Party Like It's 1876! 12 Items From the Centennial Exposition

Getty Images
Getty Images

The 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, which was more commonly known as the Centennial Exposition, was held in Philadelphia in honor of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. From May through October, almost 10 million visitors, including repeat guests, wandered through the 249 temporary buildings and stayed in the temporary hotels constructed in and around Fairmount Park. These visitors were treated to more than 30,000 exhibits from all over the world, with each participating country determined to showcase its inventive clout. Here's a sampling of some of the more famous and bizarre items on display.

1. Corliss Steam Engine

The Corliss steam engine was assembled on a platform in the center of Machinery Hall, the main attraction inside the most popular building at the fair. After presiding over the opening ceremonies, President Ulysses S. Grant and his guest, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro, each pulled a lever to set the famed engine in motion. The impressive machine, which symbolized the United States' rise to industrial prominence, was nearly 50 feet tall and powered most of the machines within the 13-acre building.

2. The Telephone

While the Corliss steam engine initially attracted the largest crowds, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone would eventually become the talk of the fair. Bell, who hadn't planned to attend the event, gave the first public demonstration of his instrument on a sweltering afternoon in June, in front of an audience that included Emperor Pedro and Lord Kelvin. Bell picked up the transmitter and spoke into it. Standing 20 feet away, Empeor Pedro put the receiver up to his ear and famously remarked, "My God, it talks!" Lord Kelvin took the receiver and reportedly said, "It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in America."

3. Portable Bathtub

Ethelbert Watts, a Pennsylvania native who was cashier of the Centennial Board of Finance, introduced a portable bathtub made of rubberized cloth at the Exposition. The inspiration for Watts' invention was what he perceived as a lack of bathing services for travelers.

4. Typographic Machine

The typewriter on display at the Centennial Exposition wasn't nearly as popular with the judges or the public as Bell's telephone. It resembled a sewing machine and featured a QWERTY keyboard that produced only capital letters. The Remington No. 2, which was released in 1878, featured both upper- and lower-case letters on the same type bar. By 1893, Remington was producing typewriters in multiple languages.

5. Mechanical Calculator

George B. Grant, who holds four patents for calculators, displayed his barrel model difference machine in Philadelphia. The machine was 5 feet by 8 feet, weighed 2,000 pounds, and included 15,000 components. When hand-cranked, Grant's invention could calculate 10 to 12 terms per minute. When connected to a power source, its efficiency doubled. The machine received high praise from the judges, but by the 1880s, it was obsolete. Cheaper, more efficient, and—most importantly—smaller models hit the market.

6. Hires Root Beer

Charles Elmer Hires served free glasses of his recently perfected root beer from a booth at the exhibition, a refreshing treat for thirsty fairgoers. The average daily attendance at the fair was never greater than 34,000 between May and August, which was partly the result of a devastating heat wave. The average daily attendance in September and October spiked to roughly 80,000 and 100,000, respectively. Visitors to Hires' booth could purchase 25-cent packages of the dried roots, herbs, and bark that went into his root beer, along with three-ounce bottles of condensed extract. The following year, a local newspaper publisher convinced Hires to advertise his root beer and the rest was history.

7. Bananas

For many visitors, the Philadelphia Exposition was their first opportunity to try an exotic yellow fruit. Bananas, which were still a novelty in the United States and were often served with a knife and fork, were wrapped in tinfoil and sold for 10 cents apiece.

8. Popcorn

Citing records provided by the aforementioned Centennial Board of Finance, which managed to do its job even while some of its members were busy inventing portable bathtubs, the Philadelphia Record reported that a vendor paid $3,000 for the right to sell popcorn at Fairmount Park. "This in its way is as remarkable as the concession to lager at $50,000, and to catalogues at $100,000," the reporter opined. "Considering the cheapness of the delicacy, think how many tons of pop-corn must be sold at the fair in order to justify the merchants in paying $3,000 for the privilege of selling it!" Buttered popcorn was indeed a big hit at the Centennial Exposition. Charles Cretors would display some of his patented popcorn machinery at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

9. Kudzu

Kudzu was one of several ornamental plants exhibited in the Japanese pavilion. While the plant was first used in the United States after the Centennial Exposition as a decorative shade provider, it was later adopted for a much different purpose. When the Soil Erosion Service, which later became the Soil Conservation Service, was created as part of the New Deal, it began recommending kudzu as a means of erosion control. "What, short of a miracle, can you call this plant," Hugh H. Bennett, head of the SCS, remarked.

