Centennial International Exhibition 

U.S. #3 – One of several stamps reprinted for the exhibition.

On May 10, 1876, the first official World’s Fair in the United States was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fair also commemorated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Prior to this, the U.S. had staged the Great Central Fair of 1864, one of several sanitary fairs held during the Civil War. This and similar fairs showed how public, private, and commercial efforts could join together for a larger fair. The 1864 fair included handmade and industrial exhibits and a visit from the president and his family and offered ordinary citizens the chance to support the welfare of Union soldiers and join in the war effort.

U.S. #4 – Only 3,883 were sold at the exhibition.

Two years after that fair, John L. Campbell, a professor at Wabash College, first suggested a world’s fair in Philadelphia to mark America’s centennial. Initially, many people thought it was a bad idea. They believed that they wouldn’t be able to find funding and that America’s exhibits might not measure up to those of foreign nations. With support from the Franklin Institute, though, the fair was approved in January 1870.

Funding came from several sources – the city, the state, and extensive fund raising. New hotels were built and transportation was improved to bring people into and around Philadelphia. The 115-acre fairgrounds housed more than 200 buildings. These included five main buildings as well as separate structures for state, federal, foreign, corporate, and public exhibits. This was an unusual strategy compared to past fairs that usually only had one or a few large buildings.

U.S. #223 is from the last set produced by the American Bank Note Company for 50 years.

The fair’s formal name was “The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine,” but it was more commonly known as the Centennial Exhibition. It was originally supposed to open in April, to honor the battle of Lexington and Concord, but it had to be delayed due to construction issues. The fair finally opened on May 10, 1876, with the ringing of bells throughout Philadelphia. President Ulysses S. Grant, Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and their wives participated in the opening ceremonies. Grant and Pedro ended the ceremony by turning on the Corliss Steam Engine that powered many of the exposition’s machines.

That first day, 186,272 people were in attendance, though 110,000 had free passes. Attendance dropped off sharply after that, and was further hurt by a heat wave in June and July. Cooling temperatures and positive reviews later created a surge in attendance.

U.S. #1594 from the Americana Series.

Visitors to the fair saw a number of new inventions, including sewing machines, typewriters, stoves, air-powered tools, lanterns, guns, horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and an array of agricultural equipment. Among the most popular exhibits were the world’s first monorail system and a portion of the Statue of Liberty (its arm and torch). Visitors could pay 50¢ to climb a ladder to the top of the torch. These funds were used to help pay for the statue’s pedestal. Additionally, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was set up at opposite ends of one hall to show how voice could travel over wires. And Thomas Edison displayed his Automatic telegraph system and electric pen. Visitors were also introduced to some new foods, including bananas, popcorn, and Heinz ketchup.

The U.S. Post Office Department also had a strong presence at the fair. They wanted to sell every U.S. stamp at the exhibition, even those that were no longer in use. Because many of the original plates couldn’t be found, new ones had to be engraved. Observant collectors noticed subtle differences, so Scott gave them their own numbers. Not realizing they had created philatelic rarities, the Post Office Department sold them as planned. Most of these stamps weren’t valid for postage and were issued in very small quantities. And most of the unsold stamps were later destroyed!

U.S. #2364 – The John Bull steam engine was on display at the fair.

While the fair didn’t turn a significant profit, 10 million people attended it. Additionally, it showed other nations how much America had grown industrially and commercially and helped to increase trade.


See below for more of the stamps issued at the exhibition.  They were all produced in limited quantities!

U.S. #41

U.S. #42

U.S. #43

U.S. #44

U.S. #102

U.S. #108

U.S. #123

U.S. #124

U.S. #126

U.S. #127

U.S. #128

U.S. #131

U.S. #132

Click here for images and more from the exhibition.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
Share this Article


  1. Interesting article and great photos as usual, but a high number of errors this time:
    1-Very first sentence: “was helped in the United States.” I think you mean “held.”
    2-Fifth paragraph, first sentence: “The fair’s formal name . . .” Not sure what this is supposed to say. It’s really mangled!
    3- Next (sixth) paragraph: “Attendance dropped of . . .” Should be “off.”

    1. Just what we need a grammar checker. Why can’t we appreciate the information about the Stamps and the history lesson? I’m surprised you didn’t catch the dangling elliptical clause and the misplaced modifier. Thank you Mystic keep em coming.

  2. Nice information about the rare stamps…Again these articles allow me to learn something new each day about our history and stamps. Keep it up, Mystic Stamps Company!

  3. Scott (& other catalogs) shouldn’t have given numbers to the reprints that were never postally valid. They aren’t & never were postage stamps.

  4. The narrow gauge railroad that encircled the fairgrounds employed steam locomotives built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. After the fair was over, these locomotives were sold to several lines that kept them in service for many years. For a time there was a narrow gauge “fever” with plans to build connecting lines from the Midwest to Texas. While many if these lines were built, the disadvantage of having to unload and reload freight and passengers to connect with standard gauge lines soon led to most of them being converted to standard gauge.

  5. Great article, Great stamps! It is amazing how we allow history to slip through our fingers until it’s too late to grasp its significance.

  6. Most interesting. I do have a copy of the Declaration of Independence which bears the dates 1776-1876. I seem to recall being told these copies were sold at the Fair. At the bottom left corner it bears the red Seal of the Department of the Interior and is signed by “? Delano” Secretary of the Interior. It was published by the “Continental Publishing Company” Philadelphia and has a statement at the bottom in very small print which reads, “Copyrighted in the year 1971-76 by James D. McBride”.

  7. It’s interesting to note that while the Centennial Fair was going on in in 1876 in Philadelphia, the Sioux, Cheyenne , and other Indian tribes defeated the U.S. 7th Cavalry led by Col George Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25. This must have come as quite a shock to the fairgoers celebrating the might and progress of the United States.

  8. Another great lesson behind historic stamps and the first U.S. World Fair in Philadelphia to celebrate the signing of our Declaration Independence .Indeed, a very interesting update ! !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *