March 3: Connecticut’s Joseph Hawley Heads America’s First World’s Fair


As a country, the United States of America’s first hundred years of existence were marked by incredible growth in nearly every possible way, largely defined by the forces of westward expansion, immigration, and the Industrial Revolution it the 19th century.  As the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding in 1876 approached, a proposal came before Congress to celebrate with a massive World’s Fair exposition that celebrated America’s best qualities, unique history, and most brilliant innovations.  Most importantly, many saw such a celebration as a much-needed opportunity to bring the country together in the wake of a bloody Civil War that nearly tore it apart scarcely ten years before.

Such a large-scale and culturally significant undertaking demanded a proven — and patriotic — leader to oversee the preparations, and after Congress created the United States Centennial Commission on March 3, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant turned to fellow Republican politician and Civil War general Joseph Hawley of Connecticut to be its president.

A post-war photograph of Joseph Hawley, taken by famous 19th century photographer Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)

Best known as an accomplished Major General in the Union Army, Joseph Hawley also had a talent for oratory and politics, having helped organize Connecticut’s Republican Party in the 1850s and had served as a single-term Governor and multi-term member of Congress for the state of Connecticut.  He was a skilled public speaker and a passionate patriot who repeatedly implored his audiences to remember the brave sacrifices made by Americans in the name of freedom during the Civil War.  In the eyes of President Grant, those qualities made Hawley an ideal choice to head one of the greatest patriotic exhibitions in American history.

With Hawley at the helm, the U.S. Centennial Commission spent the next five years planning the first World’s Fair hosted on American soil, overseeing the construction of over 200 temporary buildings on the sprawling fairgrounds, located in the Fairmount Park area of Philadelphia.  The Centennial Exposition opened to great fanfare on May 10, 1876, and over the next five months, nearly 10 million visitors from across the United States and abroad visited the all-American spectacle.  Among the most memorable items on display were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, one of Remington’s earliest typewriter machines, the world’s first monorail system, and the arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, which was then still under construction.  As with any great fair, the food offerings were also memorable: the Centennial Exposition was the first time the American public had been introduced to bananas, popcorn, and Heinz ketchup.   The wildly popular Centennial Exposition, one of the largest and most successful public fairs in American history, hit the ground running thanks to one of Connecticut’s finest 19th century leaders, beginning on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Robert C. Kennedy, “Columbia Welcoming the Nations: The United States Centennial Exhibition,New York Times

Digital Collections: United States Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876,” Free Library of Philadelphia

Todd Jones, “General Joseph R. Hawley Helps Commemorate Connecticut’s Civil War Soldiers,”