I've posted once before about Philadelphia's splendid "Please Touch Museum," housed in Memorial Hall, one of only two buildings remaining from America's Centennial hosting of the World's Fair. It's a delightful learning extravaganza for children, from it's life-sized replica of the Liberty arm and torch made from toys and household cast-offs, to the many "hands-on" exhibits and learning stations. Click here to take an interactive visit right now!
My favorite part of the musuem was the scale model of Centennial Park in 1876. This week I received an email from Philip Valenti, one of the tour guides of the exhibit, explaining that the mueum has introduced a new adult tour to explain "the history of the building and its restoration, the Centennial Exhibition as a whole and the background of the Museum itself."
Philip has a passion for the glimpse this exhibit provides into 100 year-old, post-Civil War America and her desire to show the world what and who she was. You will be amazed at the ingenuity and vision of these early Americans. In the following paragraphs, Philip provides"
A Short Introduction to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition:“The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturesand Products of the Soil and Mine”
The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was one of the greatest events of modern world history. It celebrated the success of the American Revolution after 100 years, showing that the USA had outstripped the British Empire and all the other kingdoms and empires of the world in manufacturing, agriculture, technology and inventions of all kinds-- thus demonstrating for the first time that the common people are capable of self-government without monarchs, emperors or aristocrats. Over the six months of the Exhibition (May 10 to November 10), almost 10 million people attended—the biggest single day was Pennsylvania Day, September 28, when over 275,000 people visited the Centennial grounds. (The whole US population at the time was about 40 million, and Philadelphia’s about 800,000.)
Thirty-seven nations participated by displaying their best products and achievements in all areas of life. Many also came to learn the American System of economics, and to spread these ideas and methods to their own countries.
For example, the first foreign head of state ever to visit the USA was Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, who stood on the podium on opening day May 10, 1876 with President Ulysses S. Grant right in front of Memorial Hall—an estimated 100,000 people were in the audience on that day, including the US Congress, Supreme Court, and many Governors and foreign dignitaries. On June 25, 1876 Dom Pedro participated in the first public demonstration of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell by reciting Shakespeare over the phone! Dom Pedro, even though he was an Emperor, wanted Brazil to be more like the United States, so he freed the slaves in Brazil in 1888, and supported railroad building and use of the telephone and other American inventions.
In less than two years, over 200 buildings were built for the Centennial on about 240acres in West Fairmount Park, including: Memorial Hall, constructed out of granite, marble, iron and glass and designed to be a permanent memorial of the Centennial. It was the art gallery of the Exhibition, containing thousands of paintings and sculptures, and became the model for many historic buildings in Europe, such as the famous German Parliament building in Berlin, the Reichstag building. Memorial Hall was dying from decay and neglect until it was rescued and restored to its past glory by agreement between the City of Philadelphia and PTM.
The Main Exhibition Building, although a temporary structure made of wood and iron scaffolding, was the largest building in the world in 1876, stretching more than six football fields in length (approximately 1,876 feet) right alongside Elm (Parkside) Ave. All the participating nations displayed their best products there, so a visit to Main was like a tour of the world. Once again, American inventors and innovations stood out, like Bell and his telephone; Thomas Edison and his mimeograph machine and electric pen; Otis Elevator Co. steam powered elevators that took brave souls to the roof of Main; and Abraham Lincoln’s great economic adviser Henry Carey, who distributed pamphlets and discussed American System economics with one and all.
Machinery Hall, another huge temporary structure, housing hundreds of machines (three-fourths of them made in the USA), all in motion, illustrating the process of production of almost everything. Every machine in the Hall was connected by belts and pulleys to the huge Corliss Steam Engine, standing over 40 feet tall in the middle of the building, donated for free to the Centennial by Rhode Island industrialist, inventor and patriot George Corliss. President Grant and Dom Pedro turned the wheel on opening day to start the Engine—it ran quietly without an accident or breakdown for six months, six days a week, testifying to the power of the American genius for invention.
Another standout feature was the display of Baldwin Locomotives, made in Philadelphia at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, and later used on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Russia and other projects all over the world. The US Government Building, which featured new inventions used by different branches of the federal government. Two modern US Post Office rail cars were parked outside, demonstrating high speed mail delivery by train.
Nearby was a model lighthouse, later used on Long Island; a model US Army hospital (on the walls of which hung Thomas Eakins’ famous painting, “The Gross Clinic”); a laboratory to make cartridges and other ordnance; and a model telegraph office run by the US Signal Service. The US Patent Office displayed 5000 models of inventions patented by Americans, including one by Abraham Lincoln. Plus much, much more…
The Women’s Pavilion, which was the brainchild of Elizabeth Gillespie, great granddaughter of Ben Franklin, who wanted to demonstrate the equality of women as inventors and engineers. The exhibit featured a steam engine run by a woman technician, which powered dozens of patented inventions by women, including an automatic dishwasher and dryer.
Wouldn’t it be awesome to fly back in time and get a bird’s eye view of the entire Centennial Exhibition? We can do that today, thanks to Centennial Board member John Baird and the students of Spring Garden College, who built a magnificent scale model of the Centennial grounds—located since 1901 in the “basement” of Memorial Hall. What a wonderful gift to us from the great generation of Americans who saved the Union in the Civil War, and created the Centennial Exhibition! (Find out more about the Centennial on the PTM website.)