Mystery and Marvel
Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition
Imprint: Brookline Books
216 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 43 mono illustrations
- May 2024
The Centennial was America’s first world’s fair, taking place only twenty-five years after the first international exposition in London. The exhibition was a paean to progress by people fascinated by science and technology. The organizers—largely leading Pennsylvania industrialists and merchants—wanted to show the world that the United States was as advanced as any nation in Europe and for the most part their plan succeeded. Everyday Americans attended the fair to be reassured of their nation’s economic and technological past, present, and future.
Mystery and Marvel looks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition through the eyes of the ten million visitors to the fair to help us understand the technological enthusiasm of middle-class Victorians. Although this enthusiasm was not unbounded and was occasionally tinged with a combination of nostalgia and uncertainty, overall the women and men of the late nineteenth century were usually happy to be part of a world they thought was as modern and as cutting edge as the one we live in today. In and around the buildings that appeared in the city’s Fairmount Park that spring and summer were the physical embodiments of this culture. The sights, the sounds, and even the smells of the exhibition presaged the coming of a modern America. In 1876 Philadelphia was the nation’s largest manufacturing city and Pennsylvania one of the most important industrial states. The exposition can serve as a wonderful lens to examine America’s shift from the young agricultural republic of 1800 to the industrial empire of 1900.
1. Visiting the Centennial: “How anxious you are to see everything at once!”
2. The Spectacle of History: “The progress of America from savage to civilized life.”
3. The Spectacle of Technology: “An unprecedented display of machinery.”
4. The Spectacle of Size and Abundance: “Saw Many Wonderful Things.”
5. The Spectacle of Interior Space: “A vast room, about one-third of a mile in length.”
6. The Spectacle of City Planning: “It is a little city with its mansions and halls and streets and fountains.”
7. The Spectacle of Classification: “[I]t is the foundation of organization and effort.”
Conclusion: Between the Past and Future