Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wagons at the Centennial Exposition

By all accounts, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was an ambitious and momentous event.  Lasting six months, from May 10th to November 10th, this first World’s Fair was ostentatious with extraordinary architecture showcasing countless treasures and innovations of the known world.  The Exposition included over 200 buildings and 30,000 exhibits spread over 450 acres.  Among the vast technology displayed was Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and a Remington typewriter as well as a mechanical calculating machine (a precursor to today’s computers).  This half-year celebration in honor of the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence was heavily photographed and hosted almost 10 million visitors with countless promotional souvenirs handed out. 

Rare photos taken during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

While original tickets and other mementos can be found today, there are less than a handful of the magnificent buildings that still exist.  In like fashion, and in spite of the world-wide attention and extensive photography at the event, very few records remain of the horse-drawn vehicles shown during this renowned pageant.  Several years ago, I wrote an article called “A Ticket to Tomorrow” for our website and added even more details in our “Borrowed Time” book regarding one of the innovative wagons that was displayed at the Exposition.  The wagon was built by Jacob Becker, Jr. of Seymour, Indiana and was equipped with patented braking and steering designs.  It took two full years to conclusively identify the wagon in the photo as the one owned and shown by Becker.  For an even longer period, that photograph and the actual Studebaker Centennial wagon (currently on display at the Studebaker National Museum) have been the only known surviving visuals of wagons shown during this larger-than-life experience.  

A one-of-a-kind image showing Jacob Becker, Jr.’s “Champion Wagon of the West” shown at the first World’s Fair.

Since the identification of the Becker wagon (shown above), we've spent years looking for more records of wagons presented at this first World’s Fair.  The persistence has paid off and, today, we’re celebrating the discovery of yet another photo of a vehicle demonstrated at this event.  Ironically, this wagon appears to have been located very close to Jacob Becker’s wagon display.  This latest original photo shows a patented crane-neck dray in full ceremonial style; ornate striping, exquisite woodwork, and an exclusive design.  It was built by John Beggs & Sons of Philadelphia.  The firm was known for quality fabrication of numerous wagons and city vehicles.  The photo immediately below is excerpted from the image which shows the entire wagon.  It was taken on the grounds of the Exposition in 1876.  As a point of reference, the photo was likely taken just weeks before General Custer met his demise at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. 

John Beggs & Sons displayed an exclusive dray design at the Philadelphia Exposition.

We have another century-plus-old book in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives that gives us even more detail on the color, features, and striping of the vehicle.  In fact, it is possible that enough details are now available that a replica could be built in honor of America’s 250th Anniversary in 2026, less than a dozen years from today.  Below is part of the 1867 patent for the vehicle.  Collectively, these ultra-rare resources are helping us put the pieces back together for what effectively introduced America as a new industrial world power.    

With fewer than 3 dozen wagon builders competing for attention and awards at the Centennial Exposition – including legendary makes such as Milburn, Moline, Kansas, Jackson, Schuttler, Cortland, Studebaker, Fish Bros., and Wilson, Childs & Co. – it might seem that there would be more details available.  Regrettably, that is far from the case as each one of the discoveries mentioned have required substantial effort to locate and recognize their significance.

John Beggs & Sons was granted a patent on their dray in 1867.

With each find, though, there is hope - hope for future discoveries and hope for greater recognition of these pieces.  Ironically, it’s that same hope for tomorrow that every exhibitor held at that first World’s Fair.  Today, it still drives us to look forward in anticipation and expectation; a great blessing of our democracy and the very foundations of American independence.