The Centennial Exhibition of 1876

Steven GreensteinSteven Greenstein is a Museum Assistant in Philadelphia. He has a B.A. in History from American University and an M.A. in Public History from Temple University. He enjoys bicycling, reading, and traveling. We are happy that another full-on Historian is contributing to GBH! (CR)

In 1876 America celebrated its 100th anniversary with a massive Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Penn. All sorts of art, commercial, agricultural, and industrial products were exhibited to celebrate the progress of America and the world in the previous 100 years. These included Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the Remington typewriter. Even part of the Statue of Liberty was on display.

Interestingly the entire nation did not fully support this massive spectacle, including the U.S. Government. Congress eventually approved the Centennial, but required that it raise its capital privately; the Centennial Board of Finance was created to accomplish this task. The Board of Finance elected John Welsh as its director.

Welsh was the son of another John Welsh, a founder of the Philadelphia Bank, of which the younger Welsh still served on the Board of Directors. (Philadelphia National Bank would eventually merge with Wachovia Bank and Wells Fargo). Funds were raised by selling capital stock in the Centennial Exhibition investors expected to receive a dividend at the end of the event.

Although the event had been discussed since 1866, fundraising did not begin until early 1873. The country could not have picked a worse time to try to raise millions of dollars for an extravagant event as America was suffering the Panic of 1873. Additionally, Reconstruction had not yet ended, and many Southerners balked at contributing to an event in Philadelphia that celebrated, they felt, the victory of the Union over the Confederacy.

By early 1874, despite his best efforts, Welsh could not raise enough funds; subsequently he petitioned Congress for 1.5 million dollars. Without government funding, the Exposition would display an embarrassing collection of unfinished buildings. In early 1876 Congress finally granted the money. This subsidy paled in comparison to the millions spent by Britain, France, Austria, and other nations on similar events.

The event closed in November 1876, seen by 10 million visitors (at 50 cents each). After paying its expenses, the Centennial Corporation became locked in a bitter dispute with Congress, which claimed that its appropriation was a loan, while representatives of stockholders claimed that it was a gift, and that their dividend took priority. The dispute wound up in the Supreme Court, where it was decided the money was indeed a loan, and as such would have preference over a dividend to investors.

Although the Centennial did not make a direct profit for its investors, it was an immense help for American commerce and industrial goods, as well as national prestige on the world stage. As time went on the Centennial would be eclipsed by similar events in Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. But each of these events can trace their heritage directly back to Philadelphia in 1876.

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One Response to The Centennial Exhibition of 1876

  1. Juan- (Curator) WFMuseum L.A. says:

    Thanks for a great post Steven!

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