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Swedish Women at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876
By Kim Tung
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all that’s nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
What are little boys made of?
Snaps and snails
And puppy dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.

                                       --Anonymous nursery rhyme

It is likely that the majority of us have heard this nursery rhyme at one time or another, and have smiled upon its recognition. We tend to not take it seriously since we believe that it is just a cute and innocent caricature of young girls and boys. Yet on another level, it expresses that females and males possess differences, and as a result, they must both be treated in different manners. This belief remains as the fundamental reason why gender roles and inequalities exist. Societies, all over the world, are still battling to eliminate the imbalance of power among women and men. At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition at Fairmount Park, people from all across the globe came to Philadelphia to convey messages about their culture. Through the various objects contained in each exhibit in the Woman’s Pavilion and the Main Building, countries such as Sweden managed to depict not only their culture, but the various roles that women were expected to play in their society as well.

Sweden invested much time, thought and effort into their exhibit at the Centennial Exhibition. Elizabeth K. Churchill, a writer for The New Century for Woman, states, "Not even Russia has a more interesting exhibit in the Main Building than that of Sweden." Women in nineteenth century Sweden were expected to be passive, silent, and patient. By the 1870s however, women began to demand equal rights. Equality between sexes for working classes was acceptable, yet for the higher classes, attaining gender equality was something that was thought to never happen. If upper class women wanted to maintain a job, acceptable professions would be those such as teaching, story writing, and bank clerks. The idea that they would ever be able to achieve the status of doctors, lawyers, civil servants, and politicians was considered to be an impossibility.

One portion of their display in the Main Building includes peasant groups made of plaster. There are six of these groups, and all of them appear to be life-like. They are painted, and dressed in costumes actually worn in the
various provinces represented. The six groups communicate to observers the role of women in the Swedish peasant family. It can be interpreted that gender equality can be seen in one of the six groups. The display tells of a love story. The wife of a clock maker brings to her husband’s attention the lover of their daughter. According to Elizabeth K. Churchill, "A shade of distrust is on the father’s honest face, but we knew that it will give place to approval so soon as his eyes cast upon the ingenuous youth, who is confident of success because he has not only the maiden, but her mother on his side." It is apparent that the lover knows that the mother has influence in the home. He is well aware that the father will not remain with such an attitude of disapproval because he respects his wife’s opinion. The married couple seem to have an equal amount of say as to what goes on in their daughter’s life.

Another scene that is depicted from the plaster sculptures is a rather depressing one. It shows a contrast in how opposite genders react to the loss of a child. The scene is of a young mother who is kneeling over the cradle of her dead child. Her head is bowed, and she possesses an attitude of despair. The father also shows a sign of grief, yet it is not as intense as the mother’s. He sits at the head of the cradle and looks towards his mourning wife. This Swedish exhibit manages to portray how most men and women are expected to act during a crisis. Usually, it is accepted for the woman to cry and let out her emotions, while the man is supposed to remain composed. He is not supposed to express his emotions as openly as the female.

The distinct gender roles that Sweden imposes can also be made clear after comparing the exhibits on the whole, within the Main Building and the Woman’s Pavilion. The Swedish exhibit in the Main Building, not only includes the peasant family scenes that are made of plaster, but it also displays an iron and steel section, a military exhibit, and an exhibit on the various technical schools. There are plaster male figures who are dressed in military costume. They hold spears, swords, and rifles, and wear heavy breast plates and tin helmets. They represent the soldiers of this age. All of the protective gear that they wear implies that they are ready for serious battles. Only men are portrayed as these strong defenders of the country. The Swedish section of the Main Building remains very cold. There is nothing that is particularly welcoming.

On the other hand however, the Swedish section of the Woman’s Pavilion looks as though it is someone’s home. Geometrical tapestries hang from the walls. Some of them are placed in such a way that they appear to be curtains for a window that does not really exist in the exhibit. Certain objects are kept within several glass cases. The objects within these cases indicate something of importance, otherwise they would not be displayed in such a showy way. Inside one of the glass cases, that is located in the center of the exhibit, are dishes. This implies that women were expected to take care of things in the kitchen, and cook and serve the meals. Since this case is located in the center, it also indicates that these dishes have much relevance. If they were not so important, they would not be displayed in the center of the display. In another glass case, there is a pocket handkerchief. Mary L. Sherman, who is another writer for The New Century for Woman magazine writes, "The embroidery on the handkerchief is virtually a delicate sketch in fine thread of the Woman’s Building, a Swede Church, a Swede State House, and two oval designs, the obverse and reverse of an American medal." Many objects in the Woman’s Pavilion are described as being "delicate" or "pretty." The use of these adjectives reflects the attitudes of how women were supposed to be perceived. The handkerchief that is in the glass case depicts the importance that the Woman’s Building had to many Swedish women. The woman who made the handkerchief, placed it alongside other meaningful buildings, such as the church and a government house. It can be inferred that the women of Sweden were proud to have this pavilion, and thought that it had as much significance as religion and politics. The American medal that is sketched on the handkerchief could have several interpretations as to what it signifies. I feel that it was Sweden’s tribute to America. By incorporating something American into the work, the artist was in a way, saluting the country and thanking the Americans for giving them this opportunity to represent not only their country, but their gender as well.

As oppose to the plaster figures in the Main Building, which for the most part represented male dominance, male strength, and male courage, the plaster figures in the Woman’s Pavilion represent the female’s subservience, immaturity, and innocence. There is an emphasis on what the figures are wearing, rather than their purpose. One of the figures is of a girl who is plucking at a daisy. She has just returned from church, and her bible can be seen under her handkerchief. She is portrayed as a good little girl.  By analyzing the plaster figures, decorations, and various displays, one is able to gain a certain perspective on the Swedish society of 1876. It is interesting to compare the male dominated exhibits, with the exhibits that were dominated by the women. It can be assumed that the women of Sweden were expected to be quiet and obedient. The "delicate" art work that the women produced symbolizes the delicacy that the Swedish women were expected to possess. Their main priority was to take care of things in the house. They were to cook and sew. It is apparent that there was a real emphasis on these tasks because of the way in which the dishes and handkerchiefs were displayed. They were in fancy, glass cases that were centrally located. associated with any act of disobedience. She wears a white dress, which is the color of purity. She also has ribbons in her hair. This adds to her youthfulness. Overall, the Swedish women’s exhibit communicates female subordination. In reference to how others perceived the exhibit, Mary L. Sherman writes, "Those whose ideas are not supposed to range below Italian sculpture, glance first with a slightly sarcastic smile of tolerant superiority, and then linger, with the air of a parent who, though he himself has outgrown such foolishness, goes to the circus---to gratify the children."

All in all, within the Main Building and Woman’s Building at the Centennial Exhibition, there were many objects that communicated something about each country that was represented.  Though by the year 1876, women had already begun to demand equal rights in Sweden, there was still a very distinct boundary between men and women. The struggle to achieve equality among genders remains a serious issue. It has been a long fight, yet slowly we are progressing. Today, there still remains issues between men and women that need to be addressed, and as a result, the battle of the sexes continues.

Photographs linked to this page are used with the permission of the Print and Picture Collection, The Free Library of Philadelphia.
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Copyright 1998 by Kim Tung
Kim Tung, Swedish Women at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, 23 November 1998,