By May of 1876, Congressman Garfield appears to have become much less skeptical of the worth of the Centennial Exposition as a means of exciting the minds of visitors. On May 11, 1876, he noted in his diary that he and his wife Crete
“went again to the Expositions Grounds and spent three hours in Memorial Hall and Art Hall. We saw enough to determine us to visit the grounds again – later in the season and if possible bring the children. I have no doubt of two things; first that the Exposition will not be a financial success; second, that it will be [a] great success in the way of education and stimulous [sic] to the people who participate.”
Mr. and Mrs. Garfield did return to the Centennial in August, and they did bring their children with them, as will be seen shortly. Based on the diary entry for August 25, it appears that Mrs. Garfield and her children had already arrived at No. 9, Woodland Terrace, when the Congressman arrived at that address at 11:00 p.m., “glad to find all my dear ones well.” The next day, the Garfields, joined by Mr. and Mrs. Chase, who apparently were also staying at Woodland Terrace, made their first visit as a family to the Centennial. What they saw there must have fascinated and delighted them, for they visited the grounds together every day for nearly a week.
Exhibitions of everything from to machines, to art, to plants and livestock were presented in five primary buildings: the Main Exhibition Building, the Art Hall, Machinery Hall, Horticultural Hall, and Agricultural Hall. The Art Hall featured a 150-foot dome, containing “a colossal figure of Columbia.” There were numerous other buildings besides, including restaurants, a Dairy, and exhibit buildings for individual American states, and foreign nations. The scale of these buildings was impressive, as the images included in this article show.
The Main Exhibition Building covered twenty-one acres, and like London’s Crystal Palace, was vast and made of glass. It had a central nave that was nearly 1700 feet long.
In Machinery Hall were to be found many new labor-saving devices, alternative fuels, and other technological innovations. Within the great hall was one of the greatest attractions of exhibition, the Great Corliss Engine. It weighed 700 tons and could do the work of 2500 horses. It was so large and heavy that sixty-five railroad cars were required to transport it.
A number of restaurants were constructed to satisfy a variety of tastes. There were establishments catering to the American southern cuisine, German specialties, and French cookery. The Turkish Coffee House satisfied many.
James Garfield mentioned the Vienna Bakery and Coffee House in his diary. Twice, on August 29 and 31, the family lunched at the Dairy. It was located in one of the most picturesque spots on the grounds, according to Frank Leslie. The main building was about 360 feet long, built of rough-hewn logs, and decorated with grapevine branches. Many people were impressed with the richness and purity of the cream and milk served in it, and also the high quality of its butter, though Garfield says nothing on this score in his diary.
On August 26, Garfield, accompanied by his wife, his daughter Mollie, Mary McGrath, one of the servants, and “the three boys,” visited the Women’s Pavilion. (Presumably the “three boys,” in this case were Irvin, Abram, and Edward – the presence of “the baby” being noted earlier in Garfield’s entries. Edward, the last of the Garfield children, called “Neddie” did not survive the year.) Memorial Hall, Machinery Hall, and the Government Building were seen and seen again by James Garfield, his wife Lucretia, and their children while they were at the Centennial.
What might the Garfield’s seen in the Women’s Pavilion? According to Frank Leslie they saw objects made by women from all over the earth, including needlework, paintings, furniture, painted china, fish-scale jewelry and labor-saving devices.
Mrs. Garfield spent at least some time at the “Japanese Department,” in the Main Building, on August 30. Her visit there leads to some unanswerable questions. First, did Congressman Garfield continue to think that the “international aspect” of the Centennial was a mistake? Second, given that the Garfield home in Mentor, Ohio has more than a few objects of Japanese style, was Mrs. Garfield’s interest in Japanese design inspired by her visit to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and did she decide to reflect that interest in the Mentor farmhouse purchased later that year?
There are five objects in the Garfield home today that do have a connection with the 1876 Centennial. They are the “Barge of Venus” in the dining room, and the four bentwood chairs, two of which are located in the parlor, and two in the reception hall.
One of the attractions that Congressman Garfield did not mention seeing was the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the Statue was intended to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the United States, it was not yet complete. Only the arm bearing the torch of liberty could be seen at the Centennial Exposition.
Among the inventions and new products that were seen at the Centennial were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Hire’s Root Beer, and the typewriter. Over ten million people came to the Centennial, or roughly twenty percent of the population of the United States at the time, so it wasn’t the flop that Garfield thought it might be. In fact, the Centennial was profitable, and proceeds from it were used to construct the second of the Smithsonian museums, the Arts and Industries Building.
Perhaps there is a bit of irony in the fact that the first public event in the new Smithsonian museum building was the Inaugural Ball of President Garfield, held there on March 4, 1881.
In the latter part of 1881, the contents of sixty train cars filled with donations from the Centennial were displayed in the Arts and Industries Building – exhibits on geology, metallurgy, zoology, medicine, anthropology, art, history, and technological innovations in printing, ceramics, transportation, fisheries, agriculture, and textiles.
But in 1876, having “visited many places of interest” at the Centennial, it was time for James Garfield to return to Ohio on August 31st. He “bade goodbye to the dear ones, and took the train for N.Y. [alone]…”
It would seem that despite his earlier misgivings, Congressman Garfield, accompanied by his cherished family, did indeed enjoy the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was interesting and educational. It promoted the success of the American democratic experiment, and the resulting prosperity of the people of the United States. It had attracted millions and was profitable. It made him proud of his country.
(Special thank to Mr. Jim Davis of Dallas, Texas for use of of stereopticon images in this article!)
-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger