Lavinia at the 1876 Centennial Celebration

From May to November 1876, Philadelphia hosted the first official World’s Fair in the United States. Called the “Centennial International Exhibition of 1876,” the event celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Lavinia not only attended it, her certificate of admission to the Rock County Circuit Court bar and her briefs arguing for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court were, according to her sister, among the “curiosities” on display there.

The Centennial international Exhibition

This was the same Exhibition where, on July 4, 1876, Susan B. Anthony and other members of National Women’s Suffrage Association disrupted an Independence Day celebration by pushing their way onto the speakers’ platform so that Anthony  could thrust the Declaration of Rights for Women at the Vice President of the United States and distribute copies to attendees. Read more here.

The 4th of July co-conspirator: Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Phoebe cousins.
Left to Right: Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Phoebe Couzins

Lavinia was not on hand for that exciting demonstration. She arrived in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier for the International Temperance Conference held in conjunction with the Centennial Exhibition. She had been named a delegate to the conference and was scheduled to give a speech at it. She had not been back east since she moved to Janesville to care for her parents around 1872. She and her cousin/best friend, Sarah Thomas, who lived in New York, planned to meet in Philadelphia, attend the conference where Lavinia would speak, and explore the Exhibition.

A whole of group of Wisconsin female temperance activists booked travel arrangements together. They arrived by train in Washington, D.C. late at night on the June 8th, stayed at the swanky Ebbitt House, and then, according to Lavinia, spent a “glorious day” mostly at the nation’s Capital.

Sarah and Lavinia connected in Philadelphia on June 10th and began attending meetings and lectures. They considered a speech by Jennie Willing, an English professor, temperance advocate and suffragist especially good. 

On the evening of June 11th Lavinia gave a temperance speech called “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” in Norristown. The next day she read her essay “Is the License System Iniquitous in its Nature and Results?” before the international conference. For someone who regularly stirred the pot with provocative op-eds in the Woman’s Journal and the Christian Union, the essay is fairly esoteric. You can read it here. (Scroll down).  Attendees were also treated to talks on “The Medical Uses of Alcohol,” “Should Not Unfermented Wine be Used at the Communion?” and “Whiskey Frauds and Political Corruption.” Click here to learn more.

Lavinia and Sarah had hoped to spend the next several days taking in the Centennial Exhibition. Nearly 10 million people attended. Thirty-seven countries participated. And over 200 buildings were constructed for it. This was a grand event by any measure but it would have been especially gratifying to women’s rights activists like Lavinia.

The Women's Pavilion at the 1876 International Exhibition.
The Women’s Pavilion: Built by women to demonstrate their achievements outside the home.

Many women had planned displays for the occasion, but they were denied space in the Main Exhibition Building. Undeterred, they constructed the “Women’s Pavilion” all by themselves (only the architect was male). It showcased women’s achievements (including over 80 patented inventions) with the goal of advancing their social, economic and legal standing. One woman operated a steam engine. Another ran a printing press. Presumably, this is where Lavinia’s certificate of admission and supreme court briefs were displayed. Her diaries do not say.

Sarah became quite sick at the Centennial Exhibition and had to stay in bed part of the time. Lavinia attended with friends. She also felt ill, but for a different reason. By June 1876, she knew that she had a health problem that required medical attention. After Philadelphia she and Sarah headed to New England to visit family and friends, but also so that Lavinia could consult several doctors. This is when she learned that her illness was quite serious. More on that subject in a future post. CB

Sources consulted: Maria Goodell Frost, “Life of Lavinia Goodell,” 149 (158)(unpublished manuscript available at Berea College); Lavinia Goodell’s Diaries ,  4/25 to 5/5/1876, 6/8 to 6/18; 1876; Lavinia’s letters to Sarah Thomas dated 5/3/1876 and 5/31/1876.

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