Diana Parsell Writer

Diana Parsell Writer

Diana Parsell Writer

At America's First World's Fair, Eliza Scidmore and … Irish Oatmeal!

When you’re working on a book involving U.S. history, you see connections everywhere.

The latest for me is steel-cut oats, which I love for their chewy nuttiness. Oatmeal really fuels you to start the day, without the hunger pangs I usually get around 11:00 when I have my other standard breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and meusli. The only drawback is that old-fashioned oatmeal takes 30 minutes to cook.

While waiting for the pot to boil a few days ago, I noticed an intriguing link to a chapter I’m working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

The steel-cut oats I bought are imported from Ireland under the company name “John McCann.” The arty label — if it’s not just a fake marketing ploy — features a “Certificate of Award” for the product from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. That was America’s first World’s Fair, held for the 100th anniversary of U.S. independence.

The exposition is where Eliza Scidmore made her reporting debut, at the age of 19, writing for a Washington newspaper.


Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition

Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Colombian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

Eliza Scidmore was there too. The Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the first big event of its kind in the United States, and most Americans had never seen anything like it. During the six-month run, from May to November 1876, it drew about 9 million visitors. The admission fee was 50 cents. 

The official name of the fair was the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine. It sprawled across 256 acres in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, along the Schuylkill River. Three dozen foreign countries sent exhibits, as did many states, companies, and government agencies. About 30,000 businesses were represented. Including John McCann from Ireland, producer of Steel Cut Oat Meal.

The hottest attraction was the largest steam engine in the world — the Corliss engine, 70 feet high and 50 tons. It rumbled to life a couple of times a day in the Manufacturing Hall.

Another big draw was a colossal arm that pushed up from the ground alongside an artificial lake. Holding an electrically lit torch, it offered a preview of the Statue of Liberty that French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi was creating for the New York harbor.

Statue of Liberty arm (Centennial Photographic Co.)

The Philadelphia exhibition was also significant to Eliza’s story because it gave her and millions of Americans their first glimpse of Japanese art and culture.

Japan had only been open to the outside world for a generation so there was much pent-up curiosity about the little-known “island empire.” The period gave rise to “Japonisme,” a craze for all things Japanese that heavily influenced Western art and design.

Eliza helped satisfy the curiosity in her best-known book, Jinrikisha Days in Japan.

One of my favorite findings in researching the fair: colorful “crazy quilts” popular in America in the late 19th-century arose in response to ceramics and other Japanese art that were on display.

Crazy quilt from 1880s to 1890s (Source: Nebraska State Historical Society)

Crazy quilt from 1880s to 1890s (Source: Nebraska State Historical Society)

A few of the other things Americans were introduced to at the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876:

• Goldfish as pets

• Bananas as snacks

• Dry yeast

• Patented inventions like a new flat iron and a rotary washer (both developed by women)

•Ice-cream sodas



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