Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial Exposition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United States held its first world’s fair to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the nation’s independence from Great Britain. The exposition focused on industry, which had been a new strength for the United States. It also signaled America’s entry into the world of international trade and diplomacy by showing that it could compete with and often surpass other nations in a post-Industrial Revolution world.

Summary of Event

The United States held its first international exposition in 1876 to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the nation’s independence. The Centennial Exposition, which ran from May 10 to November 10 in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, had more than nine million visitors and introduced many new inventions, setting the stage for the rise of the United States to international industrial predominance. Philadelphia;Centennial Exposition Centennial Exposition (1876) World fairs;Philadelphia [kw]Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial Exposition (May 10-Nov. 10, 1876) [kw]Hosts the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia (May 10-Nov. 10, 1876) [kw]Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia Hosts the (May 10-Nov. 10, 1876) [kw]Exposition, Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial (May 10-Nov. 10, 1876) Philadelphia;Centennial Exposition Centennial Exposition (1876) World fairs;Philadelphia [g]United States;May 10-Nov. 10, 1876: Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial Exposition[4880] [c]Science and technology;May 10-Nov. 10, 1876: Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial Exposition[4880] [c]Trade and commerce;May 10-Nov. 10, 1876: Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial Exposition[4880] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 10-Nov. 10, 1876: Philadelphia Hosts the Centennial Exposition[4880] Schwarzmann, Hermann J. Hawley, Joseph R. Goshorn, Sir Alfred T. Welsh, John

Plans for the event began in 1871, when the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and Centennial Exposition[Centennial exposition] authorized an international exposition, or world’s fair, to celebrate the centennial; Congress, however, did not appropriate funds for the event. A centennial commission, also created by Congress, chose Philadelphia as the fair site. The city of Philadelphia provided $50,000, while Congressman D. J. Morrell of Pennsylvania, who had pushed through the original legislation, helped create the centennial board of finance to sell up to $10 million in stocks.

The fair took enormous planning. Joseph R. Hawley Hawley, Joseph R. served as the president of the centennial commission, Sir Alfred T. Goshorn Goshorn, Sir Alfred T. served as director-general, John Welsh Welsh, John led the board of finance, and German-born architect Hermann J. Schwarzmann Schwarzmann, Hermann J. became the chief architect. Welsh and his team managed to sell only $2.5 million in stocks, but they did persuade the city of Philadelphia to contribute $1.5 million and Congress to loan the commission $1.5 million.

Schwarzmann, who had been instrumental in designing Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, designed the fair’s layout. Unlike previous expositions, which had one main building, the Centennial Exposition used a new arrangement of several large buildings surrounded by smaller pavilions. Schwarzmann also designed the two permanent buildings that would remain after 1876—Memorial Hall and Horticulture Hall.

Machinery Hall formed the exposition’s focal point and covered thirteen acres. It showcased the wonders of the American Industrial Revolution: electric lights and elevators Elevators powered by the 1,400 horsepower Corliss steam engine Steam engines;and elevators[Elevators] , a prototype slice of cable for the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge the first telephone Telephone and typewriter Typewriters , locomotives, printing presses, mining equipment, and much more. U.S. exhibits filled 80 percent of Machinery Hall and overwhelmed visitors. The other major buildings included the main building, which showcased manufactures, Memorial Hall for the fine arts, Agricultural Hall, and Horticultural Hall. All exhibitors were classified into one of seven departments: Mining & Metallurgy, Manufactures, Education and Science, Art, Machinery, Agriculture, or Horticulture. Each classification was further subdivided and classified, and even may have been a model for the Dewey decimal system.

Opening of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

The fair area was laid out roughly in a triangle with the West End Railway running around the edge, allowing visitors to view the grounds. There were seventeen state buildings, nine foreign government buildings, and many restaurants, food stands, and other small kiosks. Visitors could also ride the first monorail, the Saddleback Railroad, which connected Horticultural Hall with Agricultural Hall. The grounds also had an internal telegraph system.

