1876 Centennial Exposition: Kansas Delivers One of Best Exhibition Displays
Written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
KGI Online Library Blog-October 15, 2020
(All copies of newspaper articles cited here can be viewed at KGI ONLINE LIBRARY
1876 Centennial Exposition: Kansas Delivers One of Best State Displays
The 1876 Centennial Exposition, formally named The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, was held in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This international exposition would be the first World’s Fair held in the United States with nearly 10 million visitors attending the exhibitions. The Kansas and Colorado Exhibition Hall was one of the most visited state buildings at the Exposition.
“The best special State display at the Exhibition is made by Kansas, Colorado and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company, in the Kansas and Colorado building. Kansas was the first State in the Union to select ground for a special State Centennial building. It is the largest and one of the finest State structures on the grounds, being in the form of a Maltese cross, with offices and reception-rooms at the four corners outside the intersection of the arms of the cross,” wrote the Philadelphia Times newspaper.
The paper went on to describe one of the unique items in the building. “In the center of the building is a fine bronze fountain, presented by the ladies of Topeka, and above it is suspended a facsimile of the old liberty bell, formed entirely of agricultural products. It is eight feet, nine inches at the mouth. The body is formed of wheat, millet, broom-corn and sorghum, the tongue being a gourd six feet long, having attached to it for a hammer, a bell shaped gourd one and a half feet in diameter. (#1-The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 21, 1876)
Another admirer of the Kansas and Colorado exhibition hall was Colonel John W. Forney, the late Centennial Commissioner to Europe. Colonel Forney was met at the hall by Kansan George A Crawford and founder of Ft. Scott, who gave him a personal tour.
“There is such a world of things to see and to study in our unequaled Exhibition, that we are often obliged when some choice novelty is pointed out to us, and I was quite ready, therefore, to act upon the suggestion of my friend Crawford; and as we crossed the threshold of this double State edifice I found myself standing, as it were, in a great educational temple. It is only twenty-one years of age, and it is already a giant. In our country, the citizen who reaches this age is still almost a boy; but Kansas, launched into being amid pro-slavery fires and persecutions and baptized in the blood of its early martyrs, has, so to speak, gathered almost a century of experience with every year.” (Page 291, “What Others Say”, Kansas at the Centennial, Report of the Centennial Managers to the Legislature of the State of Kansas, c. 1877)
Planning for the Centennial Exposition began the summer of 1871 with the appointment of J. A. Martin of Atchison as the United States Commissioner for Kansas, and George A. Crawford, of Fort Scott, alternate commissioner. Their duty under an act of Congress creating the U. S. Centennial Commission, was to assist in preparing for the Exposition at Philadelphia so as to “enlist the sympathies as well as the legislation of the State, by such agencies and instrumentalities as they might deem best, in order that Kansas might make a creditable display and by every other means extend her hearty cooperation.” (Page 201, “Kansas and the Centennial”, Kansas at the Centennial, Report of the Centennial Managers to the Legislature of the State of Kansas, c. 1877
On February 10, 1874, House Bill No. 271 stated, “An act providing for the appointment of five Centennial Managers for the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876, and defining their duties.” It was passed on March 6 with 54 yeas to 16 nays in the House. The next day the Senate passed the bill 19 yeas to 1 nay.
In a letter to the legislature, dated January 27, 1875, Governor Thos. A Osborn wrote, “Rarely in the history of a State is so favorable an opportunity presented for placing its advantages before the world in an attractive light, and we may not unreasonably conclude that at no future period of our history will it be in our power to accomplish so much for Kansas, at so comparatively slight a cost.” (#2-The Atchison Champion, January 28, 1875)
In 1874, the Kansas legislature appropriated $5,000 to be used for preparatory exhibition work and the expense of gathering exhibition material. At that time, the centennial managers had determined that a separate building was needed to better display Kansas exhibits. Legislative funding was not targeted for building costs. “We doubted the possibility of making a captivating representation in the general buildings. By their classification, our products must be grouped with their kind from large States and nations. However superior in quality, they might be swallowed up in the larger display of wealthier nations. (Page 218-225, “Separate State Buildings”, Kansas at the Centennial, Report of the Centennial Managers to the Legislature of the State of Kansas, c. 1877
The centennial board had determined a new building would cost nearly $10,000. To help defray building costs, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company entered into contract with the centennial managers to utilize one-tenth of the space in the exhibit hall and to pay one-tenth of its cost, stipulating they would occupy the end of the east wing.
“One company gathered up sample products of the empire through which it passes, and much of which it owns, and went down with us to meet the world in a comparison of resources. The company whose name heads this article had, for years past, been qualifying for this encounter, in successful experiences at State Fairs throughout the West.” (page 263, “Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Co.’s Department”, Kansas at the Centennial, Report of the Centennial Managers to the Legislature of the State of Kansas, c. 1877
The Kansas Centennial Board also entered into contract with the state of Colorado for joint occupancy of the exhibition building. Colorado’s centennial funds helped address the cost of the structure. “Having been part of Kansas prior to our admission into the Union as a State, and being now a growing market for our products, there was a great priority in this association. Her exhibits only supplemented ours, and added to the general effect.” (Page 270, “The Colorado Display", Kansas at the Centennial, Report of the Centennial Managers to the Legislature of the State of Kansas, c. 1877
The centennial project was popular with many Kansans. In addition to the 1875, $5,000 appropriation for the centennial exhibit, the 1876 Kansas legislature made another appropriation of $33,000 for the same purpose. “The Kansas building, now being erected at Philadelphia, will cost $10,000, and is a large and handsome structure. A Kansas band is being organized to furnish music at the State building during the Centennial. The Kansas collection will, it is believed, require from fifteen to twenty cars to transport it.” (#3-The Leavenworth Times, April 20, 1876)
Building a separate state exhibit structure was a departure from the rules of classification laid down by the Unites States Commission and had the effect that it would withdraw all Kansas products from competition, and from the chances of gaining medals and diplomas.
It was thought by the State Board that the commendations to be gained from the public, over a unified display, would more than compensate for the loss of awards. However, the Commissioners did vary the rules for some of Kansas’ collective exhibits.
“The Committee on Pomology, in some of their visits to the Kansas building were so impressed with two shipments of apples, that they gave to each a report for an award, separate from the State exhibit. This was a compliment we had no right, under the circumstances, to expect. Besides these two and the State exhibits, an award was given to the display of Kansas fruits exhibited in Pomological Hall, by Dr. J. Stayman. The award was for Leavenworth county fruit.” (Page 279, “Kansas Awards”, Report of the Centennial Managers to the Legislature of the State of Kansas, c. 1877
The majority of the exhibit buildings were to be temporary structures, but some were bought and moved to other locations. “The Kansas building on the Centennial grounds was sold, on the previous day, to Messers T. Kennedy and F. H. Wilson of Ocean Beach, Monmouth County, N. J., for $800. The purchasers intend making it a “Kansas and Colorado Hotel” on the sea shore. The sale is regarded as a good one, as the average price at which State buildings sold was about $500. The fine New York building-a structure that cost four or five times as much as that of Kansas-brought only $500, and the immense Atlas Hotel, just outside of the grounds, brought only the same sum.” (#4-Wathena Reporter, December 2, 1876)
For more information about the 1876 Centennial Exhibition access:
The virtual tour includes descriptions, graphics and photos of the main halls.