The Philadelphia Commercial Museum and American Consumerism

I was in a bookstore the other day and a pale blue book caught my eye on the shelf. On its spine it read “Consuming Visions.” Intrigued, I pulled it down and flipped through it. It turned out the book had a lot that I was interested in.

The book, published in 1989, contained a dozen essays on the history of American consumerism and consumer culture. And that alone had convinced me I should buy it. On top of that, the book was edited by Dr. Simon Bronner, at the time a professor at Penn State Harrisburg. And the essays were written by a who’s who of scholars of consumerism, there were several names I remembered from my grad school days when I studied advertising history: Jackson Lears, Robert Rydell, and Karen Halttunen.

All the more reason to take this one home with me. But there was more!

Three of the essays were written by Dr. Bronner and his colleague at Penn State Harrisburg, Michael Barton. And this meant that Pennsylvania was well represented throughout the book. Flipping through it I saw a bunch of archival photographs from the collections of the Dauphin County Historical Society, references to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and discussion of Wannamaker’s Department Store in Philly. I had seen enough, this book had many of my historical interests all in the same place so I bought the book.

I’ve been enjoying the book a lot and wanted to share a brief section I liked on the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, a one-time institution in Philadelphia which had an important place in American commercial, consumer, and imperial history. This excerpt comes from Robert Rydell’s chapter in the book, “The Culture of Imperial Abundance: World’s Fairs in the Making of American Culture”

In this essay, Rydell discusses the world’s fairs that were held around the county in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how they imbedded their ideologies of imperial abundance and consumerism in the American psyche. “Fairs promised material abundance and made the promise of abundance contingent on the acquisition, maintenance, and growth of empire. In the world projected by America’s turn of the century fairs, there was one overarching lesson: to be a ‘people of unity’ meant accepting ‘empire as a way of life.’”

The Commercial Museum, a place that preserved and shared many old world’s fair exhibits long after their close, was an important part of all of this!

Though the Commercial Museum closed its doors in 1994, its collections, exhibits, and libraries were distributed amongst several museums and research institutions in the area and can still be seen today. My own Pennsylvania State Archives has the museum’s photograph files, which document industry, transportation, and business in Pennsylvania and the United States. There are thousands of photographs and worth a look if you ever find yourself at the archives. Hopefully they’ll be online some day.

Here’s an excerpt from Rydell on the Commercial Museum, along with some of my favorite images of American industry and consumer goods from the Commercial Museum photo collection (Manuscript Group 219) at the State Archives.

A World’s Fair Museum

Through organizational activities like those in Montana, thorough saturation media campaigns launched by publicity bureaus at the fairs, and through keepsakes- postcards, souvenir albums, spoons, table settings, and the like- brought home by actual exposition goers, the festivities associated with fairs (and it is important to note that these activities were repeated for all the fairs held between 1876 and 1916) acquired a momentum that swept the country. The message of the fairs persisted not only through memories of hands-on experience in organizing displays or from memories of actually visiting an exposition but also through selected exhibits from the fairs that were institutionalized in museums around the country.

Entrance to the Transportation Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Field Museum.

Such museums as the Museum of Man in San Diego, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Commercial Museum in Philadelphia, and many of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums, derived substantial portions of their collections from- and sometimes owed their existence to- world’s fairs. These museums re-presented the ideology of imperial abundance and, in turn, became founts of exposition wisdom. Scientists like the Field Museum’s Frederick J.V. Skiff, the Commercial Museum’s William P. Wilson, and the Smithsonian’s William P. Blake and George Brown Goode helped develop the important exhibit classification schemes for the fairs held between the end of Reconstruction and the First World War. At the end of the century, a good example of this symbiotic relationship between fairs and museums could be found in the Commercial Museum.

The Commercial Museum was the brainchild of Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania plant pathologist. The idea to organize the museum came to him while visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition. When he learned that many of the natural history exhibits on display at the fair would form the nucleus of the collections for the Field Museum, he pondered the fate of the countless commercial exhibits and rushed back to Philadelphia with a proposal to organize a museum around those commercial and natural resource exhibits on display at Chicago. Fired with enthusiasm, Wilson persuaded Philadelphia politicians and businessmen to support his plan for “a great group of Museums, General, Scientific, Economic, Educational and Commercial.” More specifically, this museum was intended to institutionalize one of the central lessons of the Chicago fair: the need to dominate foreign markets and to acquire overseas supplies of natural resources. By developing a museum that operated as a clearing house for information about foreign commerce and as an educational institution, Wilson saw himself as placing the gospel of imperial abundance on scientific footing.

Wilson wasted no time setting his plans into motion. He returned to the fair and filled twenty-four railroad boxcars with exhibit materials that he promptly shipped to Philadelphia. This was only the beginning. Over the next twenty years, Wilson obtained tons of exhibit material from American and foreign fairs and employed world’s fair specialists to work at the museum. By 1899, when the permanent buildings opened on a 17-acre site between the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and the University of Pennsylvania, the museum had become nothing less than a permanent world’s fair. President McKinley declared at the museum’s dedication, “The Columbia World’s Fair Exhibition at Chicago, glorious testimonial as it was to the world’s progress, was the forerunner of this less general but more permanent institution for the world’s economic advance.”

