The 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair

Miki Pfeffer, PhD

The nineteenth century was an age of expositions. World’s Fairs were particularly spectacular events, celebrations of global capitalism with exhibits from nations, organizations, and industries around the world. Fairs promoted all the newest machinery, inventions, and industry, and advanced the concept that science and technology could solve problems of the times.

The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans opened on December 16, 1884 and closed May 31, 1885 in uptown New Orleans on 247 acres that later became Audubon Park. It was only the second World’s Fair to take place in the US. The first took place in Philadelphia in 1876, on the centennial of US independence.

The rationale for the New Orleans World’s Fair – officially titled the World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition – was to celebrate a hundred years of exporting cotton. Congress appropriated $1 million to mount the international event. The businessmen and politicians who devised the plan sought to promote a New South ready for economic diversification and political reconciliation with the North, following the end of Reconstruction. They also wanted to lure northern investors to develop the abundant resources of the region, to reclaim the importance of the Crescent City’s port, and to boost the local economy.

The Woman’s Department

To support their goals, fair organizers included a Woman’s Department (the first at a world’s fair to be allocated its own budget and space) and a first-ever Colored Department. These shared the gallery of the Government and States Building, the second largest building on the fairgrounds. Wishing to draw media attention and visitors to their event, the exposition’s directors named Boston abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe to become president of the Woman’s Department. In turn, she named her youngest daughter Maud to head the literary department.

Julia Ward Howe was an accomplished woman who presided over many clubs and associations, but her celebrity rested mainly on having written “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the iconic anthem of Union troops. Such a reputation did not necessarily swell the southern breast. Local society women especially resented Howe’s appointment as an insult to their own leadership ability. They were not inclined to kowtow to northern authority or to a haughty woman accustomed to deference. Howe had never been far south, and she was unfamiliar with southern mores. Repeatedly, she became a lightning rod for disputes that were promptly (and unflatteringly) reported in local newspapers. Despite the fair’s pervasive rhetoric of harmony, a sisterhood among these strong-minded women was difficult to form.

Yet Howe did possess the expertise and connections necessary to attract famous women southward, and her goals closely matched those of the men who created this World’s Exposition. She embraced many forms of social advancement and progress. She urged white women from all over the country to send their contributions to industry, science, and the arts for display in New Orleans. Each of the 33 participating states had its own exhibit within the larger Department. The Woman’s Department was imagined as a forum, a space in which to share, compete, and learn from each other. In particular, the Literary Department with its “beautiful sisterhood of books” became a gathering place where visitors could also become radicalized if they were open to it.1

The Literary Department

As head of the literary department, Maud Howe insisted that all women’s books should be displayed together – rather than appearing as part of each state’s exhibit – to create a greater impression. The New Orleans Times-Democrat named the area she created as the most attractive feature of the Woman’s Department, and the Daily Picayune described the Library of Women’s Books and its volumes in great detail. Curtains draped it off from other displays, and potted plants in the windows softened the corners. A wide “work-a-day” table for newspapers and magazines filled one space and a dainty desk another. Over the desk, Maud hung portraits of “Eminent Women,” and photographs of other well-known literary women were included in a glass case with precious illuminated books and satin and silk covered leaflets. It was the “next best thing to having the authors there in person.”2

Maud Howe arranged the books by states on the open wooden shelves in the long narrow, sunny alcove. The shelves were filled compactly with volumes that had “charming and most seductive covers”: novels and poetry; textbooks and cookbooks; children’s stories and travel tales; essays, reports, histories, and biographies; and books on conduct, household, science, and art. The greatest number came from New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, including the “Famous Women Series,” twenty books by Louisa May Alcott, two volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, and a “curious volume” in which a mother could record photos and descriptions of the mental and cultural growth of her child and more.3

The department was a quiet and peaceful place of repose. Especially when the weather was cold and stormy, visitors gathered there in the “bright and sunny home-like library.” Although Catharine Cole, star reporter of the Daily Picayune, complained of ugly gray signs that read “Do not handle these books,” “For sale,” and “Please do not touch,” she wrote that the “handsome chief” Maud Howe smiled forgiveness for trespasses. Thus, many “pretty volumes” passed through the hands of visitors.4

By the end of the exposition, the Literary Department boasted almost 1400 books, magazines, and newspapers written or edited by women. Rhode Island’s commissioner, Mrs. Charles S. Cleveland, suggested that the books be donated locally after the event. Maud Howe, as her mother’s daughter and an author herself, had valuable connections to publishers and writers. They responded generously to her requests for donations, especially when they learned that the books would later be given to a local library. Some publishers sent extras to sell in support the department; some writers added a “bequeathment” and their famous signatures. In a special ceremony at the end of the exposition, Maud Howe donated eight hundred of the “beautiful sisterhood of books” to the circulating library of the local Southern Art Union.5

The bookplate in each volume read: “Presented to the Southern Art Union Library in the name of the Women Writers of the United States by Maud Howe.” She told the audience that the books were given “in loving remembrance of the long winter of labor and of pleasure which I have passed in New Orleans.” She expressed hope to add volumes from time to time to eventually complete this unique collection of the works of women. The gift was quite a cache for the Southern Art Union, an addition to the library that could alter the consciousness of women who read them.6

Unfortunately, the Southern Art Union disbanded the year after the Exposition closed. In 1886, the donation of books went to Tulane University, then to the Christian Woman’s Exchange, but eventually they lost their distinction as a unique collection.7

1 Maud Howe first used this appellation when she donated the books to Southern Art Union during the Woman’s Day ceremony. Times-Democrat, May 31, 1885.

2 Daily Picayune, February 12, 1885.

3 Ibid. Each book is listed by state in Julia Ward Howe’s Report and Catalogue of the Woman’s Department of the World’s Exposition, Held in New Orleans, 1884-1885 (Boston: Rand, Avery, 1885) 188-214.

4 Daily Picayune, February 12, 1885. 5 Times-Democrat, May 31, 1885.

5 Times-Democrat, May 31, 1885.

6 Daily Picayune, May 31, 1885. 7 Southern Art Union, Artists’ File, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans.

7 Southern Art Union, Artists’ File, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans.