Photographs and ephemera relating to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, held in Nashville in 1897.
In 1897, Tennessee held a six-month celebration to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of statehood. The Tennessee Centennial Exposition was held in Nashville from May 1 until October 30, 1897, although the state’s actual centennial occurred in 1896. The images in this collection primarily depict the array of buildings and individuals involved with this celebration, and are drawn from various record groups in the holdings of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Other interesting ephemera relating to the Centennial Exposition is also displayed, including a rare cyanotype of a building at the exhibition’s Vanity Fair.
At twelve noon on May 1, 1897, President William McKinley officially opened the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. While the president would not visit the Exposition until the next month, organizers of the event arranged for him to press an electric button in the White House that sparked equipment at the fair’s Machinery Building. Thus began a half-year of joyous opportunity for the state’s citizens to commemorate the past hundred years of Tennessee’s achievements and history.
Douglas Anderson, a Nashville lawyer, sent letters arguing for a centennial celebration to several influential Tennessee newspapers in 1892. Later, in 1895, J. B. Killebrew addressed the Tennessee General Assembly with a speech entitled “The Centennial Exposition: Its Necessity and Advantages.” Despite this early discussion of an Exposition, the Tennessee fair was held a year late. A nationwide economic recession, along with disagreements between the various divisions of the state, delayed the event until 1897.
Railroad companies enthusiastically supported plans for the Exposition. Ultimately, these companies provided essential support for the Exposition: they staged dramatic exhibits in different buildings, offered discount fares and excursion lines to the Centennial grounds, and published regional advertising in niche publications such as the Confederate Veteran. A railroad spur was constructed from downtown Nashville’s terminal to the Centennial grounds. Railroad companies’ promotion of the event undoubtedly aided its success, and most of the event’s organizers were railroad executives who realized the lucrative possibilities of a Nashville exposition. The president of the Centennial Exposition, John W. Thomas, was also president of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway.
The success of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition established a benchmark for future fairs across the country. Chicago’s fair introduced the City Beautiful movement to the nation, which called for grand Classical buildings set in park-like environments, complete with reflecting pools and promenades. The Tennessee Centennial strove to replicate both the architecture and the success of Chicago’s fair, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.
An array of buildings covered the grounds of the Centennial Exposition. Each edifice was constructed to serve only a temporary purpose; none of the original buildings stand today. The nearly one hundred structures ran the spectrum from the eccentric, such as those in Vanity Fair, to the splendidly ornate.
Construction style for the primary structures imitated the buildings of Chicago’s “White City,” the nickname given to the fairgrounds of the 1893 fair. Buildings exaggerated the standard elements of Classical design, with grand pediments, deep entablatures, columns capped by various orders of capitals, and fine rows of arched windows.
Different cities and states provided individual buildings. The most popular of these was perhaps the Fine Arts building, a full-scale reproduction of the Parthenon in Athens. In 1897, Nashville had already acquired its nickname “The Athens of the South,” so the building epitomized the city’s classical ideals. Following the Victorian custom of the day, it was crammed with sculpture, paintings, and watercolors, for a total of 1,175 art objects.
The History Building was modeled on the Erechtheon, another ancient Athenian building. It housed display space for the Tennessee Historical Society, United Confederate Veterans, Colonial Dames, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Memphis’s contribution to the Centennial grounds took the shape of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. Memphis looked to its namesake, the ancient city on the Nile, and constructed a building that represented the architecture of Egypt. This reproduction served as the headquarters of both the Memphis and Shelby County delegations.
The largest Exposition building, the Commerce Building, measured 591 feet long and 256 feet wide. The next building in size, the Agriculture Building (525 feet by 200 feet), likewise illustrated the importance of a vital aspect of the state’s economy.
The Minerals and Forestry building featured products representative of its name. This building also provided a home for the exhibits of the State of Georgia, and of Marshall and Hamilton Counties, Tennessee. Within this building, Hamilton County built a replica of Ann Hathaway’s English cottage to house its Exposition headquarters.
