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U.S. Centennial Exhibition

It was a near thing. There might have been no Centennial Exhibition in 1876 at all. Congress not only declined to provide funds but even passed a bill relieving the United States of liability for "any expenses attending such an exhibition." Congress, or part of it, doubted that the nation had anything worth showing. Moreover, times were hard - 1873 had seen a stock market crash. Would people be able to afford to come? Nevertheless, thanks to a few believers, chief among them a newspaperman named Joseph R. Hawley, the exhibition opened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1876, two months short of the nation's one hundredth birthday. It was one of the grand public events of our history.

There were millions of things to see - lathes, drills, locomotives, livestock, plows, paintings, statuary (including the arm and torch of a "Statue of Independence," later the Statue of Liberty). There were lamps, beds, hayracks, gadgets, and a talking box from Alexander Graham Bell. In sum it was overwhelming testimony to what the new nation had accomplished, and what it intended to become, a nation of FORTY MILLIONS OF FREEMEN RULING FROM OCEAN TO OCEAN, as on poster read. Joseph Hawley remarked that while we might not have any Raphaels, "we had a nation to show." And an announcement to make, to ourselves and the world, that a new industrial giant had arrived.

Almost ten million visitors passed through the gates (admission, $.50) before the Centennial closed in the fall. Most of the exhibitions were sent home, but a freight train loaded with donations was soon packed up and on its way to Washington - and the Smithsonian had no place to put any of it. Congress soon after established the U.S. National Museum and built a house for it - the Arts and Industries Building, completed in 1881.

From Shirley Abbott, The National Museum of American History, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1981) 199.


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