The International Exhibition of 1876 can be seen as a Philadelphia story. It went up in West Philadelphia, honored the secular shrines in Old City, and showcased the culture, institutions, and burgeoning industrial might of the city.
But it could be said that Philadelphia was one thing, and the Centennial another. The Exhibition was set apart in a park, though linked by transit to the grid. It was bordered by temporary facilities for housing and amusement, though many visitors stayed in Center City and bought guidebooks that described the city as well as the Centennial. The Exhibition was itself designed to be, for the most part, temporary.
One could also say that Philadelphia was one thing, the Centennial another, and a burlesque like One Hundred Years a Republic or Our Show; A Humorous Account of the International Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876), by Daisy Shortcut, Arry O’Pagus, and A. B. Frost (that is, David Solis Cohen and his illustrator, H. B. Sommer), yet another. Cohen, writing in 1875, had fun with the past, from Columbus to the earnest women who had raised money for the celebration and the officials who had been planning it. But when he moved on to what might happen in 1876, he was free to invent tall tales, the more startling and unlikely the better. In one, the Colosseum is brought over and made the scene of a gladiatorial combat between Bismarck and the pope. And then there is the sad story of the Sphinx.
The fantasies in Our Show can be bizarre, the text and illustrations full of stereotypes we find offensive. It might seem better to stick to the official record, until we think what it must have been like to get dressed up and swelter through a Main Building with eleven miles of aisles and walkways and twelve thousand exhibits (Richard R. Nicolai, Centennial Philadelphia [Bryn Mawr, 1976], 58), and then confront Memorial Hall and its annex, with their thousands of works of art. No wonder C. D. Richardson offered the Centennial Cane and Chair Combined, “Especially Valuable for LADIES, who cannot possibly endure the fatigue without one.”
The solemn Centennial visitors shown in wood engravings look as though they could use a laugh, and the book is often funny—just look at the “reviews” and the running heads.
Another reason to enjoy Our Show is that its fantasies are tethered to the streets of Philadelphia by local references, references that are set off at a slight angle from reality by altered names and strange contexts: the Alms House, Bedford Street Mission (unlikely scene of an “opium banquet”), Broad and Prime [Washington] Station, Cape May Diamonds, Darby, Richard J. Dobbins (a contractor who worked on Centennial buildings; he is given tongue-in-cheek credit for inventing Dobbins’ Electric Soap), lawyer Daniel Dougherty, Doylestown, Cherry Hill (N.J.), the City Troop, Egg Harbor (N.J.), Mrs. [John W.] Forney (the Forneys were a Centennial power couple), the German Hospital, Girard Avenue Bridge, Horticultural Hall on Broad Street, the House of Corrections, Jefferson Medical College, Manayunk, the Market Street Passenger Railway and other lines, former mayor Morton McMichael, rough and tough alderman William McMullin, Media, the Navy Yard, the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge, Point Breeze Park (a horse-racing site used in Our Show to shelter the family of Brigham Young), Poplar Street Wharf, the Sawyer Observatory at the Exhibition, Schuylkill Falls Park, the Schuylkill Navy, Seybert’s Bell in Independence Hall, the Spring Garden Soup Society, the State Fencibles, Mayor William S. Stokley, the U.S. Mint, Walnut Street Dock, and West Chester.
He also mentioned well-known products and firms. Some, like Herring’s Hay-Making Machine, the Slawson fare box, Spalding’s Glue, and the Phoenix Iron Works, were not from Philadelphia. But many were. These references were not product placements. There are advertisements at the end of the book, but they are not for the firms mentioned in the book. No surprise there—respectable business owners might not have enjoyed being featured in a satire. The skeletal closing image of Alfred Timothy (i.e., Alfred Traber) Goshorn, the director-general of the Exhibition—
please see my page “Dismantling the Centennial” https://philadelphiaasadvertised.com/dismantling-the-centennial/
—was credited to F. Gutekunst, a prominent, award-winning photographer. The most extravagant fantasy involving a Philadelphia firm was the tale of the modern “Sphynx.” The original monument, placed on display on Belmont Avenue, was destroyed by “relic fiends.” A diplomatic crisis was averted when the firm of Robert Wood & Company created a modern version in bronze.
We can well believe that Cohen, a young proofreader and writer for local newspapers, including the Public Ledger, was known for “his successful and brilliant efforts as an interpreter of the main role in comedies and farces produced at the Amateur Drawing Room” and “[h]is rare gifts as a comedian . . . the means of delight to numerous auditors.” By the way, the efforts in the Amateur Drawing Room were made “to assist work in connection with the Centennial Exhibition” (Henry S. Morais, The Jews of Philadelphia , 315).
Our Show has been made available online by the invaluable Internet Archive. The illustration of the Sphynx was improvised to join picture and text.