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Independence Seaport Museum » Online Exhibits » Philadelphia Commercial Museum

The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum
How a Forgotten Museum Forever Altered American Industry


hen the doors of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum closed for the final time on July 1, 1994, they shut on an institution that was a shadow of its former self, operating within a fraction of its former footprint, its original purpose and contributions long forgotten. Opened in 1897 at 34th and South Streets, the Commercial Museum was the turn of the century United States' greatest resource for international trade information, essentially serving the role of the not-yet-existent federal International Trade Administration. Despite its enormous contributions to early 20th century history, the museum faded from the public memory, overshadowed by the adjacent Civic Center, eventually surrendering its role in history by taking the name "Civic Center Museum." In its waning years, the museum designed for the American businessman closed to the general public, reaching audiences solely composed of schoolchildren, teaching them about local and global culture and commerce. Yet even some of those school-age visitors must have guessed that at one point, it had been more. With towering Grecian columns, vaulted ceilings, and the curious glass display cases of another era, the building spoke of the grandiosity of a long-lost time, born of a period when no statement was too large, and the dreams of enterprising individuals were only limited by how far those dreamers were willing to push them. It came about in a sweeping era for the United States, a time when America sought to conquer the world, not by vanquishing enemies in war, but by defeating their competitors in the global marketplace [1].

A Fair Plan: The Early Years of the Commercial Museum

The Philadelphia Cultural Museum came into existence at a high point in the history of exhibition, the era of the great World's Fair celebrations. Designed as displays of mankind's triumphs of engineering, design, architecture, and ingenuity, the World's Fairs ran for months on end and showcased machinery, textiles, and engineering marvels, such as the first Ferris Wheel. At the height of America's industrialization, these fairs served as the major demonstrator of progress for many individuals, with millions crossing the ticket gate to see for themselves just how much their fellow man had accomplished since the previous fair. It was in this heady state of excitement that Dr. William P. Wilson, a botanist employed by the University of Pennsylvania, visited the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and was struck by the importance and potential of the exhibits surrounding him.

It was a pivotal point in American industrial history, a time when the United States was beginning to realize the importance of competing in the global marketplace, yet finding themselves painfully shorthanded in their ability to do so. In the late 19th century, there was no federal agency devoted to international trade; any individual wishing to sell goods overseas had to do all the groundwork independently, an insurmountable challenge to most. Industries seeking to sell products had no knowledge of foreign markets, and were lagging far behind the European and Asian nations that had been exchanging goods for centuries [2]. Surveying the exhibits of raw materials and goods displayed before him, Dr. Wilson surmised that the World's Fairs contained the root of the solution to America's problem. He saw the exhibits as a traveling classroom on world commerce, and felt that with such a resource permanently in one place, anchored by an authoritative commercial library, Americans would be able to catch up with the rest of the world and become a major force in international trade. With this ambitious goal in mind, Dr. Wilson, with the assistance of University of Pennsylvania Provost Dr. William Pepper, purchased nearly every exhibit held at the Chicago World's Fair. He then loaded his bounty onto a line of twenty-four railroad cars, and shipped it back to Philadelphia, where it would form an institution that quickly and significantly impacted American international entrepreneurship [3]. Opening its doors to the public in 1897 and formally dedicated in 1899 (in conjunction with the Philadelphia-hosted National Export Exposition), the Philadelphia Commercial Museum immediately became the pre-eminent source of international trade information for enterprising individuals. Writing in 1900, economics specialist W. Colgrave Betts passionately expounded upon the usefulness of the museum:

Where else in the United States could you learn at the shortest notice what shape of butcher's knife was preferred in Servia, or how tenpenny nails had to be wrapped up in order to suit the requirements of Beyrouth; whose brand of condensed milk was in favor in Colombo, or whose make of agricultural forks were being used in Argentina...? Was there any demand for oilcloth in Brazil? What would be the freight on forty brass bedsteads ordered from Rangoon? How would you write "Handle with care" in Russian? [4]

To the turn-of-the-century globally-minded entrepreneur, the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, with its collection of raw and manufactured goods and vast library of international trade and market reports, represented a unique and essential resource in getting the information they needed to expand their business. Working with over forty international governments, and offering the rare luxury of an in-house translation department to decipher critical foreign trade reports, the museum and its library –known as the Bureau of Information—helped many Americans expand their business. However, the scope of the museum's assistance was not limited to aiding domestic capitalists. The museum also offered free information to foreign industries hoping to gain a footing in the United States, and published a monthly magazine on American goods, Commercial America, for the international markets.

An International Resource: The Commercial Museum Reaches its Height

The museum expanded quickly over the next twenty years, growing to reside within a sprawling, five-building campus which included the former city landmark Convention Hall. As World's Fairs came and went, the exhibitions were shuttled back to the Commercial Museum, which came to be considered the unofficial museum of the World's Fair [5]. As the museum became internationally renowned for its role in trade, foreign countries began seeking to connect with the institution, recognizing its importance as the liaison between their own countries and American commerce. The museum received numerous gifts from these countries, including musical instruments, works of art, weaponry, sculpture, and clothing, which were displayed alongside commercial materials in large galleries grouped by country. In a telling example of the Commercial Museum's presumed authority on commerce and World's Fairs, museum director Dr. Wilson was commissioned to create a massive exhibit on Filipino life and industry for the 1909 Fair. The "Philippine Exhibit" proved to be the largest-drawing attraction of the Fair, due no doubt in large part to the inclusion of a living diorama of tribal society, put on by over 1,200 live Filipinos [6]. The inanimate pieces of the exhibit returned and comprised the Philippine collection of the museum. Admission to the museum was always free, which quickly made it a popular destination for school field trip.  [Next page »]

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