Walt Whitman and the Centennial Exhibition
America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions. . . .
-Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass
Walt originally wrote Song of the Exposition for the Annual Exhibition of the American Institute in 1871, where he also recited it, however it was later taken up by the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The spirit of the poem was just as relevant.
The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was arguable the largest non-war spectacle to ever grace American soil. Between May and November of that year, nearly ten million visitors converged upon West Fairmount Park in Philadelphia to experience what was officially called the International Exhibit of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine. It brought in over 30,000 firms—9,222 of which were American—to present their goods. Walt certainly would have approved. In I Hear America Singing, he invokes the mechanic, the carpenter, the boatman, the shoemaker, the wood-cutter, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”. Were that the case, the Centennial Exhibition would serve as a choir for America’s workers of industry, agriculture, and manufacture alike, as the country did not only celebrate its Independence with this event, but to showcase the profound progress and accumulation of wealth since then. This is echoed also in Song of the Exposition:
Mark the spirit of invention everywhere, thy rapid patents,
Thy continual workshops, foundries, risen or rising,
See, from their chimneys how the tall flame-fires stream.
Mark, thy interminable farms, North, South,
Thy wealthy daughter-states, Eastern and Western,
The varied products of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri,
Georgia, Texas, and the rest,
Thy limitless crops, grass, wheat, sugar, oil, corn, rice,
Thy barns all fill’d, the endless freight-train and the bulging
Thy grapes that ripen on thy vines, the apples in thy orchards,
Thy incalculable lumber, beef, pork, potatoes, thy coal, thy
gold and silver,
The inexhaustible iron in thy mines.
And while it’s true that agriculture was well represented at the Centennial, it was the inventions that set America far apart from the rest. Sure, the introduction of Heinz ketchup, popcorn, Hires root beer, and bananas to the American public were fascinating and tasty revelations, but couldn’t hold a candle to some other truly world-changing exhibits. For one, a Scottish immigrant, by way of Canada, holding U.S. patent 174,465, unveiled to Exhibition visitors the manifestation of his experiments with sound. Yes, if you were lucky enough to make a trip out to the Centennial Exhibition, you would have seen first hand Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The Remington Typographic Machine was also presented, the most efficient and successful typewriter of its time. These two devices ushered in a new era of communication. But the most powerful of all the machines and knickknacks and displays was the Corliss Steam Engine, which powered virtually all of the exhibits in Machinery Hall.
Yes, the Centennial was grand in size and scope. 250 buildings were built on 285 of Fairmount Park’s then 2,740 acres. The five major buildings were the Main Exhibition Building, Machinery Hall, Agricultural Hall, Horticultural Hall, and Memorial Hall.
Walt marveled the enormity of the Exhibition’s Main Building when he said, “looking up a long while at the grand high roof with its graceful and multitudinous work of iron rods, angles, gray colors, plays of light and shade, receding into dim outlines.” His sentiment was hardly without exaggeration. The Main Building was a colossal achievement as far as architecture goes. The Board of Finance for the Centennial described the extensive amount of components needed to build it: “Some idea of the large amount of material which enters into the requirements of a structure covering 20 acres may be formed from the statement that to complete it 3,928 tons of iron must be rolled and fitted, 237,646 square feet of glass made and set, 1,075,000 square feet of tin roof-sheeting (equal to 24 -5/8 acres welded and spread” (Giberti 85). Indeed, in the end the Main Exhibition Building would cover a ridiculous 21.47 acres after all was said and done. Of that acreage, the American section of the Building, situated in the southeast corner, covered 187,700 square feet, far and away the largest exhibition space of any country. And in keeping with the worldly spirit of things, other countries’ exhibition spaces were laid out in accordance to their geographic closeness to America. Thus, England, France and Canada would be closer, and Japan and China would be on the far outskirts. (Gross and Snyder 29).
How long to build such a massive structure? A few years? A decade? No, the idea behind such a building is that it is not meant to be permanent. Most of the building was prefabricated, and set up like a series of sheds right in a row. The process took a mere 18 months, at a cost of $1.78 million—about $26 million today (Gross 29). The breadth of this undertaking might’ve even had Walt thinking twice after writing, “All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;/Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of the arches and cornices?” (Song of Myself 94).
The Exhibition also proved to be more than a one-up show of America’s might and a long procession of displays and exhibits. It was an affair of togetherness. It was countries from all over the world, people gathering from all over the world, in one place to impress and amaze with exotic and local wares. In a gesture of solidarity, France constructed for America the Statue of Liberty, which, while not completed and dedicated until 1886, made a partial (literally) appearance at the Centennial. The Statue’s right, torch-bearing arm was a popular sight to see for Exhibition-goers, and for 50 cents you could climb a winding stair to the top. Even standing atop this mere fraction of the Statue of Liberty granted people a nice view of the Exhibition grounds. The solidarity is something Walt would have appreciated. If I can interpret This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful on a broader scale, I think it effectively encapsulates the closeness of these otherwise faraway nations:
It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning
It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,
Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking
And it seems to me if I could know those men I should
become attached to them as I do to me in my own
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.
While Walt never wrote explicitly on the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, I think it’s clear that implicit within this astounding event are many of his ideas: The celebration of the self, of the common worker, progression, invention, the harvest of crops and ideas. He allows himself to stand in wonderment of the fruition of these when he observes the incredible Main Building. And all in all, what is a successful world fair without people coming together?
If I can make an ancillary note here, the only buildings still standing in Fairmount Park from the Centennial Exhibition are the Memorial Hall and Ohio House. Memorial Hall became home to the Please Touch Museum in October 2008 after many years of disuse. The Please Touch Museum includes an extremely fascinating section devoted to the Centennial Exhibition, including a scaled replica of the entire Exhibition grounds. It’s something worth checking out. Ohio House, also abandoned for many years, has been renovated and turned into the Centennial Café, where I can attest to the delicious Turkey Club and Tomato Bisque soup found on the Café’s lunch menu.