When the exposition opened on May 10, 1876, building exteriors were finished, but some of the interiors lagged behind schedule. The exposition’s defining moment came on opening day in Machinery Hall. The Brazilian emperor, the only foreign head of state in attendance, turned handles that set into motion a giant Corliss engine standing seventy feet high. American inventor George Corliss had built the engine specifically for this exposition. The engine, twenty-three miles of shafting, and forty miles of belting turned on all the machinery in the hall at once. Machinery Hall held engines, boilers, printing presses, forges, hoists, machine tools, steam fire engines, internal combustion Internal combustion engines engines, mechanical refrigeration, and dynamo-electric machinery. American industry had awoken with its own revolution and was ready to challenge the world.

The other buildings housed many wonders as well. The Moorish-style Horticultural Hall was a grand Victorian edifice that housed the largest hothouse conservatory in the world. The main building held exhibits of furniture, ceramics, glassware, silver, textiles, clocks, musical instruments, tools, vehicles, and scientific apparatus. The U.S. Government Building held exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution, the War Department, the Navy Department, the Coast Survey, and the Light House Board. Many of the exhibits in this building would find their way to permanent exhibition in Washington, D.C., and provide a firm foundation for a national museum.

A unique building at the exposition was the Women’s Pavilion. A women’s centennial executive committee was established to campaign and raise funds for a building devoted to items designed and made by women and to items of special interest to women. The Centennial Exposition was the first fair that included the products of enterprising women. The pavilion was filled with “the product of her own thought and labor.” Also, women’s rights activists and organizations distributed literature that demanded, among other things, women’s participation on juries, no taxation of women without representation, and the removal of the word “male” in state constitutions.

Outside the exposition grounds an unofficial midway, dubbed “Centennial City,” developed with beer halls, cheap hotels, and sideshows. One show presented the Wild Men of Borneo, and another re-created the 1870 German siege of Paris. Midways, and particularly displays of “primitives,” became a mainstay of expositions after 1893.

The Centennial Exposition broke almost all previous world’s fair attendance records. It had the largest number of visitors, the most paid admissions, and the largest single-day attendance. The board of finance had a $2 million surplus before repaying the government loan. The stage had been set for several international expositions that would follow in the United States.


The 1876 Centennial Exposition had a great impact at home and abroad. The United States had been a country still recovering from its devastating Civil War (1861-1865) and had been disturbed anew by the scandals of the Grant administration. The exposition gave Americans a sense of pride in their progress and confidence in a strong future based on their substantial industrial power.

In part because of the successful world’s fair, the United States sought increased global standing as an internationally important industrial power. The exposition succeeded in astonishing foreign visitors with a show of American industrial ingenuity and productivity. The United States could now compete industrially and economically with the major European powers. Reports in London newspapers noted that, in many cases, the economic success of American industry began to surpass that of British industry. In large part, the American foreign trade balance, which changed dramatically in favor of the United States from 1875 to 1877, can be attributed to the fair.

After 1876, the United States was on its way to earning an international reputation as a land of innovation. The telephone Telephone , electrical systems, vast engines, and other items remained powerful images of American innovativeness long after the end of the exposition, as the United States showed that it had moved from its image as an agrarian nation to a nation of inventors and industrialists on a par with the rest of the industrialized world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Findling, John E., ed. Historical Dictionary of World’s Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. A good synopsis of the 1876 fair as well as synopses on numerous other fairs in the United States and around the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giberti, Bruno. Designing the Centennial: A History of the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Detailed analysis of the planning and design of the 1876 exposition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maass, John. The Glorious Enterprise: The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and H. J. Schwarzmann, Architect-in-Chief. Watkins Glen, N.Y.: American Life Foundation, 1973. Describes the exposition and Schwarzmann’s career. Contains numerous plates and engravings. Good examples of European views of the United States and the exposition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Post, Robert C., ed. 1876: A Centennial Exhibition: A Treatise Upon Selected Aspects of the Great International Exhibition Held in Philadelphia on the Occasion of Our Nation’s One-Hundredth Birthday, with Some Reference to Another Exhibition Held in Washington Commemorating the Epic Event, and Called 1876. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1976. A detailed description of some of the buildings and exhibits at the 1876 fair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. An in-depth analysis of the 1876 and other American-based world’s fairs, with a focus on the connections between the fairs and American imperialism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000. A brief, readable analysis of all the international fairs in the United States. Provides a rich context for the 1876 fair.

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