Charlene Mires, Nicholas Biello, and John Keigher
Middle American Studies Association
Harrisburg, PA
April 17, 1999

As other presentations at this conference have recognized, "American Studies for a New Millenium" will surely involve the World Wide Web. With the Web, the Internet's graphical terrain, we have a new platform for creating and disseminating interpretations of American culture. American Studies scholars of the future will have the opportunity to mine the World Wide Web as source material for understanding American culture of our own time. To begin to understand these dynamics, I will focus today on just one aspect of American culture interpretation that has moved quickly onto the Web that is, the representation of world's fairs. These representations include a Web site devoted to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 which was constructed last fall by students in my Material Culture course at Villanova University. Most of this presentation will be devoted to sharing with you some preliminary findings from that project and the implications that it suggests for American Studies on the World Wide Web.

As you may have discovered, the Web has become a platform for re-imagining spectacles of the past.(1) This is especially true of world's fairs, where the fascination of fans as well as scholars and museum curators has produced at least seventy-eight Web sites.(2) These are interpretations of the past, but they are also spectacles anew in the context of the Internet. Given free reign with the enormous variety of graphics, text, and sound that the World Wide Web can support, a spectacle of the past can become something entirely different on the Internet. Web site creators are giving us their views of the past, but also a record of perceptions of these spectacles as they are remembered at the end of the twentieth century.

This is true, I think, of the Centennial project at Villanova, which involved twenty-eight undergraduate students, some of whom are present at this conference today. In my material culture course, we looked back to the objects that comprised the spectacle of 1876, and then we constructed what might be considered a renewed spectacle, a World Wide Web exhibit of the students' work analyzing the artifacts of the fair.(3) This project took its cue from the writings of Thomas J. Schlereth, who noted long ago the potential of the Centennial Exhibition as a source for engaging students in the study of nineteenth-century culture.(4) In my class, each student completed a small-scale research project on some material aspect of the exhibition one country's exhibits, for example, or a particular building or artifact. The students turned these papers into individual Web pages including text and (in most cases) images. These individual projects then served as source material for a second set of papers that strived to reach overall interpretations of the material culture of the Centennial. These analysis papers, one at a time, are serving as the introductory text of our Web site. The analysis essays include links to various students' research projects, thereby serving as gateways into the site.

I expect this will be a continuing project. At present, our findings are derived from the research topics that this first group of students happened to choose. We have analyses of the exhibits of some countries, but certainly not all of them. Our examination of the objects of the Centennial is at this point far from comprehensive. Nevertheless, I believe we have arrived at some significant insights into this important spectacle of the nineteenth-century world.

This and other Web sites devoted to world's fairs give us a look ahead to what American studies might become in cyberspace. As a medium of academic expression, the Internet presents a web of trade-offs. Interpretations of American culture can spring onto the Web without being filtered through the academic norms of rigorous peer review. We cannot always be sure of the quality of authorship or the validity of sources. Among the world's fair sites, we can find creations by museums and historical societies, by graduate students and collectors of world's fair memorabilia. But who is "Terry" of "Terry's 1904 World's Fair Page?"(5) Without knowing this, how can we evaluate the authority of this presentation of the St. Louis World's Fair? As this great variety of Web authors jump into the fray of cultural interpretation, it will be interesting to see whether the Internet fosters greater interaction between scholars and hobbyists, or whether separate spheres will be maintained. Both possibilities exist. Among sites devoted to the World's Columbian Exposition, for example, many Web pages commemorate the fair's midway as an entertaining novelty, without recognizing the racial and imperialist dynamics that have been noted by Robert Rydell.(6) However, the sites also include an on-line master's thesis with full scholarly citations.(7)

Clearly, the Web is a medium to be approached with some caution. But for teachers and students of American studies, the Internet also offers an opportunity for enhanced collaboration. In this virtual place, students have an opportunity to engage in real scholarship for real audiences. This was one of the goals of the Centennial project at Villanova – to have students communicate beyond the classroom to the world.  At this conference devoted to "American Studies for the New Millenium," I think it is fitting to turn the rest of my time over two emerging scholars from my material culture class to tell you more about our findings about the material culture of the Centennial Exhibition. Drawing upon the work of their classmates, they will address two of the major themes of our Web site. Nicholas Biello, an English major, will speak first on the role of technology at the Exhibition; he will be followed by John Keigher, a history major, who will conclude this presentation by presenting our findings about the role of American history at the Exhibition. These scholars provide evidence of the sophisticated analysis that may emerge from undergraduate collaboration using the World Wide Web.

