1876 World's Fair

The Centennial International Exhibition, 1876

Common Core Standards: RH2

Connections: This lesson should be preceded by a lesson on the origins of the world’s fair experience. It is to be included in the discussion of the flowering of the industrial revolution in the U.S.

Time: The lesson is designed to take one 50 minute class period. It should be preceded by a half period discussion of the world’s fair concept and its history, prior to and subsequent to 1876. The students should also be given a one page “read ahead” to set the stage. There should be time set aside during the following day’s activities to wrap up the lesson and answer any questions generated but not fully addressed the previous day.


  • To follow up on the previous lesson about world’s fairs by explaining that the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, in Philadelphia, was the first world’s fair in America.
  • To explain the Centennial Exhibition was part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States.
  • To get the students to explore the idea that the Exhibition was an announcement to the world that the U.S. had come of age as a mature nation.
  • To illustrate that the fair was also an opportunity for Americans to discover what new kids of consumer products were becoming available.


The lesson will open with a handout including a picture of the Corliss engine, a huge steam engine and symbol of American industrial capability.  The instructor will explain the time period, the purpose, and the effect of the fair.


Learning Activities 

Introduction (initiation):  5 min.

Breaking into four groups: 30 min.

Group one will be required to decide why a world’s fair might be a good way to celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  They will be required to come up with at least four points that supports the idea.

Group two will consider how the fair represented the founding of the nation.  What things were on display that related to 1776?  At least 12 things should be identified.

Group three will be charged with identifying the international aspects of the fair.  What countries were represented?  Why would a country want to create an exhibit to be shown in Philadelphia?

Group four will make a list of the new consumer products that were becoming available to the Americans.  Why was the fair a good venue for introducing new products?  What groups would benefit from the demonstration of consumer goods?

Reporting out:  10 min.

Each group will present their findings to the class.  Each group will also hand in a summary of its results.

Closure:  5 min.

Teacher will summarize the results of the activities and explain the preparation (homework) necessary for the following day.


Each group will need access to the internet via the mobile lab in the classroom.  A copy of the book Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition should also be available in the classroom as well as any other materials relating to the fair that can be obtained.  An advertisement for the 2010 Shanghai Expo would be an excellent way to connect the Philadelphia Exposition with the larger subject of world fairs and expos.

Other ideas:

There were songs and poems especially authored in response to the fair.  It might be interesting to get a copy of Kate Harrington’s Centennial, and Other Poems and work it into a cross curriculum project with the English department.  It could be studied in conjunction with patriotic and celebratory poems of the 19th century.

Further Reading:

Gross, Linda P.; Theresa R. Snyder (2005).  Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Arcadia Publishing.  ISBN 0-7385-3888-4