity that includes past, present, and future. With regard to the future, it establishes a common frame of reference for the projection of individual actions. The net result, according to Berger and Luckmann, is that the symbolic universe links men with their successors in a meaningful totality, serving to transcend the finitude of individual existence and bestowing meaning upon the individual’s death. All the members of society can now conceive of themselves as belonging to a meaningful universe, which was there before they were born and will be there after they die.³ This cohesive explanatory blueprint of social experience is what the sponsors of the fairs offered to millions of fairgoers in the wake of the industrial depressions and outbursts of class warfare that occurred between the end of Reconstruction and United States entry into World War I.

If one function of the expositions was to make the social world comprehensible, the directors of the fairs attempted to organize the direction of society from a particular class perspective. These events were triumphs of hegemony as well as symbolic edifices. By hegemony, I mean the exercise of economic and political power in cultural terms by the established leaders of American society and the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.⁴ Hegemony, moreover, is the normal means of state control in a pluralistic society; force is used when power exercised in cultural terms is no longer capable of maintaining the order on which the state is founded.

World’s fairs performed a hegemonic function precisely because they propagated the ideas and values of the country’s political, financial, corporate, and intellectual leaders and offered these ideas as the proper interpretation of social and political reality. While expositions were arenas for asserting the moral authority of the United States government as opposed to its coercive power, numerous military exhibits suggested that force was available to maintain order whenever and wherever necessary. Congressional acts providing for the establishment of exhibits by the federal government generally mandated that such displays illustrate the function and administrative faculty of the Government in time of peace and its resources as a war power, tending to demonstrate the nature of our institutions and their adaptation to the wants of the people.⁵ Fairs therefore were to serve as reminders of the belief that in America the people were sovereign.

In the early years of the twentieth century, a visitor to several of the expositions spoke directly to the significance of the fairs. Henry Adams, a historian sensitive to the social transformations taking place in America, professed the religion of World’s Fairs, without which he held education to be a blind impossibility. His equation of religion and expositions was layered with irony and insight. He expressed concern over the growing impersonality that permeated the United States, as symbolized by the dynamos he saw at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Far more satisfying to his humanistic sensibilities were the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages. One imposing structure he particularly admired was in Coutances, France. There, Adams remarked, the people of Normandy had built, towards the year 1250, an Exposition which architects still admired and tourists visited, for it was thought singularly expressive of force as well as of grace in the Virgin.

The elegantly arched connection Adams drew between the medieval cathedral and more recent expositions had a basis in etymology as well as historical fact. The term fair derives from the Latin feria, holy day. More explicitly, the German Messe connotes both mass and fair.⁷ America’s world’s fairs resembled religious celebrations in their emphasis on symbols and ritualistic behavior. They provided visitors with a galaxy of symbols that cohered as symbolic universes. These constellations, in turn, ritualistically affirmed fairgoers’ faith in American institutions and social organization, evoked a community of shared experience, and formulated responses to questions about the ultimate destiny of mankind in general and of Americans in particular.

The sheer number of fairgoers testified that the expositions struck a responsive chord in the lives of many Americans. While the fairs obviously failed to provide a vision that all who experienced them shared equally, they did deeply influence the content of many individual and collective beliefs and values. The social prestige and authority of the financial and political leaders who sponsored the fairs played an important part in this complex process. Perhaps another factor was a psychological dynamic that literary critic Norman Holland has explored with respect to an individual reader’s reaction to a masterpiece of literature. In Holland’s reader-response schema, the reader experiences more than the objective external creation of the artist. A given text does not necessarily produce a fixed reaction but presents a structure which the reader creates for himself’ according to his own characteristic transformations of his identity theme. He no longer feels any distinction between ‘in here’ and ‘out there,’ between him and it. Indeed, there is none, and he becomes ‘absorbed.’"⁸ In the course of doing the fair, or taking it in, many visitors made the exposition a part of their lives.

