top of page
All the World's a Fair

In celebration of the United States’ one-hundredth anniversary of independence, the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine took place in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Popularly known as the “Centennial Exhibition,” this exhibition brought millions of people from across the world to Philadelphia, where they witnessed the accomplishments and advancements of the United States, and achievements of other contributing countries. The Centennial Exhibition, like other world’s fairs, promoted economic development, celebrated historical events, and fostered friendly competition among nations. Nineteenth-century world’s fairs, like the Centennial, were responses to the social and political upheavals caused by industrialization and growing national expenditures on imperialism.

The idea for an international exhibition was not original to the Centennial Exhibition. Such gatherings can be traced at least to the trade fairs of the Middle Ages. Most likely, the advocates of the Centennial Exhibition had in mind the fairs which had been held since the mid-nineteenth century, specifically the famous 1851 Great Exhibition in London, England. Each world’s fair marked an achievement or patriotic theme for the hosting country. For example, in 1889, The Exposition Universelle in Paris, France celebrated the country’s Third Republic, while the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, commemorated the 400 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. Combining a world’s fair with a celebration of independence marked the Centennial Exhibition as one of a kind.

In addition to marking significant events, hosting a world’s fair promoted and encouraged innovation and inventions. Products such as telephones, typewriters, x-ray machines and televisions are some of the best-known technological innovations presented at the fairs. However, fairs did not simply exhibit new technology, rather, they instigated innovations in technology and infrastructure – from new construction materials and techniques to transportation links and mass communication.  Whole cities and regions were regenerated in anticipation of the fairs. World’s fairs also trace the roots of mass tourism--this would be where fair goers would have their first opportunity to experience other countries and culture. Entertainment such as Ferris wheels, roller coasters, etc., lead the way to amusement parks for the masses.

This unit will focus on world’s fairs, specifically Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. It will allow students to evaluate the issues facing the development of the Centennial Exhibition, in terms of contemporaneous events (previous fairs, the Civil War, Industrial Revolution. etc.), analyze the Centennial and its role in creating a unified American culture, and reflect on the how Americans experienced/did not experience the Centennial Exhibition. Students will study 19th century print media of the Exhibition and compare it to current media. How would a world’s fair be advertised today?  The lessons will allow students to engage with primary sources, in order to interpret the events and exhibitions at the Centennial Exhibition based on items published by the Exhibition Committee, supporters, and outside reports, as well as, newspaper articles on the activities of the event. By examining these primary source materials, students will be able to compare how the Centennial was represented in the media versus how Americans experienced the fair. Additionally, these primary sources will help students understand who the fair was marketed to, and how the event affected all citizens.


19th century

Arts and Culture

Community and Public Service







Big Ideas

Perspective on Events

US History

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?

Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historical sites are central to understanding world history.


  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias, and then connect it to a time and place in world history.

  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

Background Material for Teacher

Robert W. Rydell:  All the World’s a Fair

Free Library of Philadelphia: Centennial Exhibition

Library Company of Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Centennial Collection

End of Unit Assessment

“All the world is fair.” In the lesson, the students discussed how the average Americans were often left out of the Centennial Exhibition.  Imagine that all groups of people were equally represented at the Centennial Exhibition. Split the class into groups, assigning each group an underrepresented population at the fair (Native Americans, women, African Americans, etc.) Have each group research and write about how these populations were/were not present at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Then, have the groups plan an exhibit or building for these populations. What would the exhibit look like? How is this representation better than how they were originally represented? Lastly, have the students plan their own Centennial Exhibition in the classroom and discuss what would be included/not included.


Plans in this Unit

Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition

Extra Extra, Read All About Philly

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content



About the Author

Alaina McNaughton

Attention Teachers!

Let us know how you used this plan and be featured on our site! Submit your story here.

bottom of page