Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that they were dazzled, astounded and charmed by what they saw there. William Dean Howells pronounced that just one day spent there would provide a rich return. Herman Melville declared that it was immense – a tremendous Vanity Fair. Walt Whitman sat before the Corliss steam engine on display there for a half hour, marveling at its immensity. Candace Wheeler was so taken by the Royal School of Needlework’s exhibit there that she decided to start Associated Artists, a textile-producing business benefiting women that established her as an interior designer. And Genevieve Jones went there to see John James Audubon’s Birds of America, leaving determined to create Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio.
These are just a few of the 10 million people who came to a 230-acre portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park between May and November of 1876 to attend the Centennial Exhibition, a great event of the era that was held not only to celebrate America’s 100th birthday, but also to celebrate the progress of industry. Not much is left of what they would have seen there, but I wanted to see this special place, and the trusty PHLASH bus took me exactly where I wanted to go.
William Penn, founder of Philadelphia, called the original parkland where the exhibition took place “Faire Mount.” Four miles from the center of the city, Fairmount Park is a glorious example of the City Beautiful movement that was so popular during the 19th century. Well-to-do Philadelphia families established summer homes in the park with names like Lemon Hill, Strawberry Mansion and Sweetbrier. Lafcadio Hearn, a writer best known for his books about Japan, pronounced Fairmount Park as “the most beautiful place of the whole civilized world. [New York City’s] Central Park is a cabbage garden by comparison.”
A four-mile stretch of the Schuylkill River that runs beside Fairmount Park proved ideal for ice skating in winter and rowing in summer. By the 1850s, amateur rowing clubs, collectively known as the Schuylkill Navy, began forming, building a “Boathouse Row” of houses along the river where club members could store their boats and relax after races. Sculling along the Schuylkill inspired William Taylor Adams to write The Boat Club, a children’s book about a group of young rowers, in 1854, under the pseudonym Oliver Optic. Thomas Eakins painted his friend, Max Schmitt, in his scull on the Schuylkill River after winning a rowing race there in 1870. Click here to see the painting.
Fairmount Park was also home to a water works on the Schuylkill’s banks that provided pure drinking water to Philadelphians. You can still stand on the terrace, the former water level of the reservoir for water pumped up from the Schuylkill, and enjoy a view of the city and Boathouse Row.
The park’s wooded slopes, rugged rock outcroppings and rolling meadows made it the perfect setting for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Richard Wagner was commissioned to write the Centennial Inauguration March, John Greenleaf Whittier penned the Centennial Hymn, and President Ulysses Grant opened the exhibition. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Thomas Edison’s telegraph, the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch, Heinz ketchup, Hires root beer, a Remington typewriter and Fleischmann’s yeast were some of the latest innovations on view.
A display of Japanese art was so popular that it started a craze for all things Japanese. Maria Longworth Nichols was so inspired by the Japanese ceramics that she saw on display that she established the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati. Shofuso Japanese House and Garden stands on the site of where several Japanese buildings from the exhibition stood.
Horticultural Hall included garden displays, landscape designs, a botanical collection considered the finest in the country, and a long, sunken carpet bed filled with tropical plants that became the exhibition’s iconic feature. When the exhibition concluded, some of the plants exhibited were planted on the grounds. While the hall no longer stands, the 27-acre arboretum planned to complement it still exists. There, you can see the Castor-aralia tree with its showy clusters of white flowers and one of four original gingko trees that were displayed at the exhibition.
Hermann Schwarzmann, a young German immigrant, was the chief engineer and architect of the exhibition, designing 34 of the 249 buildings himself. Only two original buildings remain. One is the Ohio House, a Victorian Gothic cottage that the state of Ohio built for its display with stone from 30 different quarries in the state. The other is Memorial Hall, which was named in honor of the soldiers of the Revolutionary War and housed paintings and sculptures, including Eastman Johnson’s Old Kentucky Home; Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley; Winslow Homer’s Snapping the Whip; and Archibald Willard’s The Spirit of ’76.
Two circa-1863 bronze sculptures of Pegasus with the muses Erato and Calliope flank the stairs leading to the entrance of the building. Originally, they were designed for the façade of the Imperial Opera House in Vienna; they were bought by a travelling Philadelphian in 1870.