This was no accident. Between 1876 and 1916, Americans were engaged, as one historian has written, in a search for order. Increasing industrialization and cyclical industrial depressions, beginning in 1873, resulted in frequent outbursts of open class warfare. The urgency expressed in social reform movements and in the flood of utopian writings at the century’s end reflected the country’s unsettled condition. Adding to the worries of the times was the discovery of unfathomable multiplicity in the universe. All these concerns gave troubled American Victorians an intense drive to organize experience. And herein lay part of the appeal of the expositions. To alleviate the intense and widespread anxiety that pervaded the United States, the directors of the expositions offered millions of fairgoers an opportunity to reaffirm their collective national identity in an updated synthesis of progress and white supremacy that suffused the blueprints of future perfection offered by the fairs.

President William McKinley, before his assassination at the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo in 1901, made explicit the connection between the fairs and progress: Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of the people. They open mighty storehouses of information to the student. Every exposition, great or small, has helped this onward step.¹⁰ McKinley presented his explanation of progress as a forward movement through time in the context of a necessity for expanding American markets, finding new supplies of natural resources, and imposing American civilization overseas. For McKinley, as for the directors of the fairs, progress was synonymous with America’s material growth and economic expansion, which in turn was predicated on the subordination of nonwhite people.

Progress, however, is not necessarily inherent in change or development or growth. Progress is a positive value linked to change. At a time when the American economy was becoming increasingly consolidated and when the wealth generated by the country’s economic expansion was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the exposition builders promised that continued growth would result in eventual utopia. Therein lay the mythopoeic grandeur of the fairs: an ideology of economic development, labeled progress, was translated into a utopian statement about the future. An ideology, an idea complex tied to socioeconomic cleavages in a particular historical era, was presented as the transcendent answer to the problems besetting America.

Powerful and subtle, flawed and pliable, the road map to future perfection offered by the exposition directors also involved a comparative dimension. World’s fairs, often christened world’s universities,¹¹ put the nations and people of the world on display for comparative purposes. Americans had often measured their achievements against those of different nations. But at the fairs, the idea of technological and national progress became laced with scientific racism.

Racism signifies a system of beliefs that holds that one group of people is superior to another in moral, cultural, and intellectual qualities—qualities that are alleged to pass from one generation to another through heredity.¹² That American culture at the turn of the century was imbued with racist ideas and that these prevailing assumptions were given added support with the popularization of evolutionary theories about race and culture has been abundantly demonstrated by recent historians. Exactly how scientific ideas about evolution, race, and culture were disseminated from academic circles to the level of popular consumption, however, is less well understood and has led a handful of historians to question the legitimating function of Darwinian ideas.¹³ World’s fairs provide a partial but crucial explanation for the interpenetration and popularization of evolutionary ideas about race and progress.

In one sense the juncture of racism and progress as revealed at the fairs echoed the not-too-distant past. Several antebellum ethnologists had effected a similar equation in an attempt to construct an intellectual framework for justifying slavery. Their efforts had been seriously undercut by the challenge they posed to deeply felt Christian attitudes about the essential worth of all human beings in the eyes of God. But by the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the epistemological frame of reference was shifting from religion to science.¹⁴ Scientific explanations about natural and social phenomena became increasingly authoritative, and the exposition planners enhanced and drew upon the prestige of science to make the presentation of America’s progress more convincing.

The scientific approach, with its emphasis on classification, stressed the diversity of racial types and an evolutionary hierarchy that tended to blur class distinctions among whites while it invited them to appraise the relative capabilities of different groups of nonwhites for emulating the American model of progress. But this more complex hierarchical perception of races also suggested that there were gradations among European populations as well as among Asians, Africans, Afro-Americans, Native Americans, American Hispanics, and other nonwhite people of the world. By 1916, eugenicists had joined anthropologists in applying hierarchical ideas about race and culture to selected white populations, thereby laying the intellectual foundation for mass support of immigration restriction.¹⁵