Once the museum opened, it combined world’s fair displays with operations that would be assumed a decade later by the United States Department of Commerce. Exhibits consisted of ethnological groups and “the most extensive collections of natural products in existence in any country.” What made the displays unique was their arrangement. According to William Pepper, provost of the University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the board of trustees of the Commercial Museum, “[Our collections] are displayed so as to enable manufacturers or traders to study them to the best advantage, and gain the information to make the selections needed for their special interests.” With its well-stocked library constantly updated with American consular reports from around the world, it is little wonder that Pepper could boast that the museum contained “the fullest, freshest, and most exact data on all trade conditions which can be obtained.” The most distinctive feature of the museum, however, was its scientific laboratory which tested new products, estimated yields of agricultural crops, and provided information about potential markets for agricultural and manufactured products. One of the museum’s biologists declared, “It is the earnest aim of this department to put the international commerce in raw products on a scientific basis, and to most successfully aid, with exact data, information, and investigation, international trade and industry.” In theory the museum provided information to manufacturers and agriculturists around the world. But as one of the museum’s publications made clear, “The object of the institution is to aid in the building up of the foreign trade of America.”

Until Wilson’s death in 1927, the Commercial Museum continued to add to its collection from world’s fairs held throughout the world. Its agents secured displays from major European fairs, including the 1896 Budapest Millennial Exhibition and the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. Museum staff, moreover, contributed expert advice to European governments, especially the French, on organizing colonial exhibitions. Two of the museum’s scientists, Wilson and botanist Gustavo Niederlein, bore chief responsibility for developing exhibits for the Philippines Preservation at the St. Louis Fair. Rivaled only by the Field Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, the Commercial Museum, born of a world’s fair, became one of the sources for expertise on international expositions.

The tongue-and-groove relationship between fairs and the Commercial Museum was further evidenced by Wilson’s decision to arrange an international exposition that would draw attention to the museum. With its 5 miles of aisles lined with such displays as electric streetcars, furniture, and automobiles, the 1899 National Export Exposition could easily have been mistaken for a simple trade fair. But such was not the case. Architects joined three pavilions “So as to form one complete structure, which at first view has the appearance of a great marble palace and conveys the impression of permanency.” Adorned by heroic pediments devoted to themes of abundance, international commerce, and commercial development, the Main Building mirrored similar structures at world’s fairs. Two additional buildings- one devoted to transportation, the other to displays of agriculture, vehicles, and furniture- made the indebtedness to the world’s fair precedent even more apparent. The full extent to which Wilson depended on the world’s fair blueprints became manifest when he hired Edmund Felder, one of the individuals who had been responsible for the Midway Plaisance, to develop a similar entertainment strip for the 1899 exhibition. Felder’s creation, the Gay Esplanade, was a resurrected Midway Plaisance. The Gay Esplanade included the Chinese Village, the Oriental Theater, the Old Plantation- complete with “a party of Georgian Neg***s, with songs, dances”- an animal circus, and the Cuban [little people] show. These shows were so central to the exhibition that they lined either side of the avenue leading from the main entrance to the main building.

Entertainment, however, was not the sole aim of the Commercial Museum any more than it was the primary purpose of the nation’s international fairs. Just as world’s fairs managers saw themselves as educators and their expositions as “universities,” so Wilson saw himself and his institution as performing a didactic function. From the inception of the Commercial Museum, Wilson emphasized its educational mission. According to the museum’s official historian, several hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren visited the museum, and countless others saw exhibits and heard presentations about the displays that the museum sent to public schools around the region. Through its exhibits, daily operations, and educational mission, the Commercial Museum served as an institutional link with American fairs and perpetuated their ideological formulations. Until its slow death after World War I and transformation into the present-day Civic Center, the Commercial Museum helped translate imperial dreams into daily practice.

It would be a mistake to interpret fairs as transitory spectacles that merely adorned the Gilded Age…While it is true that numerous exhibits and staff-and-plaster buildings were demolished at the conclusion of fairs, other exhibits- both anthropological and commercial- found permanent space in museums around the county, such as in the Commercial Museum, an institution that was constructed to enshrine permanently the gospel of imperial abundance on display at the Chicago fair and subsequent turn-of-the-century expositions.

Amid the turbulence that rocked turn-of-the-century America, world’s fairs gave visible form and legitimacy to an emerging culture of abundance. [Warren] Susman noted that the world’s fair became “a key institution of a new culture based not like the older republican culture on principles of scarcity, limitation, and sacrifice, but on new principles of abundance, self-fulfillment, and unlimited possibilities. In addition, fairs combined these new principles of abundance with new principles of empire, rooted in racist vocabulary of social Darwinism and sanctioned by anthropologists. Tightly interwoven into an ideological double helix, the visions of materialism and imperialism at the fairs [and museums] were threaded into the broader culture. By World War I, if not before, America had become a culture of imperial abundance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: