Women and the Fairs of 1876 and 1893


Volume I, Number 3
Spring, 1977

On the 10th of May, 1876, the National Woman's Suffrage Association was meeting in New York City. On the same day, seventy miles to the south, Empress Theresa of Brazil was presiding over the opening of the Women's Building at the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mines - known as the Centennial Exhibition - in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. No historian could have more craftily stagemanaged events to illustrate the divisions in the Woman Movement in Victorian America. To all appearances, these two events resulted from competing notions of what women were and should do: while suffragists in New York discussed tactics for political and economic action to gain the vote women, the Woman's Building at the Centennial displayed such evidences of woman's domestic activities as quilts, dishwashers, and clothing for children.

The coincidence of these events forces a recognition of two central facts about the Woman Movement in Victorian America.1 The first is that is was fundamentally concerned with developing, especially through writing, the visual arts, and public displays, an image of the ideal American woman, a figure who could be admired and imitated. Second, those engaged in limning this portrait split over both tactics and the content of the image the differing tactics led them to create. The suffragists constituted only one side - the most vocal, best remembered - of the Woman Movement. Alongside Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood women like Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Esther Beecher, who argued just as passionately and acted just as dramatically in forging a campaign to recognize and reward the domestic activities of American women. Though the domestic reformers sought change inside the home rather than outside it, they agreed with the suffragists that women were treated unequally and fell short of the reputation and status they deserved in a culture dominated by men. Domestic reformers sought to increase woman's status and power by defining the home as a sacred institution and by investing domestic activities - childrearing, education, and the arts, as well as cooking, sewing, and cleaning - with an aura of sentimentality and piety. They saw woman as Queen of Home, a domestic sovereign whose responsibilities and powers for making and keeping a warm and comfortable home and rearing moral and cultured children within it entitled her to be regarded as a national resource of the highest order.

Though certain tensions existed between suffrage and domesticity, they should not obscure the aim both sides of the Woman Movement shared: the desire to improve woman's lot, heighten her status, increase her power, and widen her sphere. These common goals emerged in the self-conscious creation of an image or images of American womanhood. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the images of the ideal American woman created at the Centennial Exhibition and at the World's Columbian Expostion, held in Chicago in 1893. What we will see is that both these international fairs struck an image of the American woman that combined the values of the two camps of the Woman Movement.

The Centennial Exhibition continued for six months, drew over 30,000 exhibitors from 50 countries, and attracted ten million visitors.2 For a 50-cent admission fee they could wander through exhibits - each housed in separate pavilions, a feature new to international fairs - on machinery, art, and agriculture, and see the exotic displays of foreign nations and the more familiar exhibitions mounted by American states. From Machinery Hall, Agriculture Hall, Horticulture Hall, and the buildings of Great Britain, Japan, the United States, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, one could go on to visit the Woman's Building. The classification system by which activities and nations and states are made parallel to woman may strike us as bizarre; there was, of course, no man's building. But the parceling off of space to a separate Woman's Building - the first ever at an international fair - reveals much about the special role of women in Victorian America.

The creation of this curiously conceived exhibit was the responsibility of the Women's Centennial Executive Committee, headed by Mrs. Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, great grand-daughter of Benjamin Franklin and a fund-raiser and publicity-getter whose talents nearly equaled her famous ancestor's. The Woman's Building, the Committee's main interest, was designed by H. J. Schwarzman, chief engineer of the Centennial and architect as well of Memorial Hall, the only major Centennial structure still standing. Providing 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Woman's Building faced Belmont Avenue in Fairmount Park, directly across from the United States Government pavilion, from which a cannon was aimed across the street at it (a detail easily susceptible to Freudian interpretation); it was thus centrally located, adjacent to the American pavilion which most visitors wished to see. Within the building six categories of displays were included: 1. Painting and statuary by women artists; 2. "Inventions of women in machinery and other fields of labor"; 3. Photographs of American institutions established or run by women (children's homes, home for the aged, etc.); 4. Collections of embroidery and needlework by women; 5. Collections of wood carving, furniture, and porcelain designed and executed by women; 6. Exhibits of the art and handiwork of women of foreign nations.3 Taken together, these displays strike a sharp and unified image of the American woman as an active worker. Regardless of her sphere of operation, the woman was shown to be a devoted and accomplished achiever, not the genteel and passive domestic type described and celebrated in popular fiction and painting of the nineteenth century.