World’s fairs, held at different times in different regions of the country, did not stand in isolation as creators of popular racial images. Exposition promoters drew upon and reshaped such sources of entertainment as the zoological garden, the minstrel show, the circus, the museum of curiosities, the dime novel, and the Wild West show. World’s fairs existed as part of a broader universe of white supremacist entertainments; what distinguished them were their scientific, artistic, and political underpinnings. Whether or not they were the most important source for shaping racial beliefs, they certainly were among the most authoritative. International expositions, where science, religion, the arts, and architecture reinforced each other, offered Americans a powerful and highly visible, modern, evolutionary justification for long-standing racial and cultural prejudices. The consequences were profound. For, as vehicles that endowed popular racial attitudes with apparent scientific credibility, the fairs helped to build public support for the acceptance of specific foreign and domestic policies.¹⁶

The most frequent contributions to the scientific exhibits at the fairs came from the Smithsonian Institution. Given that the Smithsonian had been founded for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men, its scientists took a measure of delight in participating in events that enabled them to reach a wide audience with the latest findings of scientific research. But the directors and scientists of the Smithsonian viewed the expositions as nuisances as well as godsends, for the problems involved in setting up exhibits were enormous. One assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, Richard Rathbun, compiled a compendium of evils that befell the institution as a result of congressional decisions to fund exposition displays by the federal government. Valuable staff time went into organizing collections for expositions, and exhibit halls in the United States National Museum (USNM) were emptied to a greater or less extent because of them. Frequently, exhibits sent to the fairs required repair before they could be reinstalled. But, Rathbun recognized, a government participation in expositions in which the Museum, the one establishment designed for exhibition, was not represented would appear almost farcical. Bearing this point in mind, he reported that an effort has generally been made to present an exhibit which, in greater or less part, is germane to the specified objects of the exposition.¹⁷

Walter Hough, an assistant curator in the Division of Anthropology at the USNM, found the fairs more alluring than did Rathbun. The fairs, he declared, offered two important benefits. First, they presented the opportunity to make an impressive education display, following out an appropriate idea. Second, they added significantly to museum collections. Admitting that the fairs interfered with the routine operation of the USNM, Hough nevertheless considered them of immense significance.¹⁸

Ultimately, every Smithsonian official connected with the fairs had reservations about them. Yet few of them would have disagreed with the view expressed by G. Browne Goode, Rathbun’s predecessor as assistant secretary of the Smithsonian and one of the pioneers of museum development in the United States. All of this, Goode wrote concerning the manifold inconveniences caused by the fairs, is accepted without complaint, because, though the Museum undoubtedly loses much more than it gains on such occasions, the opportunity for popular education is too important to be neglected.¹⁹

The possibility for educating the public through the medium of the fairs motivated not only the scientists at the Smithsonian, but federal officials generally. The didactic mission entailed several assumptions that Wilbur O. Atwater of the Agriculture Department best articulated in a statement occasioned by the World’s Columbian Exposition. Atwater stated his conviction that the American public demanded scientific knowledge and that scientists could oblige them better than ever before: Let the exposition be a display, not merely of material products, but of the teachings of science and experience as regards their value, importance and use. For Atwater, the role of science at the fair bore a direct relation to national destiny: The exposition should not be merely a show, a fair or a colossal shop, but also and pre-eminently an exposition of the principles which underlie our national and individual welfare, of our material, intellectual and moral status; of the elements of our weakness and our strength, of the progress we have made, the plane on which we live and the ways in which we shall rise higher. Expositions must teach not only to our people, but to the world, what a young republic, with all the crudeness of youth, but heir to the experience of the ages, has done in its brief past, is doing in the present, and hopes to do in the greater future for its people and for mankind.²⁰ Science and salvation seemed to march hand in hand. One purpose of this book is to explore how Smithsonian scientists, especially ethnologists and anthropologists at the USNM and Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) shaped this faith at the fairs.

The Smithsonian Institution played a central role in shaping ethnological features of the fairs, but the directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition and several subsequent fairs brought in anthropologists and materials from other museums and universities to supplement exhibits established by government scientists. Several of the fairs provided separate buildings for anthropological materials. Following the example of colonial villages established at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, living ethnological displays of Native Americans and other nonwhite people were introduced en masse at the Chicago fair and appeared at subsequent expositions as well. Significantly, such villages were honky-tonk concessions often located in the amusement sections of the fairs alongside wild animal exhibits, joyrides, and other entertainment features. Although these villages degraded and exploited the people on display, anthropologists generally testified to the ethnological value of the exhibits. The result was that scientific and pseudoscientific anthropology became instrumental in buttressing the legitimacy of the utopian artifacts created by the directors of the fairs. The fairs certainly popularized anthropological findings, and the science of man that reached the fair-going public had a distinct hierarchical message and served a hegemonic function.

The web of world’s fairs that stretched across the widening economic fault lines of American society between 1876 and 1916 reflected the efforts by America’s intellectual, political, and business leaders to establish a consensus about their priorities and their vision of progress as racial dominance and economic growth. How each fair contributed to this ideological process is the burden of my analysis. I concentrate on American fairs because they remain largely unstudied and because their influence was pervasive in American culture at the turn of the century. Yet they were part of what became, after the success of London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, a worldwide movement. Fairs were held around the world, in cities ranging from Saint Petersburg and Brussels to Rio de Janeiro and Hanoi. These fairs were linked to the massive industrial developments in the Western world and to imperialist expansion into Asia, Africa, and Latin America. America’s expositions, while part of the American grain, were unique only in that they helped shape the increasing efforts by the United States to manage the world from its own rapidly expanding imperial perspective.²¹


The Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876: The Exposition as a Moral Influence

Come back across the bridge of time

And swear an oath that holds you fast,

To make the future as sublime

As is the memory of the past!

Fourth of July Memorial, 1876

He was a young man, evidently just fresh from some interior village. He was naturally no fool, but it could be plainly seen that he knew next to nothing of men or of the world, and that his visit to the world’s fair was the crowning event in his quiet life.

New York Times, 1876

The teachings survive the demolition of the buildings.

William P. Blake, 1872¹

ON THE OVERCAST MORNING of 10 May 1876, the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia officially opened to the public. The 186,672 visitors to the fairgrounds that first day began a stream of almost ten million people who saw the exhibition. Before its conclusion in mid-November, nearly one-fifth of the population of the United States passed through the turnstiles, making the attendance at this international exposition larger than at any held previously in any country.²

After early apathy, ambivalence, and even outright hostility to the enterprise, a sense of growing anticipation began building in the City of Brotherly Love in early 1876 and spread throughout the country. It had become, in the words of one newspaper, a swelling act. Foreign and domestic newspaper correspondents found ample copy as exhibit halls filled with displays ranging from exquisite, exotic silks to practical tools and to Old Abe, the Wisconsin war eagle that had been in thirty-six Civil War battles.³

Life in Philadelphia was a story. With the price of lodging in the lead, the cost of living soared. Prices have gone up fifty per cent, with indications that the maximum of extortion has not been reached by any means, declared the New York Times. One firm went so far as to purchase Oak Cemetery, remove the tombstones, and erect a campground to handle the expected overflow crowds from boardinghouses. Philadelphia, Harper’s Bazaar had quipped in March, appears for the nonce to have thrown off her sombre Quaker apparel, and to have ushered in the Centennial with much the air of a venerable old lady endeavoring to execute some difficult steps in the can-can. This description, while good-natured, was both revealing and misleading. The international exposition, like the cancan, was a novelty of comparatively recent origin, the first international exposition having taken place in London in 1851. Yet the men and women who organized the Centennial Exhibition were not wholly inexperienced with the medium of fairs. Several of the directors had participated in the Sanitary Fairs held in Philadelphia during the Civil War. And the war itself had taught many army officers, who later became exposition officials, lessons in efficient management and organization. Furthermore, Alfred T. Goshorn, director-general of the Centennial Commission, far from being a newcomer to fairs, had been in charge of industrial exhibitions in Cincinnati since the conclusion of the war. And, if Harper’s metaphor of the cancan was not entirely apt, neither was its stereotypical conception of Philadelphia’s earlier dourness. Philadelphia’s Quaker roots had nothing to do with the gloom that had settled over the city and the whole country. The unhealed social and political wounds left by the war would have been difficult to cope with in the best of circumstances, but these problems had been compounded manyfold by the industrial depression of 1873. By 1876 the Gilded Age had already earned its name. But if Philadelphians could find an almost comic relief from the unsettled condition of the country in the spectacle of a world’s fair, perhaps other Americans, as Harper’s recommended, could do likewise. Minimally, the exposition promised a diversion from endless accounts of political corruption in Washington, collapse of financial and mercantile establishments, and stories of working-class discontent with the industrial system.