Technology at the Centennial
Presented by Nicholas Biello

Sometimes it seems that technology can pass us by. I can personally admit that I do not know what all the function buttons on my television do. Everyone of course has at some time had to deal with a relentlessly flashing 12:00 on his VCR. It takes some time for society to assimilate various species of technology. And once technology begins entering the culture, how we use our technology can reveal a lot about our attitudes and beliefs. The American culture of 1876 fits this pattern.

I am defining technology as knowledge that allows us to manipulate our surroundings. Technology at the Centennial demonstrates that the American culture of 1876 had many contradictory faces. America, through the use and manifestation of its technology, proved itself insecure yet dominating, and sentimental yet progressive.

First, I would like to demonstrate how American culture belied its insecurity and its desire for dominance. The mighty Corliss Engine demonstrates these qualities of the American culture. The Centennial Exhibition occurred during a time of heavy industrialization and urbanization--people started migrating from an agrarian, farm-based way of life to the cities to find news jobs in new factories with new equipment. All of this conversion and movement naturally caused a lot of anxiety among those who themselves moved and those who watched this movement. What did those who traveled to Philadelphia in 1876 find? The sturdy Corliss Engine. And they loved it.

The Corliss Engine was huge, sleek, quiet, and powerful for any machine of its day. President Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil turned the Engine on to signify the opening of the Fair--many historians have interpreted the Corliss Engine as the central image of the Fair. Opening Day's crowd erupted in prolonged cheer upon the activation of the Engine. The Engine itself sat literally in the center of Machinery Hall, the building on the Fair grounds that contained the most machinery and demonstrated the ingenuity of all the countries that placed technology in it. The Corliss Engine powered all of the other machines in Machinery Hall. Even if a large number of machines were turned off in the hall, the output of the Engine only varied by a few horsepower before correcting itself--the Corliss Engine remained firmly in control of itself and the other foreign machines in the hall.

International visitors loved the Engine for many reasons: sleek shape, modern specifications, ingenuity of design. Especially Americans loved the Engine, though. Fair-goers came in huge groups to see Engine, and sometimes people came only to see the Engine. Walt Whitman sat in front of the Engine for thirty minutes marveling at it. A congressman associated with it spiritual powers: "the fabled powers of genii and afrit in Arabian tales."(8) The crowds saw the engine as a quiet, powerful, mythical figure, capable of great feats. But at the same time, the crowd remembered that American human hands created the engine and controlled it. The Engine shows both that American culture longed for stability through dominance.(9)

In addition to demonstrating the insecurity and dominance of American culture, the Centennial also shows that the Americans of 1876 had a sentimental fixation with nature. We found this sentimentality surrounding Horticultural Hall. Horticultural Hall brought nature indoors to be observed and admired. Various nations planted many species of plants including ferns, azaleas, maples, and pitch plants. The building itself was designed with large, open spaces and wide entrances--as a result, the building had a simultaneous indoor/outdoor feel. Horticulture Hall was decorated very colorfully and contained statues and artwork. In summary, Horticulture Hall reflects Romantic sentimentalism for innocence, the countryside, and nature in the face of increasing industrialization. Americans brought nature indoors, not to be harshly contained, but rather to be sentimentally admired for its beauty and splendor; increasingly, the role of nature in people's lives diminished as people moved to industrial cities.(10)

However, we also found that another building at the Centennial demonstrated America's progressiveness and openness to the future. The Shoe and Leather building was placed in front of Machinery Hall and next to the Main Exhibition building, the two most important buildings on the fair-grounds, the two buildings whose contents most looked toward the future. A large picture on the exterior of the Shoe and Leather building shows a man using a machine to create a shoe; this picture would be the first thing that would catch a visitor's attention about the building. Before industrialization, shoes were made solely by hand. Furthermore, the Shoe and Leather building contained displays of shoes and machines--no people-hand-made shoes in the building. The machines show that the technique of shoe-making was moving forward into a technological age away from handiwork. We can infer that the designers of the building felt that people should and were embracing such forward movement.(11)

In conclusion, from my classmates' many different analyses, I have found that the role of technology at the fair portrayed American culture in several contradictory ways. Clearly, Americans had no problem embracing such conflicting attitudes. In fact, the science of material culture can often demonstrate conflicting or ambiguous viewpoints in the culture that it analyzes.

American History at the Centennial
Presented by John Keigher

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was a magnificent display of the world's products and changing perceptions. Although the major theme of the fair was industrial progress, it was set in the historic city of Philadelphia, in the year in which the United States celebrated its one- hundredth anniversary. However, little attention was given to the specific details and events of Revolutionary Era; to the extent that the history of America's first century appeared at the Centennial, it was examined through the lens of progress. Over time, the ideals of the Revolution, and the liberty it achieved, had evolved from a base of democratic principles to a frame for capitalism and imperialistic objectives. In this manner, the historical significance of the United States was boldly present at the Centennial Exhibition, fueling nationalism and igniting patriotic sentiments and values.