The activities of the American woman displayed in the Woman's Building fall into three loose categories: art, philanthropy, and machinery. The art exhibits are of interest primarily for their inclusion of the ceramics of Cincinnati's Rockwood Pottery, an early force in the Art and Crafts Movement in America. Philanthropic efforts were celebrated through photographs of institutions established by women to aid the poor and disadvantaged. In both art and philanthropy the goal was to show the active and accomplished nature of the American woman.

The same was true of the third category of exhibits, the one of the greatest interest today: machinery. The Centennial itself, of course, achieved most of its appeal to contemporaries and interest to historians through its emphasis on machines, particularly the Corliss Engine shown in Machinery Hall. Generating 1400 horsepower, the Corliss Engine operated the nearly 8,000 machines located in Machinery Hall. This was a feat of as much symbolic as mechanical significance: a single source of energy, centrally located, operated a wealth of lesser devices clustered around it and dependent on its successful functioning. The centrality of the machine to American life was demonstrated clearly if metaphorically in this exhibit.

Compared to the wonders of the Corliss Engine and its robot dependents in Machinery Hall, the mechanical exhibitions of the Woman's Building may have been less engaging to visitors; but the fact that machinery was prominently displayed by women suggests the intent of the organizers of the Woman's Building to show that American women resided in the mainstream of their society, carrying on their own love affair with the machine that was coming to dominate that society. Especially emphasized in the displays of the Woman's Building were machines "designed to economize household labor." Moreover, all such machines exhibited in the building were designed by women. Included were a machine for washing blankets; two mangling machines; a locked barrel-cover to prevent loss of sugar and flour; gas-heated irons; a frame for stretching and dying curtains; dusting racks; a dishwashing machine "which not only cleans but dries"; a bedstead with drawers; a combination traveling-bag and chair; a mattress, designed to float and resist turning over, which served as a life saver; surgical and dental appliances for home use. Such items suggest how thoroughly representative the Woman's Building was of the ideals of the domestic reformers, who sought to professionalize housekeeping and achieve for it the status of a science.

Visitors to the Woman's Building had the opportunity to see not merely a display of the machines women could design but also a dramatic illustration of their talents in running such devices. The feature of the pavilion most frequently noted by contemporary observers as a six-horsepower engine which generated energy to operate spinning frames, power looms, and a printing press that issued a daily newsletter on the activities of the Woman's Building. Each of these machines was supervised by a woman "operative"; and the engine which ran them was itself under the direction of a woman engineer, Miss Emma Allison of Grimsby, Ontario. She was, of course, a natural object of interest, even woner[sic], for visitors, who were uniformly impressed by her talents and - in a somewhat condescending fashion - her appearance. One writer noted that "if she does nothing else, offers an example worth following to the engineers of the male sex in the neatness of her dress and the perfection of cleanliness exhibited in both engine and engine-room." Even this commentator, though, had to admit that Allison "is highly educated, and is thoroughly posted in theoretical as well as practical mechanics."4

A Midwestern visitor to the Centennial was so taken by Emma Allison that he characterized her simply as "no low, vulgar woman, but an educated and accomplished lady,"5 a distinction of considerable significance in Victorian America.

Somewhat like the Corliss Engine in Machinery Hall, Emma Allison played at the Centennial a symbolic role of greater ultimate importance than her operation of the six-horsepower engine. If the Corliss Engine providing energy to run 8,000 machines demonstrated that by 1876 in America mechanization had taken command, Allison demonstrated that American women had taken command of mechanization. The image Allison presented was dramatic: at the center of the Woman's Building a single engine operated looms, spinning frames, and a printing press - and at the controls of this engine was a solitary woman, learned in theory and accomplished in practice, a scientist as well as an engineer - and a "lady." Neat, orderly, and practical without being "vulgar" or "low," Allison represented the potential power of the domestic woman who balanced professional accomplishments with solid home virtues in a mix held up by the promoters of the Woman's Building as a worthy ideal of the American woman.

