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Significance

Although not a financial success for its investors, the Centennial Exhibition was an immense success in showcasing American culture and industry in a world setting. The benefits of the Centennial to the American economy, foreign relations and wartime recovery were impressive. In 1851 America had been embarrassed by its inability to compete on a par with other nations at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. By 1876 foreign visitors were impressed and captivated by American progress and industrial know-how. The writer and critic William Dean Howells observed, "no one can see the fair without a thrill of patriotic pride."

What most impressed foreign visitors most was America's growing industrial and commercial advantage. The Times of London, while noting America's home ground advantage observed, "the products of the industry of the United States surpassed our own oftener than can be explained by this circumstance -- they revealed the application of more brains than we have at our command." In 1899 the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Statistics was able to prove

conclusively that the international exhibitions in which the United States has been interested have had an important and direct effect in its increasing exports. Prior to 1876 the balance of trade had been against the United States. After the [Centennial] exposition the tide turned in favor of this country.
U.S. Foreign Trade [in millions of dollars]
  Imports Exports Balance
1875 533 499 -34
1876 461 526 +65
1877 451 590 +139

The Centennial fixed America in the minds of the outside world as a nation of inventors and mechanics instead of a nation of farmers. In The Brothers Karamazov (1882) when Dmitry considers escaping to America he is unable to bear the thought of leaving his beloved Russia "though they were all of them there marvelous engineers, or whatever it is they are there- to hell with them!"

The Centennial Exhibition was not intentionally a showcase for technological invention or innovation. Nations and industries wanted to show the best they had to offer, and while this meant newer and advanced models, few were willing to risk demonstrating unproven prototypes. Nevertheless, the Centennial ushered in an unprecedented era of invention as America moved from the age of steam to the age of electricity and the internal combustion engine. The Centennial served to prepare Americans for changes to come, and to prepare them for a wider international role.

 

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