In 1876, the eyes of every American were trained on the heart of Philadelphia as a celebration for the ages played out from May to November. The grand Centennial Exhibition marked the 100th anniversary of the United States' independence with a spectacle on a scale never before seen in the country; a showcase of the nation's progress, innovation, industry and might. Against the backdrop of failed Reconstruction reforms following the Civil War, the Centennial attempted to unify a still divided nation.
Almost ten million visitors visited the Exhibition in its seven-month-long run. They came via railroad, steamboat, carriage, and on foot. Train cars busted at the seams. Entire hotels were constructed solely for the influx of people. Though it cost more than $11 million to plan and hold, and required 450 acres of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, reviews of the event were positively glowing. Pride in America, hope for her future, and excitement about “the age of progress” were the rallying cries that drew the crowds and had the press buzzing.
The Exhibition featured a designated “Machinery Hall”, the largest of the specialized spaces, to showcase new inventions and highlight the booming new industries changing the face of the country. Visitors exploring this space could request their name woven into fabric by machine, or view Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone. Whimsical displays such as the “World’s Largest Fork and Knife” were paired next to an electric pen, mechanical calculator and typewriter. To power the machinery on display, organizers relied on the 1,400 horsepower Corliss Steam Engine, made in Rhode Island, and standing an impressive 44 feet high. This behemoth reportedly stunned the visiting Walt Whitman, about whom a friend recorded, “he sat in awe, silently, for thirty minutes marveling at the engine.”
When the Exhibition officially opened on May 10, 1876, it was none other than Rhode Island Governor Henry Lippitt, onstage with President Ulysses S. Grant, who helped whir the engine into motion. A memorable time in his tenure, Henry Lippitt later included a visual reference to the 1876 Exhibition in his gubernatorial portrait, painted by Charles Stetson. In it, he is depicted holding a building drawing for the Rhode Island Building, constructed on site at the Centennial Exhibition to showcase the state’s manufacturing abilities and popular products.
President Grant and the Emperor of Brazil Starting the Great Corliss Engine in Machinery Hall, Frank Leslie's Historical Register of the United States Centennial Exposition, (New York: Frank Leslie's Publishing House, 1876 ) p. 79.
“Rhode Island Day,” October 5th- Governor Lippitt’s Reception on the Steps of the Rhode State Building, Frank Leslie's Historical Register of the United States Centennial Exposition, (New York: Frank Leslie's Publishing House, 1876) p. 196.
Charles Stetson, Governor Henry Lippitt. Providence, 1887. Oil on canvas; (Lippitt House Museum).