Wednesday, August 6, 2014

At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

I was thinking about subjects for my next blog post when I came across this book that had been tucked away on a shelf in one of our collections storage areas. Well, I had already been planning to write more about the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, so clearly now was the time.

The book’s full title is Frank Leslie’s Historical Register of the United States Centennial Exposition, 1876. Embellished with nearly Eight Hundred Illustrations drawn expressly for this Work by the most Eminent Artists in America. Including illustrations and descriptions of all previous international exhibitions, and containing much useful information, and statistics of the foreign countries represented at the exposition. And it certainly lives up to its name.

Frank Leslie was the publisher of the popular literary and news magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. In an era before the development of the halftone printing process, which allowed for inexpensive reproduction of photographs, Leslie’s (like other periodicals) relied upon engravings for illustration. The Historical Register contains an impressive array of highly detailed engravings, many covering the full 11 x 17 page or even double-page spreads, depicting the buildings, exhibits, and events of the Exposition. Those who were not among the fair’s 10 million visitors could experience it through the pictures and descriptions in this book.

The Exposition was, of course, timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But more than that, it was intended to show just how far the United States had come in its relatively short life. Exhibits of raw materials and agricultural products demonstrated the natural bounty of the United States, while displays of machinery and manufactured goods showed the incredible progress of American science and technology. 

Eureka Grain Cleaning Machinery

E.J. Larrabee & Co., Manufacturer of Biscuits and Crackers

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Heinz ketchup, the Remington typewriter, and Fleischmann’s yeast were among the many consumer products first exhibited to the public at the Centennial Exposition. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of the fair, and of American progress, was the great Corliss Engine, a massive two-cylinder steam engine that powered the exhibits in Machinery Hall.

President Ulysses S. Grant and the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II,
started the Corliss Engine as part of the opening ceremonies.

There were also a number of exhibits that explicitly compared the America of 1776 with the America of 1876 in order to emphasize the theme of progress. For example, an exhibit of sewing machines in Machinery Hall also contained two “life-size wax figures, representing the different styles of dress work in 1776 and 1876, showing such a marked contrast that they were much admired and excited considerable amusement.” Visitors could also see the Centennial Brewery exhibit, which included a model of a “brewery of 100 years ago, when all the labor was done by hand under a shed, the roof rudely thatched with straw.” This was contrasted with “a neat model of the modern brewery,” showing “all the machinery in use at the present day.”

But perhaps the most popular, and most often remarked-upon, exhibit of this type was the New England Kitchen. The Historical Register described it thus:

“Near the summit of the hill, on the southern side of this valley, and snugly nestled among the tall trees which are now in the freshness of renewed life, is a quaint structure of that style of architecture which characterized the backwoodsman’s cot in Vermont or Connecticut one hundred years ago. It is called the New England Log Cabin. In connection with it is a building of familiar architecture, and called the New England Modern Kitchen. Taken together, they are designed to exhibit a comparison between the manner of carrying on culinary operations and attending table a century ago, and that of doing the same things at present in the Eastern States. A combination of quaint architecture, antiquated furniture, and the epochal costumes of the attendants, gives one a pleasing view of life in New England a century ago.”

Exterior of the New England Log Cabin
Inside the cabin, the exhibit’s organizer, Emma Southwick, had arranged “ancient articles,” interesting to visitors because of their age or connection to historical figures. These included the cradle supposedly used by Peregrine White, who was born aboard the Mayflower in 1620; John Alden’s writing desk, another Mayflower passenger; a chair owned by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock; a silver teapot used by the Marquis de Lafayette; and a sword used by Captain Nathan Barrett at the battle of Concord in 1775. These pieces were joined by a number of other anonymous pieces of tableware and furniture “said to be” anywhere between 100 and 400 years old.

Exhibit of "Washington Relics" in the United States Building

As a number of historians of the colonial revival have noted, for most of the 19th century, early American objects were considered worthy of preservation and display because they were “relics” of an earlier time, and because they had direct connections to important people or events. These objects were not antiques with aesthetic value in the way we might think of them today. Exhibitors like Emma Southwick were not particularly concerned with establishing the exact provenance or age of their collections—if something looked like it came from great-grandmother’s time, that was good enough for most people.

Though the Centennial Exposition as a whole was designed to play up the theme of progress, the historical exhibits ultimately had the effect of raising interest in and appreciation for America’s colonial past. Over the next decades, Americans would become increasingly enthusiastic about collecting and preserving colonial furniture, ceramics, textiles, and decorative arts, along with houses and even entire towns. They would also come to better understand the historical context of these items as well as to appreciate them as art objects and as examples of a distinctly American cultural tradition that could compare with the best of European design.

As the frontispiece for the Historical Register illustrates, the Centennial Exposition was a way for Americans to show the rest of the world that they were products of a venerable past and that they had a boundless future to look forward to.

You can browse a digital copy of the book here: Frank Leslie's Historical Register

No comments:

Post a Comment