If the displays in the Woman's Building proved the compatibility of the developing image of the powerful domestic woman with her society, we should not conclude that the managers of the pavilion were concerned exclusively with the American woman. Like the Centennial as a whole, the Woman's Building reveals the mixed interests of Americans who wished both to celebrate chauvinistically the power of the United States and to demonstrate their awareness of the wider world in which their country was playing an enlarged political and commercial role. The international character of the Centennial was evident in its many foreign exhibits housed in separate pavilions and included as parts of such specialized displays as the art collections in Memorial Hall. The works of women of other nations were shown in the in the Woman's Building, where one of the most popular attractions was the needlework sent by Queen Victoria, whose status as the reigning culture heroine of the Anglo-American world was consistently exploited at the Centennial to underline woman's power. To emphasize further the international sisterhood, the organizers of the Woman's Building invited Empress Theresa of Brazil to preside at its opening; her husband was permitted to escort her to the site but was not allowed to enter the building itself, that honor being reserved on opening day for women only. (Once the building was officially dedicated, both men and women were free to visit it.) On panels on either side of the three entrances to the building was inscribed this sentence from Proverbs 31: "Let her works praise her in the gates." Each inscription was rendered in a different language.

Such attempts to remind women that their reference group was not just American women but all women of the world illustrate the gender orientation of the organizers of the Woman's Building. They conceived of their job as not merely displaying and celebrating the accomplishments of a group of Americans who happened to be women; rather, they addressed themselves to women as a group, regardless of the political jurisdictions under which they lived, and concentrated their energies on creating exhibits which would prove beyond question the powerful role women played in contemporary life. American women, in close sympathy and cooperation with their sisters elsewhere, were shown to be accomplished workers whose philanthropic efforts brought unique credit to their sex, talented artisans whose crafts exhibited skill and innovation, and accomplished designers and manipulators of the machines that were destined to play a central role in America's future. In step with their society, sharing its aspirations, American women were shown in their pavilion at the Centennial to be efficient, talented, practical, beneficent - and powerful.

Seventeen years after Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition, America again set out to celebrate itself in an international fair: the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, opened in May of 1893, a year after the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World.6 In tune with the booster spirit characteristic of Chicago and the rough-and-tumble West it delighted in symbolizing, the World's Columbian was hailed by its creators as, simply, "by far the greatest Exposition ever held."7 It was bigger than Philadelphia's Centennial. The World's Columbian drew 350,000 visitors its first day; had a total attendance of 21 million; covered 633 acres; provided over nine million square feet of exhibit area; cost over $7 million for buildings; and was divided into 28 major buildings. Like Chicago and the West, the fair was BIG.

The major exhibits of the fair were constructed in Jackson Park, a filled swamp adjacent to Lake Michigan in South Chicago. Here was located the Woman's Building, which celebrated an image of women similar to that developed at the Centennial but even more aggressively active. The building was maintained by a Board of Lady Managers, who were also charged with promoting the general interest of women at the Exposition. President of the Board was Bertha Honore Palmer, a woman whose interests and activities mirrored the image of the ideal woman presented in the Woman's Building. Wife of Potter Palmer, whose famed Palmer House Hotel was the pride of Chicago and a magnet for visitors, Mrs. Palmer participated so widely in social, cultural, and political affairs in Chicago that she deserves both the title "Mrs. Astor of the Middle West" given her own day and the label "ardent feminist" accorded her by a recent historian.8 She embodied the twin sides of the Woman Movement in her crusade for equal legal and economic rights for women and her status as social arbiter, art collector, and Queen of Home par excellence.

