Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition

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Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition

On May 10, 1876, amidst the high-flying American flags and the grandeur of the ornate buildings before them, 100,000 people gathered to hear President Ulysses S. Grant open the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. After a bloody Civil War, and a failed Reconstruction, Americans wanted to prove their greatness once again. The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, or the Centennial Exhibition, showcased this rapidly growing nation, in addition to the work of 37 other nations.   Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park was lined with pavilions, hosting exhibits that demonstrated the new industrial and technological advancements of the age. Bringing in over nine million visitors, the Centennial Exhibition celebrated America’s birthday by introducing the country as a world power. William Dean Howells observed, "no one can see the fair without a thrill of patriotic pride."

Although world’s fairs encouraged patriotism, technological innovation, entertainment, and exchanging of ideas, the fairs reflected profound concerns about the future and deflected criticism of the established political and social orders. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition was developed as an organized response to class conflict in the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and industrial depressions that occurred in the 1860s and 1870s. The Centennial Exhibition offered an escape from these gloomy vistas, and served as a calculated response to these conditions. As an attempt to restore vitality in the United States, the Centennial Exhibition operated as a “school for the nation,” a place where Americans and their international guests could learn the national narrative, technological power, and unify as a nation once again. The Centennial Exhibition offered organized curated experiences, meant to look to the glorious past, serving as a blueprint for the future.  

Although seemingly beneficial for American morale, the entire nation did not fully support it nor were they included in the planning. When the federal government did not and could not provide money for the exhibition, as the Panic of 1873 made it difficult to appropriate funds, elite Philadelphians raised money to hold the exhibition. Since this group funded and planned the event, it showcased other elite Americans, excluding lower and working-classes from attending or exhibiting. This lesson will allow students to engage with primary sources, in order to interpret the Centennial Exhibition from the point of view of its guests, and the view of those excluded from the fair. Using newspapers and images, the students will be able to understand the Exhibition’s guests and what they experienced at the fair, as well as understanding the relationship of the fair with working and lower class Americans. Why weren’t all people equally represented at the Centennial Exhibition?

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will be able to:

  • Evaluate the issues facing the development of the Centennial Exhibition, in terms of contemporaneous events (The Civil War, Industrial Revolution),
  • Interpret the events and exhibitions at the Centennial Exhibition based on items published by the Exhibition Committee and supporters, as well as outside reports on the event,
  • Examine and interpret newspaper articles and reports on the event.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Provide students with background on the events leading up to the Centennial Exhibition. One way to do this is to begin by watching this short documentary: Philadelphia: The Great Experiment—“The Flood Gates Open (1865-1876)
  2. After the video, ask the student’s why did a world’s fair seem like a good idea? This PowerPoint provides some background information, and will be used in the rest of the lesson plan.
  3. After providing a background into the social/political climate of the 1860s and 1870s, ask the students: How did these events influence the world’s fair idea in Philadelphia? Why is it helpful to learn about the events leading up to the Centennial Exhibition? What can we learn?
  4. Next, the students will relate a primary source to the background information on the Centennial Exhibition. On the PowerPoint, there is an example of an 1873 newspaper article discussing the funding of the Exhibition. How does this news article relate to the Panic of 1873? Who is now planning and funding the fair?
  5. Describe to the students the creation and planning of the fair. This video illustrates the creation of the Centennial Exhibition through images. Have the students watch it to give them a sense of the grandness and elaborate qualities of the Centennial Exhibition. After looking through these images, follow the link on the PowerPoint to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s digitized Centennial items.
  6. Ask the students: What do these primary sources tell you about the Centennial Exhibition? What can we learn through these sources about the Centennial’s audience? Have them make a list of observations about these materials, and then discuss them as a class.
  7. Continue the PowerPoint, showing the students the primary materials on the slides to illustrate average Americans and their connections to the Centennial. Did this fair celebrate all Americans? Who could go to the Exhibition?  Who could not? What groups of people do you think were excluded during this period in history? How did average Americans try to access the fair?
  8. Wrap-Up: Why are world’s fair’s important to study? What can we learn from these types of events? What should be studied further? Why is the Centennial Exhibition important to Philadelphia’s history?


Industrial Revolution- the Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to the mid-eighteenth century. This revolution change people's way of life, as new machines influenced methods of manufacture.

Reconstruction- Implemented by Congress, in 1866, Reconstruction was aimed at: reorganizing the Southern states and readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a non-slave society.

Panic of 1873- First global depression brought about by industrial capitalism, which began a regular pattern of boom and bust cycles that continue to this day. The effects of the downturn were severe and, in 1873, unexpected.