The Centennial Effect: When Photography Replaces Memory

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The Centennial Photographic Company’s Studio and Employees. The Centennial Photographic
Company, 1876.

On America’s 97th birthday an army of workers put up three miles of fencing around a tract in West Fairmount Park. By the time the 100th birthday rolled around, these  fields, swamps and ravines had been transformed into a polychromatic city of 249 buildings. More than 185,000 came for the ceremonies opening day; by the time the Centennial Exhibition closed in November more than 10 million had visited.

For decades, the Centennial resonated in the national memory. Philadelphia’s World’s Fair was a declaration of its own sort, rivaling for its day the events of 1776. The city expected success, but seemed almost taken aback by its scale and scope. Philadelphians would try to leverage the next two anniversaries of Independence in 1926 and 1976 into World’s Fairs. But the historical moment at the 150th and the 200th anniversaries of the nation paled by comparison with that of 1876.

The Centennial’s success was a matter of tone, timing and orchestration and it seemed almost too good to be true. And as the real memories of this temporary installation faded, the event’s photographic legacy began to take over and re-cast its success with images serving as a kind of a public memory bank. And since the Centennial Photographic Company produced and disseminated more images than Americans had ever seen for any other event, the national memory found a partner in photography. Thousands upon thousands would propel the Centennial forward into the American historical imagination—forever.

Just as the Centennial rose up from the ground, so did the Centennial Photographic Company. It went from zero to 200 employees; from zero to producing more than 150,000 photographic souvenirs in a single month. A team of photographers made 2,820 negatives; its printers printed, cutters cut, mounters mounted, and salespeople sold in a room lined with “pigeonholes” filled and re-filled them every day. It was a 24/7 operation. Through the night, the building resounded with the snap of fresh prints being trimmed. The next day, the crew of women pasted them—as many as 6,000 per day—onto buff-colored cards. Visitors bought stereographs for a quarter each; the largest prints (17 ” x 21”) sold for $5.

Photographer John L. Gihon shared what it was like working for the Centennial Photographic Company. In his “Rambling Remarks” published in The Philadelphia Photographer, we get a sense the pressure on Gihon from  anxious bosses and jostling crowds. He described his work: “Standing upon tiptoe on the topmost step of your ladder, arranging and rearranging probably a mammoth box, stifled and sweating under the confinement of a heavy head cloth, peering on a ground glass, out of the obscurity depicted on which you could barely trace the outlines of some object unusually bright, confused by the talking, laughing and uncomplimentary remarks of the people, and the incessant shuffling of their feet in what you knew to be dangerous proximity.”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos “Agricultural Hall from the South Gallery,” The Centennial Photographic
Company, 1876.

Glass cases “gave rise to reflections and counter-reflections that dodged in upon” back-to-back exhibitions. “Each plane, when looked at superficially,” he wrote, “would show equally as well as the goods of its opposite neighbor as those which it protected.” When he could, Gihon got exhibitors to open the doors of their cases and unfurled black cloth to screen distractions and reflections. But there were always more problems. The marble floors in Memorial Hall offered no grip for the metal-tipped tripod legs. Often, exhibitors wouldn’t let photographers rope off areas to work in. On those occasions, Gihon and his colleagues came in as maintenance crews mopped. They’d avoid the hoards of visitors, but bright, raking, early morning light streamed in, compromising their images.

Even so, photographing on deadline and in tight quarters, Gihon and his fellow photographers captured the sense of excitement as to all what America produced and sold, from shirts to gas apparatus; oil cloth to wind turbines; locomotives to calculating machines. And with their wide-angle lenses and high-up perspectives, the photographs conveyed, again, again and yet again (in Gihon’s favorite building, Agricultural Hall, illustrated) the Centennial’s huge scale and impact.

No matter how convincing they seem, these photographs—and there are 1,351 here—are not the Centennial but rather a substitute for that lost reality. At best, they provide a manipulated simulation of real events. As a foreign dignitary observed Centennial’s opening day: “Nobody can see anything, nobody can do anything, all rush, push, tear, shout make plenty noise, say ‘damn’ great many times, get very tired and go home.” Reality is precious and fleeting, but it’s also often oppressively mundane. Photography filters the everyday out of reality and leaves the viewer with something that’s real, but that something projects its own unique message.