Party Like It's 1876! 12 Items From the Centennial Exposition

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The 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, which was more commonly known as the Centennial Exposition, was held in Philadelphia in honor of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. From May through October, almost 10 million visitors, including repeat guests, wandered through the 249 temporary buildings and stayed in the temporary hotels constructed in and around Fairmount Park. These visitors were treated to more than 30,000 exhibits from all over the world, with each participating country determined to showcase its inventive clout. Here's a sampling of some of the more famous and bizarre items on display.

1. Corliss Steam Engine

The Corliss steam engine was assembled on a platform in the center of Machinery Hall, the main attraction inside the most popular building at the fair. After presiding over the opening ceremonies, President Ulysses S. Grant and his guest, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro, each pulled a lever to set the famed engine in motion. The impressive machine, which symbolized the United States' rise to industrial prominence, was nearly 50 feet tall and powered most of the machines within the 13-acre building.

2. The Telephone

While the Corliss steam engine initially attracted the largest crowds, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone would eventually become the talk of the fair. Bell, who hadn't planned to attend the event, gave the first public demonstration of his instrument on a sweltering afternoon in June, in front of an audience that included Emperor Pedro and Lord Kelvin. Bell picked up the transmitter and spoke into it. Standing 20 feet away, Empeor Pedro put the receiver up to his ear and famously remarked, "My God, it talks!" Lord Kelvin took the receiver and reportedly said, "It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in America."

3. Portable Bathtub

Ethelbert Watts, a Pennsylvania native who was cashier of the Centennial Board of Finance, introduced a portable bathtub made of rubberized cloth at the Exposition. The inspiration for Watts' invention was what he perceived as a lack of bathing services for travelers.

4. Typographic Machine

The typewriter on display at the Centennial Exposition wasn't nearly as popular with the judges or the public as Bell's telephone. It resembled a sewing machine and featured a QWERTY keyboard that produced only capital letters. The Remington No. 2, which was released in 1878, featured both upper- and lower-case letters on the same type bar. By 1893, Remington was producing typewriters in multiple languages.

5. Mechanical Calculator

George B. Grant, who holds four patents for calculators, displayed his barrel model difference machine in Philadelphia. The machine was 5 feet by 8 feet, weighed 2,000 pounds, and included 15,000 components. When hand-cranked, Grant's invention could calculate 10 to 12 terms per minute. When connected to a power source, its efficiency doubled. The machine received high praise from the judges, but by the 1880s, it was obsolete. Cheaper, more efficient, and—most importantly—smaller models hit the market.

6. Hires Root Beer

Charles Elmer Hires served free glasses of his recently perfected root beer from a booth at the exhibition, a refreshing treat for thirsty fairgoers. The average daily attendance at the fair was never greater than 34,000 between May and August, which was partly the result of a devastating heat wave. The average daily attendance in September and October spiked to roughly 80,000 and 100,000, respectively. Visitors to Hires' booth could purchase 25-cent packages of the dried roots, herbs, and bark that went into his root beer, along with three-ounce bottles of condensed extract. The following year, a local newspaper publisher convinced Hires to advertise his root beer and the rest was history.

7. Bananas

For many visitors, the Philadelphia Exposition was their first opportunity to try an exotic yellow fruit. Bananas, which were still a novelty in the United States and were often served with a knife and fork, were wrapped in tinfoil and sold for 10 cents apiece.

8. Popcorn

Citing records provided by the aforementioned Centennial Board of Finance, which managed to do its job even while some of its members were busy inventing portable bathtubs, the Philadelphia Record reported that a vendor paid $3,000 for the right to sell popcorn at Fairmount Park. "This in its way is as remarkable as the concession to lager at $50,000, and to catalogues at $100,000," the reporter opined. "Considering the cheapness of the delicacy, think how many tons of pop-corn must be sold at the fair in order to justify the merchants in paying $3,000 for the privilege of selling it!" Buttered popcorn was indeed a big hit at the Centennial Exposition. Charles Cretors would display some of his patented popcorn machinery at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

9. Kudzu

Kudzu was one of several ornamental plants exhibited in the Japanese pavilion. While the plant was first used in the United States after the Centennial Exposition as a decorative shade provider, it was later adopted for a much different purpose. When the Soil Erosion Service, which later became the Soil Conservation Service, was created as part of the New Deal, it began recommending kudzu as a means of erosion control. "What, short of a miracle, can you call this plant," Hugh H. Bennett, head of the SCS, remarked.

10. Lady Liberty's Arm and Torch


Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who began constructing the Statue of Liberty in 1876, sent the completed arm and torch to Philadelphia for display beginning in August. The torch display was part of a fundraising effort to help pay for the base of the to-be-completed statue. Visitors paid 50 cents to climb a ladder to the balcony around the torch. After the Centennial Exposition closed, the torch was displayed in New York City's Madison Square Garden for several years.

11. Monorail

Long before Disney World opened, General LeRoy Stone's monorail carried passengers around the fairgrounds at the Centennial Exposition. Stone's monorail ran more than 150 yards between Horticultural Hall and Agricultural Hall. The double-decker vehicle featured two main wheels and the rear wheel was powered by a rotary steam engine.

12. Iron Lifeboat

In its centennial look back at the Centennial Exposition, Popular Mechanics recalled the popularity of a lateen-rigged, noncapsizable iron lifeboat on display. "It boasted luxuries no one had ever seen before in a lifeboat—"˜covered accommodations for females and children, arrangements for water-saving, mail box, and required no lowering device.'"

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August 16, 2010 - 9:29am
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