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The Year of the Century
By Dee Brown
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Dee Brown
All rights reserved.
"... The most extraordinary noise ever heard."
On Christmas eve of 1875, John Lewis, a wholesale grocer of New York City, took a train down to Philadelphia to spend the holidays with his son. Lewis was an Englishman, and although he had lived in the United States for some years he had never been to Philadelphia. He fully expected to find a city of sober Quakers, given over to quiet meditations and frugal repasts for the holiday season. Instead he discovered a city of almost riotous conviviality, "celebrating Christmas as if all the people had resolved themselves into children for the occasion, but feasting—& I did feast—had to doctor myself when I came home."
Lewis still kept close ties with a brother in England, writing occasional letters in which he reported the American scene with the objectivity of a friendly alien attempting to understand and explain the curious behavior of the aborigines. "I suppose you are fully informed of the progress making by U S to celebrate his 100th birthday." On one of his three days in Philadelphia he crossed the Schuylkill River to Fairmount Park to see Uncle Sam's unfinished Centennial Exhibition buildings. The place was a vast beehive of activity, with hundreds of workmen swarming around enormous unfinished buildings, horse-drawn wagons rumbling through the mire, a pounding of hammers, a whine of saws, the smells of paint and new lumber.
Horticultural Hall, a graceful structure of iron and glass in the Moorish style of architecture, was virtually completed. On December 18, the Centennial Exhibition's directors had held an elegant banquet there for the benefit of President Ulysses Grant and a large delegation of Washington officials invited for the purpose of impressing them with the potential splendor of the Exhibition—if the government would only grant a $1,500,000 appropriation to complete the buildings. Machinery Hall and the Main Building were nearing completion, two vast sheds covering thirty-five acres, the latter said to be the largest building in the world. The Exhibition's backers fully intended it to be the biggest, fanciest, most wonderfully awe-inspiring show on earth.
In late December the grounds were so muddy that John Lewis was unable to go near many of the buildings. "The land is a reddish yellow sticky clay & was horrible, but asphalt roads are being made & an immense amount of work being done. The buildings are grand and immense; they cover about 48 acres. I was told that there were 200 buildings going up all directly connected with the exhibition, minor shows of manufacturers, women's products, offices for foreign & home commissioners, &c &c."
Lewis enjoyed himself so much in the City of Brotherly Love that he returned on New Year's Eve for a celebration which made the recent Christmas festivities seem moderate by comparison. Philadelphia was then the Republic's second largest city, its 800,000 inhabitants crowded into a narrow strip of land lying between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. On New Year's Eve preceding the glorious centennial year of 1876, every man, woman, and child was keyed to a high pitch of excitement. Their city might be second to New York's one million, but for the next 366 days Philadelphia would be the focal point, the cynosure, the crossroads, the mecca for all patriotic Americans.
To start the evening's merriment, John Lewis attended a party at the home of the mayor's chief clerk, the guests amusing themselves with charades, minstrels and a mock trial. "At 12 o'clock we were all called out to listen to the most extraordinary noise ever heard. It had been arranged that at that hour every bell, whistle or other instrument that would make a noise should be put into requisition. Phila is a great Railroad place and has many thousands of workshops—also Churches. The effect was wonderfull, not loud, being scattered—rather melancholy, seeming as if some terrible disaster was occurring, such as the sacking of a great city, and the sound of a vast multitude wailing & shrieking at a distance. They welcomed the advent of the centennial year."
Lewis was some distance from the center of that most extraordinary noise—Independence Hall—where thousands of Philadelphians had packed themselves into the square, the surrounding streets, on nearby rooftops, and in the windows of facing buildings. He gave no reason why his host, the mayor's chief clerk, chose to entertain at home rather than attend the outdoor ceremonies in which Mayor William S. Stokley was the leading performer. Perhaps the clerk had already seen his employer's speech. Perhaps he preferred the coziness of indoors to the muggy penetrating Scotch mist outside, and the resulting filthy streets ankle-deep with mud and dung—"a slippery incrustation thick enough to cover up bricks and flagstones ... tracked from cartways to sidewalks, from sidewalks to houses, over floors, tiles, carpets, matting and anything touched by soles of mud-incrusted boots and shoes."
Nonetheless, thousands of others braved the out-of-doors on that evening, lured by a brilliant white glow around Independence Square. Beams of powerful calcium lights illuminated the front of the old building, the marble statue of George Washington, and the square itself. Long before midnight, crowds filled the square completely, jammed the sidewalks of Chestnut Street, then spread out into the mucky thoroughfares to block all horse-drawn traffic. A newspaperman viewing the assembly from a high window said it was so compactly massed that every wave of motion sent ripples over the sea of brightly lighted heads until the undulations vanished in the darkness beyond the rays of calcium.