A small, decorative structure provided information about and diversion for the state’s younger residents. The Children’s Building also housed a model kindergarten, which met throughout the fair season and allowed fairgoers to see this relatively novel form of education put into practice on a daily basis. Children from across the state were selected to participate in the kindergarten at a time when few schools contained such classes.
The Education and Hygiene Building boasted some of the most cutting-edge technology to be found at the Exposition. About 420 square feet of this building was dedicated to exhibits sponsored by the University of Tennessee, and this space was partially devoted to X-ray technology. Other schools involved with the building included the University of the South, Cumberland University, Vanderbilt University, and Wellesley College.
Another large and beautiful building—the United States government Report on the Centennial Exposition refers to it as “perhaps the most beautiful on the ground”—served as a forum and exhibition space for African American history and culture. The Negro Building told “the story of achievement under obstacles often seemingly impossible to overcome.” The April 5, 1897 Nashville American describes the building in detail, including an overview of the sights to be seen from its twin 90-foot towers.
What today’s fairgoers refer to as the “Midway”—the portion of a fair devoted to games, rides, and other thrills—was known at the Centennial Exposition as “Vanity Fair.” With respect to games, rides, and thrills, Vanity Fair did not disappoint.
Vanity Fair contained a diverse arrangement of the exotic and the mundane: the Cuban Village sat near a Nebraska sod house, the “Old Plantation” sat across from a reproduction of the Alhambra, and a living Chinese village was established next to the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
Earlier fairs, like Chicago’s and Paris’s, featured iconic centerpieces to embody the spirit of the time (the Ferris Wheel and Eiffel Tower, respectively). Not to be outdone, Tennessee unveiled the Giant See-saw as the centerpiece of Vanity Fair. The 75-feet-high see-saw’s two cars each held 20 people, lifting them high into the air for a panoramic view of the city. The Giant See-saw did not, however, have the staying power of the Ferris Wheel or the Eiffel Tower. The full-scale replica of the Parthenon became the de facto symbol of the Centennial, finding its way onto souvenir coins and other memorabilia of the fair.
New technologies (such as the aforementioned X-ray at the University of Tennessee exhibit) were often showcased at fairs like the Centennial Exposition. Thomas Edison introduced Nashville to motion pictures with his “Electric Scenic Theater,” which featured several brief films. This early incarnation of the cinema was known as “Edison’s Mirage,” and stood on the main thoroughfare of Vanity Fair.
Perhaps one of the most interesting attractions at Vanity Fair—especially to the many Civil War veterans who visited the Exposition—was the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama. The Cyclorama was a massive cylindrical painting that depicted the decisive 1863 battle. Visitors entered a specially-made building and were able to stand in the center of the painting, giving them a 360-degree perspective from which to view the artwork. This was one of four editions of the Cyclorama painting. One of these is still on view at the Battle of Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Over the course of the Exposition’s six months, many days were adopted by cities, states, or organizations. Theme days usually involved speeches, parades, and other festivities, and often resulted in surges in attendance. The most popular of these was held on October 28, near the end of the Exposition. The day’s primary purpose was to honor Centennial president John W. Thomas; additionally, the day was known as Presbyterian Day and Atlanta Day. The combined effect of these celebrations resulted in the Exposition’s largest single-day attendance: 98,579 visitors. (Incidentally, the Official History of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition points out that this number accounted for 98.5% of Nashville’s population at that time.) Many of these fairgoers would also have enjoyed the “sham battles”—Civil War reenactments—that were yet another feature of the day.
The United Confederate Veterans’ Days ran for three days in late June. From June 22 to 24, over 74,000 individuals—including many Confederate veterans—visited the fair’s booths, exhibits, and other sights. June 2 was deemed Grand Army of the Republic Day, in honor of the Union Civil War veterans holding their 14th annual convention in Nashville that day.
Other theme days catered to very specific audiences, while others provided an occasion for annual conventions: Supreme Senate Knights of the Ancient Essenic Order met at the Exposition from May 1 to 3; Winter Wheat Millers converged on June 9; Cotton-Seed Crushers of the South met from July 16 to 17; Stenographers’ Days were held August 3 to 5; and the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo assembled at the Centennial grounds on August 18.
