Centennial Analysis
By Kathleen Cohrs  

Imagine a place where you can encounter wonderful yet mysterious new objects. Imagine a place where you can view beautiful Japanese art work, then turn the corner and come face to face with an Egyptian God or Goddess. Imagine a place where you can watch one single machine give power to an entire building and all that is displayed within the building and the surrounding area. If you lived in the year 1876, you would not have to imagine such a place because this place actually existed. The place was  Fairmount Park, the location of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The Centennial Exhibition was an extraordinary fair that brought many of the countries of the world together with America in hopes of displaying the unique elements and artifacts that made up each country. It was a world's fair that combined the opportunities of education as well as commercial venture for all who participated and attended.

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was not just a commercial venture on the part of the participants, although that was a good part of it. The exhibition consisted of many underlying factors that surfaced through various displays. In examining the exhibits of the Exhibition, three key themes come to mind: Celebration, Conflict, and Personal Expression. These three themes embodied the spirit behind the various exhibits at the fair, providing a different message to every person who viewed a particular exhibit. Through examining the various exhibits at the Centennial, it is safe to say that the Centennial Exhibition in all of its splendor and glory came to mean very different things to the very different people that attended the Exhibition.

America was the country in which this Exhibition was held. To Americans, the exhibition was an event of national celebration, especially because the year that it was held in was exactly one century after American independence was declared. The Exhibition displayed various artifacts that represented the objects and ideas that resulted due to American Independence.  Nearby, in Philadelphia, the memory of American independent was promoted by the display of such artifacts as the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, as well as Independence Hall. Through the display of these artifacts Americans linked objects that had once been of vital importance in achieving American Independence and now were portrayed as icons of American civilization as well as means to promote celebration for Americans everywhere.

To other countries, the Centennial Exhibition offered not only an opportunity to celebrate who they have become, but also an opportunity to educate individuals on who they are. Robert C. Frost, author of A Centennial Exhibition wrote, "Countries little known to Americans took the opportunity to introduce their culture as well as their products to the United States."(1) The interesting factor surrounding many of the different countries attendance at the Exhibition was the fact that they wanted to present themselves as a growing part of the "modern world." Americans had for a long time believed that they were the epitome of the word "modern."  This can be seen in the context the Corliss Engine, one of the main exhibits at the Centennial.  Many of the participating countries wanted to compete with this image. Countries such as Japan and Egypt wanted to prove to the people who attended the fair that they too were also becoming a large part of the " modern world."

Take the Egyptian exhibit for example. The people of Egypt wanted to represent the fact that Egypt could compete economically with the rest of the world, so they set up a display representing their advancing cotton industry, portraying the fact that they could be compete with America in price as well as quality. At the same time the Egyptians did not want to turn away from the ancient beliefs and customs that the country was built upon. This was seen through their display of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. This pull between the modern and the ancient world of Egyptian society exemplifies a conflict of desires that was portrayed through the Egyptian exhibit. This conflict of desires was not unique to Egypt. Through the exhibits of many of the countries who attended the fair, this same element can be seen through analyzing the artifacts at the particular exhibits. This element of conflict combined with the factor of celebration created a very unique spirit behind the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

The last underlying factor found through the examination of the exhibits was that of personal expression. It is obvious that every exhibit was an attempt for each particular country to express itself to the people of America and the rest of the world.  It is interesting to see how each particular artifact at the exhibit achieved this goal in one way or another. Take the African American exhibit. The African American exhibit was very small. In fact, there were basically only two main type of artifacts that represented the African American people, a statue and paintings. Although the African American representation was limited to these few artifacts, these people were able to express who they were and who they had become to all who viewed their exhibit. African Americans were not the only group of individuals who were able to combine the factors of celebration and personal expression through the representation of their artifacts at the fair.  Other groups such women and Native Americans also took the opportunity to celebrate who they had become through personal expression of their artifacts, creating a wonderful spirit to the Centennial Exhibition.

The few exhibits that have been mentioned in the above paragraphs only touch on the vast amount of worldly representation found at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. There were far too many artifacts and exhibits at Centennial Exhibition than can be discussed in these few introductory paragraphs. That is why this web site has been created. The research that makes up this web site has been extensive by all individuals involved. As you continue scrolling through this web site it is important to remember that the Centennial Exhibition was a wonderful celebration of world wide culture, beliefs and achievements as well as embodying a unique spirit of conflict and personal expression by all who participated.
To continue to explore the Centennial, click on "Centennial Topics" below.


1. Robert C. Post, A Centennial Exhibition (Smithsonian Institute: The Natural Museum of History and Technology, 1976), 18.