Despite all the crowding and confusion, everyone remained in good humor. A few moments before midnight, the mayor and his escort appeared on the front steps, and the crowd quieted for a short speech. "A hundred years freighted with the joys and sorrows of a young nation ... We have come to the years of national manhood ... We now come together here at this dark hour of midnight to greet the coming year ..."
Just before the clock began striking, the mayor ran a flag to the top of a pole; it was a replica of a banner unfurled by George Washington on January 1, 1776, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A bell in the old tower knelled the last moments of the dying year. The crowd sent up a tremendous shout, fired off pistols, exploded firecrackers, drowning out the first bars of "The Star Spangled Banner" being played by the H. P. Dechert Cornet Band. The Pennsylvania Fencibles, stationed in the square, saluted the flag with several rounds of cartridges. The 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment marched past the front of the hall, formed in line of battle, and for several minutes fired by files a feu de joie. A bell ringer in the steeple tolled out 1-7-7-6, 1-8-7-6, then began a peal in which the bells of all the city's churches joined for a tribute to the shrine of liberty.
At the same time gas jets flamed on the fronts of buildings, Roman candles and bombs streaked high into the misty overhang of clouds, red flares burned on rooftops, a curtain of multicolored fires blossomed in front of George Washington's statue. The only island of sobriety in evidence was a fire wagon at 6th and Chestnut, its powerful steam engine throbbing as it awaited calls to extinguish blazes caused by exploding fireworks.
By one o'clock the crowd was dispersing, moving slowly past brilliant displays on the fronts of the Press Club, Wood's Museum, and the Arch Street Theater. Over the entrance of Carpenters' Hall, gas jets spelled out the words: THE NATION'S BIRTHPLACE. Flags blanketed the fronts and lights glowed from every window of John Wanamaker's and J. B. Lippincott's stores.
The traditional marching clubs of Philadelphia now took over the streets, jostling their way through the throngs, most of them headed by small musical bands. One group carried a large banner: CENTENNIAL. IF CONGRESS DON'T HELP, PENNSYLVANIANS WILL. CONGRESS AND $1,500,000. They wore fanciful costumes, carried colored lanterns or torchlights, fired off firecrackers and pistols. Some members took especial pleasure in exploding their weapons close to the ears of passersby. Screams from feminine pedestrians only encouraged them to further sport. "It was no time for nervous timid people to be abroad," commented one observer, who added that this New Year's celebration in Philadelphia was "a remarkable fact in a city where closed window shutters and gloomy streets are the rule."
It was much the same in other cities of the Republic whose people sensed the ending of one cycle, the beginning of another, perhaps the grandest century in the history of mankind. "We are looking forward to the year just born as a special time," the Philadelphia Ledger declared, "a peculiar season in which every American citizen may justly exult in his country's established liberty and steady purpose."
Many Philadelphians spent their New Year's holiday by riding out to Fairmount Park to see what everybody in the country was talking about—the unfinished Exhibition. Enterprising citizens were already bidding eagerly for "concessions for privileges." One man offered $50,000 for the privilege of sweeping the floors of all the buildings, fifty acres of flooring. He hoped to make a profit by charging each exhibitor for janitorial services. The rolling-chair concession was up for $12,000, the soda-water concession for $30,000. Bidding for the popcorn concession was spirited, and was not awarded until February. A newspaper commented, "A popcorn capitalist has given $7,000 for the sole privilege of impairing the digestion of the world at the great fair." A peanut dealer offered $1,000 for the right "to peddle his plebeian fruit," but was rejected on the grounds that the shells would create too much litter. Mechanical peanut shellers had not yet been perfected.
Some people still had doubts about the success of the Exhibition. Business was bad everywhere, banks were failing in many cities, wages were down to one dollar a day for factory workers, desperate farmers in the Midwest were burning corn for fuel.
In late January there was concern over a national ice shortage.* Winter was half past, but had been the warmest on record. Dandelions were blooming in Pennsylvania, peach and cherry trees in Michigan and Kentucky, roses in the Ozarks, sunflowers in Kansas. In the middle states, grasshoppers were eating the first green shoots off wild plants. Two months ahead of the calendar spring, wild geese were flying north, robins building nests. In the marshes of Illinois frogs awoke from a brief December hibernation and began chattering as though it were April. There was no January thaw because there had been no freeze.
