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  • Writer's pictureGeorgie Gould

1876 Centennial Exhibition - No Small Feat

Recent Donation to RMWHS Archive Inspires a Look Back at the Centennial

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Held in Philadelphia in 1876, the Centennial Exhibition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was also the first World's Fair held in the United States. The flourishing of the young country and the fact that Philadelphia would play host to such an important historic and international event was a source of great local pride. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition provided an opportunity to showcase American products, crops, resources, and technical know-how as well as display our patriotism and love of country to an international audience.


In honor of the Centennial event in 1876, the Roxborough Baptist Church (RBC) published a poster measuring approximately 18" x 24" featuring details about the church and highlighting the 5 main exhibition halls created for the international event.


As of the date of this posting, RMWHS archivists don't know how many posters RBC printed or how the poster was distributed. It is possible they were created just for members or area residents to commemorate the event and attract new members to the church. Or, quite possibly, the posters could have been sold locally as a fundraiser. Further digging in the newly acquired Roxborough Baptist Church collection* is needed to see if we can unearth any of these details. However, it is the details of the poster itself this post will highlight as no one living today has any firsthand knowledge of the event.

1876 Roxborough Baptist Church Poster
New to the RMWHS Collection: 1876 Roxborough Baptist Church Poster

The monumental undertaking involved with the organization and logistics of hosting an event like the Centennial is not understood or fully appreciated by most Americans today. But by focusing on a few details in very small print included on the Roxborough Baptist Church, RMWHS to not only stir up interest in our newly acquired collection, but also help to drive home the size and scope of the 1876 Centennial that most people don't truly appreciate.

 

A Colossal Event


Held in Philadelphia from May 10 to November 10, 1876, the exposition spanned from Spring to Fall. This first World's Fair held in the U.S. also boasted the participation of 37 countries and drew nearly 10 million visitors during the 6-month span. To give you a present-day comparison, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom drew in the same number of visitor in a 6-month span in 2018.


As a kid who was fortunate enough to suffer weaving through the crowds at the Magic Kingdom under the Florida sun in Spring, I can appreciate the crowd size at the Centennial in Philadelphia during July. But unlike heading to Disney or any vacation today, the 10 million Centennial visitors did it without the convenience of airplane or car, vrbo or airbnb, Uber or Lyft, smartphones or computers, or even a 1970s rotary-dial telephone.

View of fairgrounds from hot air balloon
Image Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

With the colossal exhibition halls and more than 200 buildings, there is no doubt it took a few days to see everything, and some of the visitors came more than once, but that does not take away from the fact the average daily attendance would have been just around 47,000 people. That's several thousand more than Citizen's Bank Park can hold. And, on Thursday, September 28, 1876, the Centennial saw its largest attendance with more than 250,000 visitors. To put that record breaking attendance into wider perspective, the population of Philadelphia in 1876 was estimated to be only about 700,000 while the U.S. population was estimated to be 45 million.


The photo below of the Centennial's opening day reminds me of the crowds at Vatican City on Easter Sunday. But this concentration of people was likely not typical of the 1876 event. The Centennial fairgrounds spanned 285 acres -- which dwarfs the 107 acres of Magic Kingdom but almost matches the 305 acres of Disney's Epcot. For those who can't relate the Disney size-comparison -- the Upper Roxborough Reservoir is 34 acres, King of Prussia Mall covers only 15 acres, Mann Music Center campus is about 22 acres, Hershey Park is 121 acres, Dorney Park & Wild Water Kingdom is 200 acres, and Penn Campus in West Philadelphia is approximately 302 acres.

Opening Day
Opening Day Image Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia

The coordination, planning, and labor force required to pull together all that was needed for an international event of this size with 6-month duration in 1876 should not be underestimated. Not only did 5 great halls need to be built to shelter the key exhibits as well as a building for each country participating, but also new hotels and accommodations, restaurants, comfort pavilions, and more. The Centennial plans needed to ensure visitors could be housed, fed, and cared for as well as the enormous staff, dedicated police force and fire brigade that was required to support the event. A building dedicated for medical services was set up to attend to anyone in need right at the fairgrounds with a staff of doctors and nurses in residence. What's more, all of this had to be built in Fairmount Park with completely new networks of roads, sewer, water, and a means of transporting and shuttling not only supplies on a daily basis, but also tens of thousands of attendees to, through, and around the event itself.


