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  • Consuming the Orient at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition
  • Samuel C. King (bio)

Centennial Exhibition, food, Orientalism, restaurants, Otherness

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876, hosted in Philadelphia to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, offered visitors a distinguishing consumption experience. Fairgoers partook of technological novelties and cultural exoticisms that not only enlightened and entertained but also lent scientific credence to the concept of a "natural" racial hierarchy and to ideas of an essential distinction between Western and non-Western peoples.1 While historians have thoroughly analyzed the ethnological gradations on display at the exhibition, the cultural comparisons embodied in the fair's food and restaurants have received less scholarly attention. Thus, the documents relating to exhibition restaurants and cuisines housed in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's collection of Centennial Exhibition records, including restaurant menus and advertisements, guidebooks describing the fair's culinary offerings, and an artistic representation of exhibition restaurants, offers researchers a particularly interesting and underutilized resource for understanding the relationship between food and culture to nineteenth-century Pennsylvanians.

In addition to reflecting supposed political and developmental disparities between civilizations, the cultural juxtapositions on display at the exhibition also served to reaffirm the notion of the inherent superiority of the West over the "exotic" East, an idea supported by the discourse of Orientalism.2 This discourse underwrote the appeal of the fair's Asian exhibitions, insofar as they purportedly enabled Americans to visually and materially consume "Oriental" culture. Visitors to the Chinese and Japanese exhibitions, for example, noted the "magical" power of the sights, smells, and objects of the showcases to allow them to vicariously experience their Orientalist fantasies, as if they had been transported away from the modern, industrial world.3 Meanwhile, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, published immediately after the fair's conclusion, [End Page 390] used similar Orientalist language to describe the visible Otherness of the fair's Asian representatives, including their "comical" dress, their "almond-eyes" and "pig-tails," and their apparent lack of emotion.4

As restaurant ephemera from the exhibition collection makes clear, the exoticism of "Oriental" cultures was particularly associated with food and restaurant spaces. Non-Western restaurants at the exhibition highlighted their difference in ways that Western restaurants did not, offering white consumers the opportunity to "tour" the Orient through the consumption of Asian cuisine. For example, a notice for a Turkish café on the fairgrounds emphasized that patronizing the restaurant would "do more to acquaint [visitors] with the customs of the Turkish people" than any book could and would enable diners to "enjoy a pleasant moment in real Oriental style."5 A notice for the German department of the Southern Restaurant, meanwhile, did not claim to offer a vicarious experience of European culture; instead, it merely highlighted the eatery's low prices.6

Perhaps the best example of these trends is a clipping from Harper's Weekly entitled "Our Artist's Dream of the Centennial Restaurants." It depicts caricatures of various nationalities in the form of potential restaurants on the exhibition grounds. The caricatures generally align with gastronomic stereotypes of non-Western peoples that served to reaffirm their alleged inferior status. For example, the offerings of the hypothetical Chinese restaurant include "Hashed Cat," "Rat Pie," and "Puppy à la Centennial." The African restaurant, combining culinary exoticism and the material pursuits of imperialism, advertises "Zebra Chops" and "Hippopotamus Fricassee," along with "Diamonds on Toast" and "Gold &Silver Cake."7 In contrast, the illustration's European restaurant caricatures, though conveying certain stereotypes of particular European nations, depict no similar culinary construct of cultural essentialism or exoticism. Indeed, the most pointed of these caricatures include one restaurant's passing reference to Russian expansionist desires and the illustration of a leprechaun in the Irish restaurant. [End Page 391]

Restaurants are not neutral eateries but instead operate as cultural embassies, allowing patrons to literally consume a culture in commoditized form.8 The documents contained in the HSP collection of Centennial Exhibition records demonstrate how Pennsylvanians and other Americans in the 1870s understood food and restaurant spaces as embodiments of ontological and essential cultural distinctions between Asia and the West. The Orientalist discourse of nineteenth-century America led...


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pp. 390-392
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