Superstitious folk saw in these unnatural occurrences a warning of some terrible retribution from Heaven for the sins of the people. Dealers in ice saw an opportunity to make money and boosted prices 50 per cent. What prices would be by summer, if there was any ice, was a troubling question. Not one ton of ice had been harvested in Connecticut, and the Hudson River which usually produced two million tons was ice-free for two hundred miles. Above Poughkeepsie, thousands of men and boys and horses were idle instead of being engaged in their usual winter task of cutting and hauling ice for Eastern cities.
A Centennial without ice water, lemonade and cold beer was unthinkable. Seeking a solution, the Exhibition's astute directors located a vast ice field in Maine's Penobscot Bay. They made arrangements for cutting and shipping, and the crisis was ended. Philadelphia's Centennial visitors would have their ice.
The directors also persuaded the reluctant railroads to reduce passenger rates to Philadelphia by 25 per cent. A new track was being laid over a direct line of eighty-eight miles between New York and Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Railroad ran a spur out to the very gates of the Exhibition, constructing a depot and three platforms for simultaneous loading and unloading.
Publicity for the great Exhibition spread almost spontaneously, and 40,000,000 Americans began counting savings and wondering if there were family connections in Philadelphia who might receive them for a visit during the summer of 1876. "Centennial mania" was the phrase of the day, and one editorial writer complained, "If ever a poor innocent word has been misused it is the one now rapidly becoming hateful to us—Centennial ... but there is one comfort that it comes only once in a hundred years and that when we are well through this we shall have no more in our time." There were centennial committees, balls and tableaux, centennial buckwheat cakes and soda pop, centennial coffee, cigars and matches. Centennial hats and scarves were the latest fashions. In his theater, Tony Pastor sang a centennial song.
Groups of women attempted to revive the fashions of 1776, meeting with ridicule from male newspaper writers. Two old maids of Saugus, Massachusetts, presented the Exhibition with a packet of tea which their grandfather had pitched into Boston Harbor in 1773. A gentleman from North Carolina donated a gaff with which Andrew Jackson heeled his first chicken at a cockfight in 1785. Other unusual objects arrived daily—the linen napkin in which Hannah Dustin tied up the scalps of Indians she killed at the time she escaped from captivity; a looking glass brought over on the Mayflower; Daniel Webster's plow, built by his own hands in 1837; a trunk of the world's largest grapevine; a pair of false teeth once used by George Washington. The Temperance Society announced it would supply ice water free of cost to all Exhibition visitors, and began erection of a twenty-six-spigot fountain designed in the style of a Greek temple.
All this was grist for newspapers from coast to coast. By the Exhibition's opening day, May 10, Americans were convinced the Centennial was the most remarkable event that would happen in their lifetimes, that the land in which they lived blazed with a new glory, and that it was the solemn duty of every patriot to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia. Before the snows of November, eight million citizens would come "to see the elephant," and to pay their respects to the birthplace of the Republic.
Much in the manner of the Philadelphians, the people of the District of Columbia welcomed the centennial year with a ringing of bells, firing of salutes, and convivial rejoicing. "Everybody enjoyed the nocturnal demonstration," a newspaper correspondent noted, "which commenced in churches and ended in barrooms."
As was the custom, on New Year's Day the Grant family opened the White House to official Washington and the general public. At half past ten o'clock in the morning the diplomatic corps, resplendent in court costumes, began arriving in carriages. Representatives from Russia, Denmark, and Italy wore the shiniest brass buttons and the fanciest embroidery. In the vestibule of the White House, the scarlet-uniformed Marine Band played appropriate airs as visitors were ushered to the Blue Room for their presentations.
"President Grant," remarked one observer, "wore, as every American gentleman is now expected to wear on great occasions, a solemn undertaker's garb of black, with white kid gloves." Mrs. Grant's gown was orange and black. Her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Frederick Grant, wore a silk dress of a new color called "crushed strawberries," trimmed with lace and small bunches of moss, rosebuds and violets.
Slightly to the rear of the principals stood the wives of the cabinet officers. In deference to the more resplendent costumes of the First Lady and her immediate family circle, the cabinet wives (with one exception) wore subdued black velvet. The exception was Amanda Belknap, wife of the Secretary of War. Always gay and effervescent, she defied custom by wearing gold and light-blue silk. Perhaps this lack of conformity might have been a clue to Mrs. Belknap's fate. A few weeks later, her past indiscretions would be exposed, to bring disgrace upon herself and her husband, creating a new scandal to embarrass the Grant Administration.
Excerpted from The Year of the Century by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1966 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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