Chicago’s “World’s Columbian Exposition” closed its doors in October 1893 . Its magnificent neoclassical buildings, designed by McKim Mead and White and recently made infamous in Erik Larson’s narrative history The Devil in the White City, quickly vanished. For all its grandeur, the “White City” was a mirage of plaster and lathe. For a few brief months, its echoing halls and grand boulevards hosted over 27 million visitors, who marveled at paintings, industrial machinery, locomotives, and other curiosities — such as a replica of a Viking ship and prototype of the zipper.
And then there was the Midway Plaisance, which featured crowd-pleasing attractions such as a 263 foot high Ferris wheel, belly dancers, and people from around the world displayed in mock native “villages.”
Despite its brief life, most of the Columbian Exposition’s contents lived on, virtually undivided and intact, for nearly a century, halfway across the country. One of the attendees was a University of Pennsylvania botanist named William P. Wilson, became obsessed with the idea of a “permanent world’s exposition” that would allow America to continue to display its manufacturing and industrial prowess to the world. Yet to realize his dream, Wilson needed the ear of someone with power and money.
He found his man in Dr. William Pepper, the recently retired provost of the University of Pennsylvania. A respect surgeon possessing a family fortune made in brewing and real estate, Pepper had spent the previous decade raising money to expand the University’s faculty and campus. Philadelphia’s elite knew that the good doctor was a master fund-raiser. His most recent pet project was the University of Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, located at 34th and South Streets in a hulking Byzantine palace designed by Wilson Eyre Jr.
With massive resources and powerful connections at his disposal, Pepper commanded Wilson to purchase most of the exhibits from the Chicago exposition and ship them by train to Philadelphia. After several years in a temporary structure, in 1897 the collections of the so-called Philadelphia Commercial Museum moved into a grand neoclassical home located cheek-by-jowl with the University Museum and Franklin Field. Its main facade bore a striking resemblance to the one of the Louvre in Paris. Although fronted by a green lawn, it was only a stone’s throw away from the chuffing, screeching trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In the tradition of its predecessor, the Commercial Museum contained exhibits that ranked various civilizations in terms of technology and progress.
Wilson, like many American scientists of his time, was fascinated by eugenics and Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest.” For example, Wilson got a three-year leave of absence from the University to organize and mount a “living” exhibition of 1,200 Filipinos in France. The timing of this exhibition of “human curiosities” was no mere coincidence. For the past decade, America had been waging a bloody war against Philippine rebels desiring self-government. The Philippines–like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam–had been handed over to America by Spain following its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1897. Cuba was given its independence–albeit with a government friendly to US interests–and Puerto Rico became a territory. The Philippines, however, was given no such special status. American imperialists viewed the Filipinos as racially inferior and hence incapable of self-government. In the ensuing guerrilla war, an estimated 250,000 Filipinos died before the rebellion was put down.
Such imperialist behavior prompted outrage by many prominent American businessmen and intellectuals. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had fled the British class system in his native Scotland, wrote in 1898 that if America took overseas possessions, then it was in danger of losing its founding republican goals forever:
This drain upon the resources of these countries has become a necessity from their respective positions, largely as graspers for foreign possessions. The United States to-day, happily, has no such necessity, her neighbors being powerless against her, since her possessions are concentrated and her power is one solid mass.
His friend and American Anti-Imperialist League colleague Mark Twain argued that it was the obligation of the United States to set the Filipinos free, and that making them a part of a new American “empire” was hypocrisy:
It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
As for the Commercial Museum, it never lived up to its promise of making Philadelphia a center of international commerce. After Wilson’s death in 1926, its prestige and revenues steadily declined. By the 1930s, it was completely overshadowed by the Art Deco mass of the Civic Center. It 2004, after being open only to groups of touring schoolchildren, the deteriorating structure was demolished and replaced by an expansion to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Its collections, the last remnants of the “Great White City,” were disbursed to other Philadelphia institutions such as the Mutter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Free Library, and the Independence Seaport Museum.
Andrew Carnegie, “Distant Possessions: The Parting of the Ways,” North American Review, August 1898, https://web.viu.ca/davies/H324War/Carnegie.Distant.1898.htm
“The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum,” Independence Seaport Museum, http://www.phillyseaport.org/rise-fall-philadelphia-commercial-museum, accessed December 27, 2015.
“Midway Plaisance Park,” Chicago Parks District, http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/Midway-Plaisance-Park/, accessed December 27, 2015.
Mark Twain, The New York Herald, October 15, 1900, http://loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html, accessed December 27, 2015.