Both tendencies are reflected in her address at the opening ceremonies of the Woman's Building. On the one hand she argued against idolization of the domestic woman:

But the sentimentalist again to exclaims, "Would you have woman step down from her pedestal in order to enter practical life?" Yes! A thousand times, yes! If we can really find, after a careful search, any women mounted upon pedestals we should willingly ask them to step down - in order that they may meet and help to uplift their sisters. Freedom and justice for all are infinitely more to be desired than pedestals for a few.9

On the other, she insisted on proper education for woman "not only to prepare her for the factory and the workshop, for the professions and arts, but, more important than all else, to prepare her for presiding over the home [which is] the highest field of woman's effort . . ."10 Whatever contradiction we see in these statements was not apparent to Palmer; for her, it mattered not at all where women worked so long as they were trained for their occupation, performed it with distinction, and received due economic reward and appropriate status. Palmer approved the image of the active woman etched by the organizers of the Centennial Exhibition and cooperated with her fellow Board members in creating a similar one at the World's Columbian.

To celebrate women the Board of Lady Managers went the Centennial one better in having its building designed by a woman. In a national competition, entered by fourteen women, Sophia G. Hayden, age 21, of Boston, received a $1000 prize for her proposed structure. Her Italian Renaissance building, rigidly classical, fitted in well with the Beaux Arts Style of World's Columbian. Built for $138,000 (compared to $370,000 for Louis Sullivan's Transportation Building, $1 million for Machinery Hall, and $1.6 million for the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building), the Woman's Building was an impressive structure which provided nearly two acres of exhibit space. It was ornamented, inside and out, with the work of women. Alice M. Rideout of San Francisco won top prize in another national competition for her sculptures which graced the pediment over the main entrance. They depicted such themes as "Woman's Virtues," "Woman as the Spirit of Civilization," and "Woman's Place in History." Inside were murals depicting "Primitive Women" and "Modern Women," the last by Mrs. Palmer's friend Mary Cassatt.

The exhibits in this woman-designed and woman-decorated structure contributed further to the intended impression that women were, as Palmer argued forcefully in her opening speech, active and accomplished workers. A model kindergarten and model hospital illustrated the professional roles women played in American society. Additional displays of painting, sculpture, ceramics, furniture, and stained glass were, as one observer noted, "fitting illustration of the high position held by women in the world of art."11 A special woman's library contained over 7,000 books and manuscripts of women writers, including Harriet Martineau, Mary Somerville, Hannah More, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte. Displays mounted by Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr showed that higher education was open to women and that women's special needs were met by institutions restricted to their sex.

As the inclusion of British writers in the library suggests, organizers of the Woman's Building at the World's Columbian, like those at the Centennial, stressed the international dimensions of womanhood. Palmer noted that women deserved to play a central role "when celebrating the great deeds of Columbus, who, inspired though his visions may have been, yet required the aid of an Isabella to transform them into realities."12 Indeed, as Victoria had been the reigning heroine at the Centennial, Queen Isabella served as unofficial patron saint for women at the World's Columbian because she represented the positive influence of women on history and served as a concrete symbol of international sisterhood. The Board of Lady Managers further encouraged this view by inviting the creation of women's committees from each of the foreign nations mounting exhibits in Chicago. World's Fairs Committees composed solely of women were established in many nations, and in Italy, Belgium, Japan, and Siam the reigning woman sovereign even took personal responsibility for heading the committee. This international cooperation was a source of particular pride to the Board and especially to Mrs. Palmer, who reported with joy that the organization of women "is so far reaching that it encircles the globe,"13 a statement any political empire-builder of the imperial nineteenth century would have envied.

In the midst of celebrating international sisterhood and professional, artistic, and educational accomplishments of American women, the significance of woman's domestic position was not overlooked. Clothes and home-crafts were on display throughout the Woman's Building. Cooking, regarded as a scientific undertaking for which properly trained women had special talents, was celebrated in the Rumfort Kitchen, a model facility illustrating the principles of household organization, sanitation, and domestic technology. Named for Count Rumford, the American-born inventor who contributed to the technology of cooking and heating, the kitchen was brought from Boston by home economist Ellen H. Richards. On display for just two months, it attracted 10,000 visitors, who were served up information on nutrition along with sample lunches.

Central to the Kitchen was technological efficiency, a principle which received due illustration in displays of "machines of domestic use, such as weaving and reeling devices; washing, pleating, and dishwashing machines; pressing and ironing boards; household conveniences and articles for use in various industries." One woman who exhibited her specially designed dishwasher in the Woman's Building "had her machines in satisfactory operation in nearly all the large restaurants on the Exposition grounds."14 Like the ideal woman celebrated at the Centennial, this representative woman in Chicago was held up as an example of how women mastered the machine.

