Voices of the Exhibition: Bostonians at the Centennial
One year ago, I embarked on my first major archival research project outside of the comfort of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I am an undergraduate student studying English literature, communication, and music. The first stop on my journey was at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) to connect with my research advisor, Professor Natalie Dykstra, and an MHS archivist, Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, who is a Hope alumna.
My research project, titled “Voices of the Exhibition,” is a series of four podcasts intended to bring the stories of different people who visited the Centennial Exhibition to life. The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was a world’s fair held in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was attended by 10 million people from around the globe, making it the highest attended world’s fair at that time.
Many diaries and letters of Exhibition-goers have been catalogued at the MHS and other Boston archives. In searching through these archives, I found many interesting sources, but my favorite is the diary of Frank Dudley Chase, which currently resides in the collections at the MHS.
Frank Dudley Chase was 16 years old when he visited the Exhibition, and in elegant penmanship he dutifully recorded everything he encountered while at the fair. From the cost of his train ticket to elaborate descriptions of the exhibits, Chase left little about his journey out of his diary.
Chase was a typical teenage boy who loved being outdoors and did not always like to do his chores. He travelled from Dedham, Massachusetts to Philadelphia for the Exhibition and was at the Exhibition for five days from October 23 to October 28. From descriptions of ammunition to meticulously painted foreign vases, Chase’s diary is a vivid record that provides a glimpse of what exhibits and oddities attracted youthful Exhibition visitors.
On Tuesday, October 24, Chase wrote:
Had a heavy rain last night in the night. Pleasant. Visited Main building. First went through U.S. dept. Near So. Entrance of building were a number of large fancy mirrors. Among these was a couple one concave; the other convex one showing an object unnaturally broad; the other unnaturally slim … Also saw an immense crystal of alum, weighing 9 tons, a 365 bladed pocket knife, a table knife 9 ft 6 in costing $1500 … the silk exhibit showing the eggs, butterflies, cocoons and raw silks … In the Brazilian department saw precious stones among them white topaz, amethyst and agate; collections of beetles and butterflies; a leather exhibit and a porcupine fish…
He and the rest of his group were undoubtedly eager to take in every facet of the Exhibition. However, his diary provides more than a meticulous record of daily weather and exhibits: it is a window into Chase’s experience and the experiences of other teenagers who visited the Exhibition.
The Centennial Exhibition was a fair for the people. It was designed to bring together Americans to celebrate independence and express their patriotism. Furthermore, it provided an education tool that introduced Americans, like Chase, to cultures, inventions, and ideas that were brand new to them.
Before researching at the MHS, I was already able to recite many facts about the Exhibition. I would not call myself an expert in every detail, but I knew a lot. However, it was not until I read Chase’s diary that I fully understood the impact of the Exhibition on the American people. On December 31, two months after visiting Philadelphia, Chase said it best when he wrote: “One great event distinguishes this year in my life, and that is my journey to the Centennial where I learnt more than I should have in many years of quiet life.”
As I look back on the past year, I am still so thankful for the experience I had at the MHS. Not only did I find wonderful information in Chase’s diary, but I read the diary of George W. Ely, a young man who visited the fair, official addresses to the Centennial committee, and letters from prominent Boston citizens, such as members of the Saltonstall family and their friends.
As an undergraduate student, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to do research at such a prestigious institution. I cannot express enough the importance of the MHS to my education and professional development.
Listen to a podcast that features Chase’s diary, titled “Children at the Exhibition.” It is the second podcast in the four-podcast series, all of which can be found on my website at hopehancock94.wordpress.com.
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