From such gloomy vistas, the Centennial Exhibition provided a welcome change. Yet, rather than merely offering an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the Reconstruction years, the fair was a calculated response to these conditions. Its organizers sought to challenge doubts and restore confidence in the vitality of America’s system of government as well as in the social and economic structure of the country. From the moment the gates swung open at nine o’clock on the morning of 10 May, the fair operated as a school for the nation, a working model of an American Mecca.

Despite the rain, which the day before had drenched the city and turned portions of the fairgrounds into a quagmire of mud and rotting straw, crowds began arriving several hours before the ceremonies were scheduled to get under way. The fair, occupying a portion of Fairmount Park’s three thousand acres, was situated on a plateau intersected by wooded dells and meandering streams. From the high points of the elevation visitors could gaze upon the Schuylkill River, the exhibition buildings, and the central city.

The major buildings themselves were colossal edifices. Along the southern edge of the grounds was the Main Building, 1,880 feet long by 464 feet wide. The wood, iron, and glass structure was the largest in the world. West of the Main Building, and next largest, was Machinery Hall. On the northern portion of the fairgrounds was another gigantic structure, Agricultural Hall. Devoted to displays of agricultural machinery, its modified Gothic outlines covered more than ten acres. On a line between Agricultural Hall and the Main Building was Horticultural Hall, the most ornamental of the exposition buildings. The interior contained specimens of exotic plants, model greenhouses, gardening tools, and elegant containers. Twenty feet above the floor a gallery encircling the building afforded a view as entrancing as a poet’s dream. Taken in its totality, the interior scene added up to an Arabian Nights’ sort of gorgeousness. Between Horticultural Hall and the Main Building was Memorial Hall, the most imposing and substantial of all the Exhibition structures, which housed paintings and sculpture from around the world, including Iolanthe, an extraordinary alto-relievo . . . in butter, sculpted by an Arkansas woman.

In addition to the five main exhibition buildings, there were seventeen state buildings, nine foreign government buildings, many restaurants, six cigar pavilions, popcorn stands, beer gardens, the Singer Sewing Machine Building, the Photograph Gallery, the Turkish Coffee Building, the Shoe and Leather Building, the Bible Pavilion, the Centennial National Bank, the New England Log House, a Nevada Quartz Mill, a Woman’s School House, and, significantly, the Woman’s Pavilion. The exhibition directors had even granted permission for a Burial Casket Building—much to the embarrassment of Americans concerned with proving the cultural worth of their country to European visitors.

Fig. 1. Centennial vision of American progress. Cover, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Monthly, 1, no. 3 (1876), courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Library, California State University, Fresno.