The Centennial was a Herculean accomplishment that Walt Disney himself undoubtedly took a long, hard look at 100 years later when planning his little getaway spot in Florida. In fact, I chuckled to learn the futuristic monorail Walt Disney famously introduced in the Magic Kingdom in 1971 was not quite so new or novel as the 1876 event featured the Centennial Monorail that connected two of the exhibition halls together almost 100 years earlier right here in Philadelphia. No, it was not as long, sleek, or fast as Walt's monorail, but I have no doubt he considered the Centennial and a great many World's Fairs before buying up land in the Sunshine State.

The grounds and buildings of US Centennial International Exhibitio
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Officially named the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, the Centennial Exposition had one critical difference from Disney World that must be pointed out -- this international destination for millions was meant to be temporary. At the end of the six-months, this pop-up city consisting of more than 200 buildings would eventually be dismantled and the materials and parts would all be sold off. The only great hall built for the event that still stands is Memorial Hall, the present home to the Please Touch Museum. Unlike the other 4 main halls, Memorial Hall was not built as a temporary structure to be dismantled -- as it was created for permanence as it had to house and safeguard the great artwork it displayed from participating countries around the world.


Given this "temporary" factor of the Centennial, some may argue the feat of pulling off the 1876 Centennial event may be more accurately compared to the creation of some modern-day Olympic villages. However, the Centennial lasted 6 times longer than our modern Olympics and required more than twice the capacity of the 2016 Olympic village in Rio de Janeiro -- the largest village ever built for an Olympics.

torch and hand of Statue of Liberty
Image of Colossal Hand & Torch of "Statue of Liberty" Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia

Not all structures were quite so elaborate as the main halls as can be seen in the photo above. This structure was built to showcase the special visitor to the Centennial. The hand and torch of Lady Liberty herself graced the Centennial with a six month stay long before she took up permanent residence in New York Harbor in 1886. The Philadelphia event was just one stop along her American tour to raise money to complete the work on Liberty Island.

 

Taking A Closer Look at the Poster

The amazing detail tucked away in small print on the RBC poster is the length and width of the 5 main exhibition buildings. It almost appeared as art detail rather than information to my old eyes on the worn printed poster. It was not until the document was scanned and I could clearly see the numbers on my computer that I truly appreciated what it was showing me.


When discussing the size of a building, measurements can be dry, meaningless numbers. So, to better understand the size of the five largest 1876 Exhibition buildings, I'll compare them to buildings we have in Philadelphia today, including: the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Reading Terminal Market, and the Philadelphia skyline.

 

Main Exhibition Building

Main Exchibition Building
Enlargement of the Main Exhibition Building artwork on the Roxborough Baptist Church Poster

When the Main Exhibition Building was completed, it was the largest building in the world measuring 1876 feet long x 464 feet wide. The length of the Main Exhibition building reflected the year and made it a colossal creation. The Main Exhibition Hall if stood on end would dwarf the height of the tallest building in Philadelphia's skyline today (Comcast's new Innovation & Technology Center) by 700 feet.

Skyline of Philadelphia Chart

Compared to the Pennsylvania Convention Center downtown, the Main Exhibition Building had a footprint that was 1.5x times longer and about 1.5x wider. It would be a monstrous sized structure in 2023 and must have been a truly formidable sight to behold in 1876. Traversing a building so large before sneakers or the invention of air conditioning seems daunting. I cringe at the thought of walking more than 10 miles of aisles and displays within the Main Exhibition building in a bustle and corset as would have been the norm.

(Note: The photo below shows only HALF of the building -- the right side of the photo cuts off half at the main entrance at this end of building.)

Photo of Main Building
Image of Main Exhibition Building Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia

Exhibits from China, Russia, Canada, and PA (Baldwin Locomotive of Phila featured) on display in the Main Hall. All images are courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia.

 

Agricultural Hall

Agricultural Hall
Enlargement of the Agricultural Hall artwork on the Roxborough Baptist Church Poster

At 820 feet long and 540 feet wide, Agricultural Hall has a slightly smaller footprint than the present-day Pennsylvania Convention Center. However, like some of the other great halls for the Centennial, there were various wings and towers and an array of window and skylights to bring sunlight into the building. Also, as can be seen in both the poster's artwork and the photo below, the roof appears fitted with great vents for air flow which is an obvious necessity for an event that spans the summer months and could have held thousands of visitors at any one time.

