1876: The Role of Transportation is Highlighted at a World’s Fair in Philadelphia

May 10, 1876

The Centennial International Exhibition — held in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in that city — was opened. Officially called the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, it was the first actual World’s Fair held in the United States. This heavily attended fair gave the public the first opportunity to see quite a few now-familiar consumer products, including Heinz Ketchup, Hires Root Beer, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The fair also allowed attendees to witness transportation history that both had already been made and was still under development. 

An example of the former was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s display of the “John Bull” steam locomotive, which had been built back in 1831. An example of history-in-the-making involved the high-wheeled bicycles that were on exhibit in one of the British buildings at the fair. These bicycles brought over from Europe caught the attention of many Americans attending the fair.

One person who was especially entranced by that display of bicycles was Massachusetts resident Albert Augustus Pope, who was attending the Centennial International Exhibition as a member of the common council of the Boston suburb of Newton. Pope was so fascinated by this comparatively exotic means of mobility being showcased in Philadelphia that he put off returning home in order to more fully examine those bicycles.

Over the next several years, Pope marketed and sold numerous bicycles that were both imported from England and built in the United States. Due in large part to Pope and others promoting that mode of transportation, bicycles grew exponentially popular nationwide. The newfound enthusiasm for bicycling in rural areas ultimately led to increased calls for improved roads. This, in turn, helped bring about and shape the Good Roads Movement. 

The Centennial International Exhibition was held until November 10, 1876. In yet another illustration of its impact on transportation, this unprecedented fair in the United States proved to a decidedly busy one for transit both locally and further away. The operations for Philadelphia’s streetcars were significantly increased, for example, while the Pennsylvania Railroad ran special trains from and to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York City. 

(The above drawing of the opening day ceremonies for the Centennial International Exhibition was featured in James Dabney McCabe’s 1876 illustrated history of that world’s fair.)

Image Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, please check out https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/centennial/

Additional information on the display of bicycles at that world’s fair is available at https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/bicycles/

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