10. Lady Liberty's Arm and Torch

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who began constructing the Statue of Liberty in 1876, sent the completed arm and torch to Philadelphia for display beginning in August. The torch display was part of a fundraising effort to help pay for the base of the to-be-completed statue. Visitors paid 50 cents to climb a ladder to the balcony around the torch. After the Centennial Exposition closed, the torch was displayed in New York City's Madison Square Garden for several years.

11. Monorail

Long before Disney World opened, General LeRoy Stone's monorail carried passengers around the fairgrounds at the Centennial Exposition. Stone's monorail ran more than 150 yards between Horticultural Hall and Agricultural Hall. The double-decker vehicle featured two main wheels and the rear wheel was powered by a rotary steam engine.

12. Iron Lifeboat

In its centennial look back at the Centennial Exposition, Popular Mechanics recalled the popularity of a lateen-rigged, noncapsizable iron lifeboat on display. "It boasted luxuries no one had ever seen before in a lifeboat—"˜covered accommodations for females and children, arrangements for water-saving, mail box, and required no lowering device.'"

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Fast Facts About Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph made history as a Black female athlete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 20-year-old Tennessee State University sprinter was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. Rudolph’s heroics in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter events only lasted seconds, but her legend persists decades later, despite her untimely 1994 death from cancer at age 54. Here are some facts about this U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member.

1. Wilma Rudolph faced poverty and polio as a child.

When Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she weighed just 4.5 pounds. Olympic dreams seemed impossible for Rudolph, whose impoverished family included 21 other siblings. Among other maladies, she had measles, mumps, and pneumonia by age 4. Most devastatingly, polio twisted her left leg, and she wore leg braces until she was 9.

2. Wilma Rudolph originally wanted to play basketball.

The Tennessee Tigerbelles. From left to right: Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones.Central Press/Getty Images

At Clarksville’s Burt High School, Rudolph flourished on the basketball court. Nearly 6 feet tall, she studied the game, and ran track to keep in shape. However, while competing in the state basketball championship in Nashville, the 14-year-old speedster met a referee named Ed Temple, who doubled as the acclaimed coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team. Temple, who would coach at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, recruited Rudolph.

3. Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a teenager.

Rudolph hit the limelight at 16, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. But that didn’t compare to the media hype when she won three gold medals in 1960. French journalists called her “The Black Pearl,” the Italian press hailed “The Black Gazelle,” and in America, Rudolph was “The Tornado.”

4. After her gold medals, Wilma Rudolph insisted on a racially integrated homecoming.

Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, who supported racial segregation, intended to oversee the Clarksville celebrations when Rudolph returned from Rome. However, she refused to attend her parade or victory banquet unless both were open to Black and white people. Rudolph got her wish, resulting in the first integrated events in the city’s history.

5. Muhammad Ali had a crush on Wilma Rudolph.

Ali—known as Cassius Clay when he won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight boxing title—befriended Rudolph in Rome. That fall, the 18-year-old boxer invited Rudolph to his native Louisville, Kentucky. He drove her around in a pink Cadillac convertible.

6. John F. Kennedy literally fell over when he invited Wilma Rudolph to the White House.

President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche Rudolph, and Vice President Johnson in the Oval Office.Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

In 1961, Rudolph met JFK in the Oval Office. After getting some photos taken together, the President attempted to sit down in his rocking chair and tumbled to the floor. Kennedy quipped: “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” They chatted for about 30 minutes.

7. Wilma Rudolph held three world records when she retired.

Rudolph chose to go out on top and retired in 1962 at just 22 years old. Her 100-meter (11.2 seconds), 200-meter (22.9 seconds), and 4 x 100-meter relay (44.3 seconds) world records all lasted several years.

8. Wilma Rudolph visited West African countries as a goodwill ambassador.

The U.S. State Department sent Rudolph to the 1963 Friendship Games in Dakar, Senegal. According to Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, while there, Rudolph independently met with future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, a nationalist youth movement. She visited Mali, Guinea, and the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as well.

9. Denzel Washington made his TV debut in a movie about Wilma Rudolph.

Before his Oscar-winning performances in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), a 22-year-old Denzel Washington portrayed Robert Eldridge, Rudolph’s second husband, in Wilma (1977). The film also starred Cicely Tyson as Rudolph’s mother Blanche.

10. Schools, stamps, and statues commemorate Wilma Rudolph’s legacy.

Berlin, Germany, has a high school named after Rudolph. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating her in 2004. Clarksville features a bronze statue by the Cumberland River, the 1000-capacity Wilma Rudolph Event Center, and Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In Tennessee, June 23 is Wilma Rudolph Day.