From Satire to Struggle

An Analysis of Changing American Identity Using Our Show; a Humorous Account of the International Exposition

This project was advised by Dr. Jeanne Petit.


Abstract

In 1876, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The Exhibition operated as a platform for the United States to showcase all of its innovations and demonstrate how far the young nation had come in 100 years.  The Exhibition quickly gained international popularity and attracted 10 million visitors over the span of the six months it was open.  However, not all Americans took the Exhibition so seriously.  Our Show; a Humorous Account of the International Exposition, co-written by Philadelphians David Solis Cohen and Harry B. Sommer, is a satirical book that was published in 1875, prior to the opening of the Exhibition.  In Our Show, Cohen and Sommer poked fun at everything from the building materials used to the members to the Centennial Board.  The authors used Our Show to provide a platform for Americans to grapple with the fluctuating identity of the United States.  Relying on ambiguity and wit, Cohen and Sommer discuss ways that United States’ society was changing in terms of women’s roles in society, the rise of industrialization, and the growth of an excessive culture. This paper explores how historians can use humorous and satirical publications to understand the impact of social change in American society.


Paper

From Satire to Struggle


Galleries

Centennial Fun is a book that was published sometime around the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Much information about Centennial Fun, in terms of who published it and where it was published, is unknown.  It consists of a multitude of witty stories, most likely submitted from various authors.  These stories have nothing to do with the Centennial Exhibition, or the centennial year in general, in particular, but the pages are also decorated with cartoons that all poke fun at various aspects of the Exhibition.

At the time of Centennial Fun’s publication, I would assume that it’s purpose was to show that the Exhibition was not as perfect as advertisements made it out to be.  Primarily, however, it was a means of getting people to laugh about these faults.  Now, we may use these illustrations to examine how people used humor to express opinions and ideologies of gender and class.

Below, all of the cartoons featured in Centennial Fun are posted in separate galleries.  The galleries are divided by categories of cartoons: overcrowding, excess, gender, people at the Exhibition, accidents, money, and “extra fun,” or ones that didn’t fit into a specific category.  Each gallery has a description of why I divided certain cartoons into that section.  If you click on each cartoon, you will be able to scroll through that gallery and read the caption for each image.  Enjoy!

Overcrowding


No exhibition prior to 1876 could match the size and scale of the Centennial Exhibition.  It was without a doubt the top world’s fair of its time.  However, this didn’t mean that it was without its flaws.  Overcrowding was one issue that many visitors faced.  In fact, it was such a large issue that a number of the cartoons in Centennial Fun portray the lack of room and some humorous ways to cope with the situation.

Excess


The Centennial Exhibition gave rise to the “Age of Excess” in the United States.  With the rise of industrialization and technological advancements, the U.S. was producing goods in mass quantities to the point of having too much.  These cartoons display physical examples of some of the ways the excessive culture was creeping into the Exhibition.

Gender


Gender roles for women were changing in the 19th century.  The Centennial Exhibition displayed this by having the first ever Women’s Pavilion at a world’s fair, filled with goods created by women.  Women also played an important role in planning the Exhibition.  These cartoons provide a glimpse of some of the ways women were portrayed in media at the time.  If you would like to learn more about women at the Exhibition, listen to my podcast.

People at the Exhibition


This section looks at some humorous ways different classes and races of people were portrayed in the 19th century.  Some of these cartoons, specifically those dealing with race, would not be allowed in a publication of this sort today.  However, racial stereotypes were very prevalent at the fair.  Countries from all over the world came to Philadelphia to display the fruits of their nation.  While many Americans thoroughly enjoyed getting a taste of the globe at the fair, they didn’t always know how to interact with other cultures.  For a lot of visitors, the Exhibition would be the only time they would ever experience a different culture.  These cartoons speak to some of the stereotypes surrounding other cultures, and even other classes of American people, at the fair.

Accidents


As mentioned, the Centennial Exhibition was not perfect. These cartoons provide a glimpse of some of the common accidents at the fair and some different ways to handle those situations.

Money


Although the Exhibition was fairly reasonable in terms of price, people did complain that it cost too much.  Here are a couple of cartoons that speak to that!

Extra Fun!


The following cartoons couldn’t be easily categorized into one of the above sections.  Enjoy scrolling through them for some extra laughs, and I hope that you found these cartoons to be a  insightful lens into the Centennial Exhibition!