After the Centennial Exhibition, Memorial Hall continued to serve as a museum until its growing collection and number of visitors outgrew it. In 1909, when the Fairmount Water Works was no longer needed as a reservoir for Philadelphia’s principal water supply, this prominent location was selected as the new site for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
From 1919 to 1928, the golden-hued recreation of an ancient Greek temple was constructed. Corinthian columns with terra-cotta details on their capitals, bronze ornaments representing griffins and other mythological animals, and ornamental details painted a vibrant red, blue, green and gold are some of its striking exterior decorations. Its picturesque setting high on a hill, at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that connects Philadelphia’s city hall with Fairmount Park, makes it appear all the more majestic.The 72 steps leading to the museum’s east entrance have become an iconic Philadelphia landmark, thanks to their appearance in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. The perseverance and determination symbolized by that trek up the steps will stand you in good stead as you wait to pose beside the Rocky statue, originally created for Rocky III and now a monument to the fictional Rocky Balboa.
Yes, I ran up the steps; then, I took in the breathtaking view of Center City Philadelphia down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
And then I paid a quick call on the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For its first 30 years, the museum was directed by the noted architectural historian Fiske Kimball, who made it one of the foremost art museums in the world. The museum’s collection focuses on American, European and Asian art; but to me, it’s best known for its collection of several hundred needlework samplers that were given to the museum by the parent company of Philadelphia-based confectionery Whitman’s, famous for its sampler boxes of assorted chocolates.
Stephen Whitman, a 19-year-old Quaker, opened a small confectionery in 1842 on Philadelphia’s Market Street, near the waterfront. In 1910, the company debuted its sampler box of chocolates, inspired by a cross-stitched sampler that hung in its leader’s home. By 1915, the Whitman’s Sampler, with its solid milk chocolate “Messenger Boy” at the center of each box, had become America’s best-selling box of assorted chocolates. Movie stars and presidents promoted the chocolates, giving them to White House visitors and World War II servicemen. While the Philadelphia plant closed in 1993, the candies continue to be made by the Russell Stover Candy Company at factories in Kansas, Colorado and Texas.
Over the years, Whitman’s introduced clever innovations, such as the “Pillow Puff” embossed paper liner, printing a map of the contents of the box on the bottom of the lid, and wrapping boxes in cellophane to keep the candy fresh and the box clean and colorful. But the collection of antique 18th– and 19th-century needlework samplers that Whitman’s executives and staff purchased between 1926 and 1964 may be its most unique legacy. The collection was exhibited across the country, and reproductions of some of the samplers were offered as kits sold through Woman’s Day magazine, until the company donated the collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To browse images of the Whitman’s Sampler Collection, click here.
To read more on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, see All the World’s A Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916, by Robert W. Rydell; Designing the Centennial: A History of the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia, by Bruno Giberti; World’s Fair Gardens: Shaping American Landscapes, by Cathy Jean Maloney; Images of America: Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, by Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder; National Cookery Book Compiled from Original Receipts from the Women’s Centennial Committee; Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875-1900, by Amelia Peck and Carol Irish; Guide to the Centennial Exposition and Fairmount Park, Presented by Strawbridge & Clothier; Illustrated Guide to Fairmount Park and the Centennial Exhibition Grounds and Buildings, presented by Strawbridge & Clothier; The Glorious Enterprise: The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and H.J. Schwarzmann, Architect-in-Chief, by John Maass; and 1876: A Centennial Exhibition, edited by Robert C. Post.
For more on Fairmount Park, read The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682-1876, by Elizabeth Milroy; City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System, by James McClelland and Lynn Miller; Fairmount Park: A History and a Guidebook: World’s Largest Landscaped Municipal Park, by Esther M. Klein; Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region’s Museum Homes, by Roger W. Moss; and The Rittenhouse Mill and the Beginnings of Papermaking in America, by James Green.
And for more on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, see the Philadelphia Museum of Art Handbook, edited by Sarah Noreika; Triumph on Fairmount: Fiske Kimball and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by George and Mary Roberts; Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Making a Modern Classic: The Architecture of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both by David B. Brownlee; The Story of Samplers, a 1971 publication of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with an introduction by Marianna Merritt Hornor; and Samplers: Their Story as Told through the Whitman’s Collection, by Ralph Richmond.