Childrearing, a function of domesticity for which women were held to be particularly suited, received attention at the World's Columbian. In a special Children's Building adjacent to the Woman's Building and under the control of the Board of Lady Managers, the International Kindergarten Association managed a facility to demonstrate "the latest apparatus" for the education of young children. In the "kitchengarden" room "classes of little folks are taught the useful arts of homekeeping." "In so interesting and delightful a manner are sweeping, dusting, bedmaking, and cooking taught," one commentator wrote, "that what might otherwise be an irksome task to children becomes a most delightful recreation."15 This building also housed exhibits of woodcarving and a library stocked with children's books and newspapers.

The most advanced feature of the Children's Building was a facility where infants and young children could be left under professional care while their mothers visited the fair. In fact if not in name a "day-care center," this service was designed to provide for women the practical assistance required so they could take full advantage of the woman's exhibits at the World's Columbian. Children were placed under "the care of competent nurses" and had access to a roof-garden playground complete with toys and cages of live birds and butterflies. This service, advanced for its time, was for obvious reasons popular; it reflects both the concern of women for proper childrearing and the desire to extend the activities of women by providing adequate professional day care for their children.

Like the Centennial, the World's Columbian mixed the vulgar and the fine, carnival joys and solemn educational goals. From the interplay of these forces, exhibits at the two fairs sketched a portrait of the ideal American woman: Above all, she is active. Whether she sews, designs and runs machinery, cares for children, creates art, attends college, runs an orphanage, or writes, the woman is shown to be aggressive and successful. She is further seen to have spiritual ties with her sisters elsewhere, linked as much to women in Siam as in Schenectady, and sharing goals and special talents more with other women, regardless of location, than even with her American brothers. She was, in sum, woman, and it was the uniqueness of her womanhood - and not her arbitrary national identity - both international fairs celebrated. In thus depicting the ideal woman, the Centennial and World's Columbian merged the apparently contradictory sides of the Woman Movement - the suffragists and the domestic reformers - and developed a picture of the American woman both could be proud of - and all could imitate.


1The best discussion of the subject is William L. O'Neill, Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America (Chicago, Quadrangle, 1969).


2For general background on the Centennial, see Dee Brown, The Year of the Century: 1876 (New York: Scribner's, 1966); John Maass, The Glorious Enterprise (Watkins Glen, N.Y.: American Life Foundation, 1973); Robert C. Post, ed. 1876: A Centennial Exhibition (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1976). Specific details in the following discussion are derived from two guidebooks to the Exhibition: J.S. Ingram, The Centennial Exposition, Described and Illustrated (Philadelphia: Hubbard, 1876), and James D. McCabe, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia: National Publishing, 1876).

3 McCabe, Illustrated History, 592. 

4 Ibid., 591. 

5David Bailey, 'Eastward Ho!' or Leaves from the Diary of a Centennial Pilgrim (Highland, Ohio: Bailey, 1877), 80. 

6Details about the Exposition are drawn from the following guidebooks and histories: The Columbian Exposition Album (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1893); John J. Flinn, Official Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Columbian Guide Co., 1893); Handbook of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1893); Moses P. Handy, The Official Directory of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Conkey, 1893); Rossiter Johnson, ed., A History of the World's Columbian Exposition, 4 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1898); Trumbull White and William Inglehart, eds., The World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: International Publishing, 1893). 

7Handy, Official Directory, 197. 

8Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Culture and Democracy (Totawa, N. J.: Bedminster, 1965), 96. 

9Addresses Delivered at the Opening of the Woman's Building (Chicago: n.p., 1893), 12-13. 

10Ibid., 14. 

11The Columbian Exposition Album, 16. 

12Palmer, "Introduction" in White and Inglehart, World's Columbian Exposition, 437. 

13Ibid., 440. 

14Johnson, History, 3, 453. 

15Handy, Official Directory, 180-81.