The throngs rushing through the 106 entrances, each adorned with American trophies, shields, flags, eagles, etc., could well anticipate all of this and a great deal more with the help of newspaper coverage and guidebooks to the exposition. But seeing was believing. Statues and fountains added to the splendor. West of Machinery Hall was the immense, but incomplete, Centennial Fountain, designed by Herman Kim and funded by the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America. The central figure was an enormous statue of Moses atop a granite mass in the midst of a circular basin forty feet in diameter. Around the basin, drinking fountains were set at the bases of nine-foot marble statues representing prominent American Catholics. Other monumental figures abounded. B’nai B’rith erected a statue of Religious Liberty, twenty feet tall, that had as its centerpiece a female warrior with the American shield for a breastplate, typifying the genius of liberty. Near the base of the figure was an eagle clutching a snake in its talons, representing the end of slavery. Completing the allegory were inscriptions from the Constitution. Other heroic statues dotted the exhibition grounds. In addition to representations of Columbus and Elias Howe, there was the American Soldier’s Monument, weighing thirty tons, and the John Witherspoon Memorial erected by American Presbyterians. French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi sent over the Torch of Liberty from the as yet unfinished Statue of Liberty. And, as a monument to the Victorian age of which the Centennial Exhibition was a part, there was also a statue of Thomas Carlyle. This setting, at once pastoral and heroic, appealed to many fairgoers. Dear Mother, wrote a young woman after seeing the grounds, Oh! Oh!! O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!!!!

Unlike many subsequent fairs, the landscaping was largely completed and almost all the buildings and exhibits were ready by opening day. The crowds rapidly filled every available space across from the platforms erected for the ceremonies between the Art Building and the Main Building. Some climbed statues, and others found their way to rooftops. A hundred thousand people in a crowd and not one peasant, commented a journalist. A local correspondent found in the crowd a hierarchy suggestive of a modernized Babel without its guilt and folly, in the confusion of the various forms of human language to be heard, from our own familiar and vigorous Anglo-Saxon to the guttural of our barbaric Aboriginese, or the sing-sing jargon of the ‘heathen Chinese.’ Newspapers tried to foster the impression that people from foreign countries were treated with the utmost respect and courtesy and that the crowd, above all, was orderly even in the absense of direct military supervision. Generally overlooked were expressions of racial hostility that followed the decorous opening proceedings. Turks, Egyptians, Spaniards, Japanese, and the Chinese, a contemporary noted, were followed by large crowds of idle boys and men, who hooted and shouted at them as if they had been animals of a strange species instead of visitors who were entitled to only the most courteous attention. This outburst of racial hostility did not detract entirely from the general orderliness of the crowd during the ceremonies and the exposition as a whole. Rather, it revealed that white Americans brought their accumulated racial attitudes with them to the fair and that fairgoers found nothing in the opening ceremonies to negate their racial assumptions.¹⁰

Fig. 2. Main Building, Centennial Exhibition. Lithograph courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Photograph Collection.

In describing the opening ceremony, Reverend D. Otis Kellogg explained the orderly nature of the crowds as being a direct result of the impression created by the majesty of the exposition itself. The imposing edifices were there to speak, he observed, and emphatically do they do their work. With an effect like some of the European Cathedrals, the Main Building exceeds any of them in extent many times over. . . . Then there were the eminent men of the land coming as representatives of the power of the country to acknowledge the grandeur of Industry. It was precisely the religious aura about the opening that led the Philadelphia Press to declare: Let us, therefore, to-day bare our heads and take off our sandals, for we tread on holy ground. This effort to shape American culture, however, would have been incomplete without the explicitly didactic lessons provided by the speakers themselves.¹¹

Introduced with music composed by Richard Wagner and conducted by Theodore Thomas, the ceremonies emphasized national unity and America’s destiny as God’s chosen nation. Hope for the future provided the text for the speech delivered by Joseph R. Hawley, president of the Centennial Commission. He expressed his fervent hope that all parties and classes would come to the exhibition to study the evidence of our resources, to measure the progress of a hundred years, and to examine to our profit the wonderful products of other lands. President Grant concluded the speechmaking by urging the audience to make a careful examination of what is about to be exhibited to you, bearing in mind that America’s greatest achievements still lay in the future.¹²

Fig. 3. Machinery Hall seen through the Finance Building. Stereoscope card from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