Agricultural Hall
Image of Agricultural Hall Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia
NJ State Exhibit
Image of NJ State Exhibit in Agricultural Hall Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia
 

Horticultural Hall

Horticultural Hall
Enlargement of the Horticultural Hall artwork on the Roxborough Baptist Church Poster

Horticultural Hall was 383 feet long x 193 feet wide -- just slightly bigger than Reading Terminal Market. Its curved glass like that of a greenhouse and provides ample light for the plants exhibited within.

Horticultural Hall
Image of Horticultural Hall Courtesy of the Philadelphia Free Library
Horticultural Hall during construction
Image of Horticultural Hall Construction Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia

The construction image above gives some perspective to the towering height within and highlights the decorative arches that would encircle the exhibit.

Inside Horticultural Hall
Image of Horticultural Hall from Inside Event Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia

A view of the Horticultural Hall exhibit may seem familiar to many who have attended the annual Philadelphia Flower Show we enjoy today.

 

Machinery Hall

Machinery Hall
Enlargement of the Machinery Hall artwork on the Roxborough Baptist Church Poster

Machinery Hall was 1402 feet long x 360 feet wide -- about twice as long as Three Logan Square is tall, and twice as wide. Or, if compared to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Machinery Hall was about 100 feet longer and 50 feet wider. Machinery and technology from sewing machines to weapons of war were on display -- inventions from around the world spanning everything from creation to destruction.

Machinery Hall
Image of Machinery Hall Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia
Machinery Hall
Image of Inside Machinery Hall Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia
 

Memorial Hall

Memorial Hall
Enlargement of the Memorial Hall artwork on the Roxborough Baptist Church Poster

Memorial Hall stands at 365 feet long x 210 feet wide and is the only grand hall remaining from the Centennial. With an overall footprint just a pinch larger than Reading Terminal Market, Memorial Hall served as the Art Museum for the 1876 Exhibition.


Following the event, Memorial Hall went on to serve as home to the precursor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art before it finally moved to its current location. And in 1976, upon its own centennial (how fitting), Memorial Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Images of American & Italian art & sculpture courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia


For any curious local, Memorial Hall is something you can check out for yourself as it's just a quick ride over the Schuylkill River -- and it is well worth the short trip. Even if you opt to just walk around the building to take in the setting, those who have not been there before will appreciate the enduring beauty of the structure. However, if you want to see more, Memorial Hall serves as home to the Please Touch Museum, and a ticket will allow you to explore the building from within. It is also a popular wedding venue.

Lobby in Memorial Hall
Lobby in Memorial Hall

Please note a spectacular must-see feature inside Memorial Hall is tucked away in the Centennial display located in basement.


A special room dedicated to the history of the Centennial, located in the basement, is home to the 20' x 40' scale model of the entire fairgrounds. This model was created in 1876 and displayed at the Centennial itself. It is a historic gem that kept 3 generations of my family pointing and exploring for more than an hour. From children who wanted to look at all the tiny figures to the older generations who stood considering the massive scale of engineering, communication, and co-operation required -- the Centennial model had us mesmerized.

 
Inquirier on Centennial miniature
 

While this post only touches on a small bit of info regarding the Centennial, I hope it has stirred your interest in discovering more about this amazing event in our local history. But I have an even greater hope that this post might have you looking more closely at the details on objects you might not typically give a second glance -- you never know what hidden bit of history may be found if you look a bit closer.


If you are interested in learning more about RMWHS's recently donated* collection of Roxborough Baptist Church items, please contact us.

 

Explore More Centennial Info Online

 

UPDATE: Since publishing this item, RMWHS has gotten inquiries about the the fate of specific buildings. While we don't have a full list, this local article may help to get you started on your hunt for the rest.

Philadelphia Daily News article
Philadelphia Daily News - May 8, 2009
 

*Special Thanks

Special thanks to Pastor Jake Rainwater and the Epic Church for placing the Roxborough Baptist Church poster and other items into RMWHS' care. The donated items include church books, hymnals, photos, negatives, membership records, correspondence, publications, cemetery records, burial records, maps, and much more.

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