The City of Philadelphia welcomed 1876 with much festivity. This image shows the north side of Independence Hall on the eve of the new year.(12) A huge crowd had gathered to celebrate the dawning of this centennial anniversary in front of the building where independence was declared and liberty proclaimed 100 years earlier. At midnight, the mayor raised a ceremonial flag, and fireworks illuminated the night sky. This was not the flag of thirteen stars and stripes, but rather one of different significance. This was a replica of Washington's battle flag, used commonly by the federal army throughout the revolutionary era, even at nearby Valley Forge. In the years leading up to the Centennial, Colonel Frank Etting had led a campaign to restore the building to the condition and decor of 1776. The colonial meeting room on the first floor was transformed into a museum of revolutionary memorabilia. As Col. Etting said:

...the actuality of our Founders is already losing itself in the mists of the past; so long however, as we can preserve the material objects left to us which those great men saw, used, or even touched, the thrill of vitality may still be transmitted, unbroken.(13)

The main attraction of this exhibit was to be the original Declaration of Independence.  President Grant allowed the document to be returned to the room in which it was first signed in observance of the Centennial celebrations. Over the past 100 years it had become a document of great philosophical value. But to Etting's dismay, the document received few visitors relative to the vast crowds who ventured to Philadelphia during the Centennial Exhibition. Nevertheless, from this point forward, the document was known as an artifact deserving special care.

While exhibits at Independence Hall focused on the American Revolution, the extravagant opening ceremonies of the Centennial Exhibition celebrated the American nation of 1876. A 1,000-voice choir and orchestra performed many pieces of music specially composed for this event. These songs traced the development of the nation through a journey of nostalgia.(14) The music celebrated the majesty of the flag, the glory of liberty, and the destiny of Columbia, while only rarely referring to the struggles and battles of the American Revolution and omitting the strife of the Civil War altogether. Finally, the performance ended with a rendition of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus during which President Grant raised the ceremonial flag officially commencing the Centennial Exhibition. With that, visitors swept into the Exhibition's vast buildings -- Machinery Hall, Horticultural Hall, and Memorial Hall -- all of which employed the modern Victorian style of architecture. Here, in this image of a locket from the Exhibition, it is clear that these colossal buildings had very little in common and paid very little homage to their colonial predecessors, which had a very small role in this exhibition of the modern world.(15)

One hundred years had passed since that decisive summer when the colonists, angered by the restrictive measures of their mother country, signed the Declaration of Independence. At the Centennial Exhibition one of the few exhibits that tells the story of this process displays the origin of the flag also known as the "Grand Trophy." Here the Continental Stars and Stripes were shown evolving from the British Union Jack and Seal of King George. This exhibit presented a kind of family tree, in which the flag of the United States appeared as a descendent of English ensigns.(16) It did not portray a severed relationship, but rather one of growth and development.

The development of the United States through the nineteenth century was not without complications, however, a fact which became clear on the Fourth of July. Although the major fireworks display for the Centennial Fourth of July took place near the Exhibition grounds, many prominent individuals did venture downtown into Philadelphia in the afternoon to hear a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence. There, they witnessed an acknowledgment of the turmoil of Civil War, as Richard Henry Lee, a descendent of the original signer, read the Declaration. Since Lee was a Virginian, this was seen as a gesture of forgiveness towards the southern states. Shortly after this reading, Susan B. Anthony and other women's rights activists disrupted the ceremony and began distributing copies of a Declaration of Rights for Women, indicating that the spirit of the declaration, although 100 years old, continued to evolve and speak for the oppressed.(17)

On the Exhibition grounds, American vendors often invoked the elements of the American Revolution in their advertising. It was common to find the images of eagles or the stars and stripes aside everything from shoes and party gowns, to locomotives and farm implements.(18) Even the Catholic Church took a step in this direction. Many native-born Americans believed that the Irish immigrants, a predominately Catholic group, were a plague to society with their diseases, laziness, and alcoholism. In order to promote health and morality among these immigrants, the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America was established to dissuade the consumption of alcohol. At the exhibition, the union erected a large fountain centered on the figure of Moses, the great law giver, and rooted in four Irish and Irish-Americans who fought for the causes of liberty and sobriety.(19) By putting the lives of Commodore Barry and the Carroll brothers on a pedestal, the union hoped to provide examples of excellence for this new wave of Irish-Americans.

Another Revolutionary-era icon exploited at the Centennial was the Liberty Bell. Its likeness, complete with its biblical quotation, had grown in significance through the nineteenth century, including its adoption as a symbol by abolitionist groups beginning in the 1830s. At the exhibition, it became an international symbol of the freedoms declared in 1776. In this image, representatives from the state of Kansas took a very creative approach to display their agricultural products with a twist of patriotism. Some suggested that the crack in the bell be repaired for this grand celebration, but by this time, the crack was a significant characteristic of this artifact, and was included on all miniature replicas.(20)

Although the nation's progress was the center of attention, the Centennial Exhibition also called attention to the ideals of liberty. Images of the figures Columbia, Liberty, and America prevailed throughout the art gallery and the fairgrounds. Almost all of these were images of young, strong women frozen in the driving motion of marching forward.(21) Dressed in the simple tunics of ancient Greek and Roman times, and usually donning a laurel wreath, these Liberty figures employed classical allusions to wisdom and stability. The Liberty figures at the Centennial included the first appearance of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's Liberty Enlightening the World, which would later be known simply as the Statue of Liberty.(22) This was one of many images of liberty which used torches to convey the concepts of enlightenment. Also drawing on these characteristics was the Statue of Religious Liberty; however this statue also holds the Constitution of the United States, an interesting addition to the standard image of liberty. Another very different image of liberty at the Centennial was The Freed Slave, one of the few representations of African Americans at the Exhibition, which depicted a black man clutching the Emancipation Proclamation while the newly broken chains dangled from his limbs.(23) Almost every pamphlet or publication concerning the Centennial Exhibition contained some form of reference to liberty or freedom, indicating that while the public was very interested in progress, they still understood the ideals which allowed their nation to flourish.

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 looked back on the history of the United States through the lens of progress. The public was interested in the nation's accomplishments and the idea that this country had grown from an infant into a strong and wise adult. The elements of American history that surfaced were employed to paint a picture of nationalism and patriotism as the United States found itself contending and competing among the most powerful, imperial nations of the world.  This is the picture of American identity that we discovered at Villanova as we extracted and synthesized information from the site of the Centennial, from books, images, and artifacts, and even from the World Wide Web.

1. David Silver, "Interfacing American Culture: The Perils and Potentials of Virtual Exhibitions," American Quarterly (December 1997): 825-850.

2. See David Prill, "World's Fair Mania," n.d., <> (9 April 1999).

3. "The Centennial Exhibition of 1876," November 1998-April 1999 <> (9 April 1999); Charlene Mires, "Material Culture," September-December 1998, <> (9 April 1999).

4. Thomas J. Schlereth, "The Centennial of 1876," in Artifacts and the American Past (Knoxville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1980), 130-42; Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 3-5.

5. "Terry's 1904 World's Fair Page," n.d., <> (9 April 1999).

6. Robert Rydell, All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at America's International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

7. Julie K. Rose, "World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath," 1 November 1996 <> (9 April 1999).

8. Quoted in Louis C. Hunter, A History of the Industrial Power in the United States

(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 298.

9. Nicholas Biello, "The Corliss Engine: A Cultural Colossus," 23 November 1998, <> (5 April 1999).

10. Melissa Cotter, "Horticultural Hall and the American Society of 1876," 23 November 1998, <> (5 April 1999).

11. Katie Alfonso, "The Shoe and Leather Building from the Centennial Exhibition," 23 November 1998, <> (5 April 1999).

12. Frank Leslie, Illustrated Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition 1876 (Paddington Press, 1974), ii.

13. Frank Etting, An Historical Account of The Old State House of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1891), 154.

14. Caroline Malloy, "Images on the Sheet Music of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and Their Importance Within the Symbolic Universe," 28 November 1998, <> (8 April 1999).

15. John Keigher, "Remembering the Revolution: Perceptions of Independence Hall, the Declaration, and the Liberty Bell in 1876," <> (8 April 1999).

16. Justin Sitron, "The American Flag at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876," 28 November 1998, <> (8 April 1999).

17. William Pierce Randel, Centennial: American Life in 1876 (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co., 1969), 301, 315.

18. Alfonso, "The Shoe and Leather Building"; Sitron, "The American Flag"; Adriana DiDomenico, "Popular Fashion Styles During the 1876 Centennial," 28 November 1998, <> (8 April 1999).

19. Patricia Ganjamie, "The Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain," 28 November 1998, <> (8 April 1999).

20. Keigher, "Remembering the Revolution."

21. Natalie Bergren, "The Evolution of Human Symbols of Liberty as a Result of the Centennial World's Fair," 28 November 1998 <> (8 April 1999).

22. Nicholas Belle, "The Statue of Liberty," 28 November 1998 <> (8 April 1999).

23. Tiana Odum, "African Americans and the Centennial," 28 November 1998 <> (8 April 1999).