When the orchestra and chorus played the Hallelujah Chorus at the conclusion of Grant’s remarks, one phase of the inaugural proceedings was complete. The climax, however, had yet to occur. President Grant, Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, and Director-General Goshorn took their places at the head of a procession of four thousand invited dignitaries. After reviewing the foreign and domestic displays in the Main Building, they arrived at the exposition’s centerpiece, the Corliss engine, in Machinery Hall. George Corliss, commissioner from Rhode Island and designer of the machine, gave operating instructions to the two heads of state. Then both men turned wheels and started the generator that provided the power for the exhibits in Machinery Hall.¹³

The Corliss engine was the most impressive display on the exhibition grounds. With its steam boiler tucked out of sight and earshot in an adjacent power supply building, the engine, despite its size, ran with an awesome, silent power—an athlete of steel and iron. When Walt Whitman visited Machinery Hall several weeks later, "he ordered his chair to be stopped before the great, great engine . . . and there he sat looking at this colossal and mighty piece of machinery for half an hour in silence . . .

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    In All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916, Robert W. Rydell argues, “The web of world’s fairs that stretched across the widening economic fault lines of American society between 1876 and 1916 reflected the efforts by America’s intellectual, political, and business leaders to establish a consensus about their priorities and their vision of progress as racial dominance and economic growth” (pg. 8). To this end, Rydell examines the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, the New Orleans, Atlanta, and Nashville Expositions, the 1898 Omaha Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, the 1904 Saint Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the Expositions in Portland and Seattle, and the Expositions in San Francisco and San Diego. Rydell backs up his claims about the fairs’ influence with attendance figures, excerpts from letters and diaries, and promotional materials that circulated around the country.Of the 1876 Centennial Expo, Rydell writes, “Rather than merely offering an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the Reconstruction years, the fair was a calculated response to these conditions. Its organizers sought to challenge doubts and restore confidence in the vitality of America’s system of government as well as in the social and economic structure of the country” (pg. 11). He continues, “In the course of planning the exposition, the role of scientists, especially those of the Smithsonian, expanded until, at crucial junctures, the histories of the Centennial and American science became interwoven” (pg. 20). The Smithsonian’s propagation of scientific racism continued through subsequent fairs and helped establish the defense of American imperialism. In this way, Rydell concludes of the Columbian Exposition, “The fair did not merely reflect American racial attitudes, it grounded them on ethnological bedrock” (pg. 55). The southern fairs helped to heal sectional differences lingering after the Civil War, even going so far as to include Civil War reunions. Further, the creation of hierarchical displays of “types” of humanity reinforced existing racism (pg. 101). Rydell writes of them, “In the closing decades of the century, the southern fairs succeeded in reintroducing antebellum imperial dreams to millions of fairgoers” (pg. 104). The Omaha fair, following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, “provided ideological scaffolding for mass support of the government’s imperial policies” (pg. 108). This continued in Buffalo, where “the colonial exhibit at the exposition, in short, would generate support in the United States for maintaining and extending America’s colonial empire” (pg. 139). Rydell writes, “Inside the exposition, ethnological displays and midway attractions with ethnological attributes gave this historical and utopian narrative a basis in received scientific and pseudoscientific wisdom” (pg. 131). The Saint Louis exposition continued this, where, according to Rydell, lectures from W. J. McGee, an anthropologist, “vindicated American national experience and synthesized the works of leading evolutionary thinkers including Darwin, Powell, and Spencer. The lectures offered a vision of racial progress that made cultural advance synonymous with increased industrial expansion” (pg. 161). This advance appeared in exhibits arranged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that portrayed Native Americans as a once-great civilization now disappearing to make way for industrialism. The Pacific-Northwest expositions “focused national attention on the possibilities for economic growth through the development of trans-Pacific market while providing the region and nation with visions of racial progress” (pg. 185). The California fairs continued this utopian vision, but “at California’s fairs, however, the vision of utopia rested squarely on the application of scientific racial categories to selected white and nonwhite populations alike” (pg. 219). Rydell concludes, “Largely as a result of the expositions, nationalism and racism became crucial parts of the legitimizing ideology offered to a nation torn by class conflict” (pg. 236). Furthermore, “Far from simply reflecting American culture, the expositions were intended to shape that culture. They left an enduring vision of empire” (pg. 237).