Contesting the Centennial: politics and culture at the 1876 world's fair
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The 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia celebrating the Centennial was America's first world's fair. Planners hoped the event would broadcast a message of national greatness, seen in the country's industrial and agricultural progress, as well as in its political developments since the American Revolution. Yet, while organizers hoped to demonstrate national strength by showing the erasure of sectional divisions after the Civil War, those tensions remained fully on display at the 1876 fair. Funding for the Exhibition was mired in disputes over nationalism, sectionalism, and Civil War memory. And while planners were particularly anxious to have Southern states actively participate in the commemoration, most states of the former Confederacy eschewed any formal relationship with the fair, particularly because of opposition to the federal government's reconstruction policies. National fissures could also be seen in tensions surrounding race and gender. African Americans faced discrimination at the fair but also resisted efforts to shut them out of the Centennial. Their ability to create a space for themselves revealed the fluid nature of Reconstruction, and race relations more generally, at this moment. Women's participation also showcased differences about gender roles. Some women worked within the confines of accepted roles by participating in fundraising activities and contributing exhibits, while others took the opportunity to continue the post-Civil War discussion about women's rights, including suffrage. The different ways in which women responded gave evidence to an ongoing struggle to redefine the meanings of citizenship and belonging in the nation. Held between May 10 and November 10 in 1876, the six-month-long fair was often a chaotic experience for visitors who found themselves overwhelmed but also entertained even when they failed to understand the organization that planners envisioned. This first comprehensive historical study of the Centennial brings together culture and politics and interprets the fair in the complex context of American society in the 1870s.
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