The African-American presence at the Centennial was especially robust. The Exposition hosted a number of so-called “Negro days,” usually centered around the grand Negro Building, according to a contemporary newspaper. One of the largest of these gatherings was the opening of the Negro Building itself, on June 5. On that day, the Nashville American trumpeted the “Gala Day for Negroes,” providing instructions for participants and an overview of the day’s activities. A parade and multitude of musical entertainment were only part of the agenda for the day.
August 25 was officially named "Colored Employee’s Day." All African-American employees of the Centennial Exposition were given the day off, and a diverse crowd of 12,000 converged on the grounds to celebrate the event. Nashville’s Pearl School was well-represented that day: the institution’s W. L. Jones provided the welcoming address, and the Pearl School Drill Corps performed. Other "Negro Days" were held on June 14 (Fisk University Day); June 22-25 (Colored Educational Congress); July 29 (Negro Working People Labor and Art Association); among others. September 22, Emancipation Day, featured an address in the Auditorium by Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute.
National celebrities occasionally visited the Exposition in conjunction with theme days. William Jennings Bryan, the prominent Nebraskan and frequent presidential candidate, visited on his state’s day, October 8. (He would return to Tennessee in a much different capacity twenty-eight years later, to lead the prosecution against high school teacher John Scopes in the famed Monkey Trial.)
President William McKinley and his wife attended Centennial festivities on June 11 and 12. These two days were designated as Ohio and Cincinnati Days, respectively, and a substantial delegation from those locales attended the Exposition to see the president. The mayor of Cincinnati and the governor of Ohio each briefly addressed the crowds, and a grand breakfast was held in honor of Mrs. McKinley in the Woman’s Building.
Various congressmen, secretaries, and other notable individuals visited the Centennial on other theme days, usually presenting crowds with rhapsodic speeches praising Tennessee, her people, and her products.
A total of 1,786,714 people attended the six-month celebration in Nashville—far fewer than attended the Chicago Fair or the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Officials had originally hoped that 2,000,000 people would visit the fair. One explanation for this minor shortfall was that a yellow fever epidemic was raging in the Gulf Coastal states. This prevented some individuals in that region from attending the Exposition, and likely frightened many Northerners from attending as well.
While the Chicago and St. Louis World Fairs each attracted between 20 and 30 million people and became major milestones in the histories of those cities, the Nashville exposition failed to capture the nation’s collective imagination. The Tennessee Centennial Exposition was one of a series of smaller fairs, mainly in the Southeast, that intended to assert the region’s industrial might after Reconstruction. Similar fairs were held in Atlanta in 1895 and Knoxville in 1910.
Reminders of the Exposition are scattered through the West End area of Nashville. A statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt, sculpted by Giuseppe Moretti and paid for almost entirely by the Executive Committee of the Exposition, now stands on the Vanderbilt University campus.
Lake Watauga remains a focal point of Centennial Park. Though the Exposition’s other bodies of water no longer exist, the area that was once Lily Lake now contains the park’s formal gardens. The Parks Department has provided informational signposts around the periphery of the park to educate the public about the events of 1897.
A less fortunate consequence of the Centennial occurred in the form of a Tennessee Supreme Court case. The case of J.B. Ellison v. W.P. Spain, involving workers from Vanity Fair’s Palace of Illusions and Mirror Maze, raged on for several years after the closure of the Exposition.
The fair nonetheless became a great source of civic pride for Nashvillians. Today the fairgrounds survive as Centennial Park, the flagship park managed by the Metropolitan Nashville Parks and Recreation Department. The Parthenon was re-created in the 1920s using permanent materials. It continues to operate as a gallery, featuring a variety of artworks such as paintings from the Hudson River School and local artists, dozens of pieces of sculpture, including replicas of the Elgin Marbles, and a 42-foot gold-plated statue of the goddess Athena.