by Nicholas Voss


Expositions and exhibitions have long been considered an essential business development tool in our country.  Eventually they became known as “tradeshows” because of their positive influence on trade and commerce. They have been milestones of commercial and industrial progress in America for over one hundred and fifty years. They cultivate taste, provide material for comparative shopping, and acquaint people with new markets.  Many branches of business have been called into existence or extended their market reach by the influence of tradeshows.

America’s first international exhibition was held in New York City in 1853. On a much larger scale was a tradeshow held in Philadelphia in 1876, known as the Centennial Exhibition. Then followed the International Cotton Exposition at Atlanta in 1881, the Southern Exposition at Louisville in 1883, the World’s Colombian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, the Midwinter Exposition at San Francisco in 1893-1894, the International Cotton Exposition at Atlanta in 1895, the Tennessee Centennial Exposition at Nashville in 1897, the Trans-Mississippi Exposition at Omaha in 1898, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition at Charleston in  1902, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at Saint Louis in 1904, and the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition at Portland in 1905.

So important were conferences and expositions to the development of trade and commerce that Presidents and Congress were often involved in promoting them.

In 1854 Franklin Pierce commissioned an illustrator to document an (unnamed) conference held in London.

He Loved Tradeshows

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln petitioned Congress to authorize a delegation to present at an exposition in London. The President wanted assurance that an adequate tradeshow booth would be funded so Americans could “pride themselves upon their proficiency in industrial arts.” Since no naval vessel could be spared, Lincoln proposed that a merchant ship be hired to transport the tradeshow equipment and staging.  At the height of the American Civil War, Lincoln personally dispatched Joseph Wright, Governor of Indiana, to the International Agricultural Exhibition in Hamburg. The Governor reported back to Lincoln upon his return. A summary was then forwarded to Congress and the agriculture community. Although Wright did not submit an expense report, Lincoln ordered reimbursement of any monies spent. A few months before his assassination, Lincoln called on Congress to exhibit American products and ingenuity at an international exhibition in Portugal.

In 1866 President Andrew Johnson asked Congress to send a representative to a fishery and water culture event in Bordeaux, France; when they did not act, the President reprimanded them and urged them to appoint a representative without further delay.

Ulysses S. Grant secured $200,000 from Congress to send artisans and scientific men to an international exhibition “of great magnitude” held in Vienna in 1873. Finding Congress in a good mood, he convinced them to pony up for America’s Centennial Celebration. Next, he demanded that America take part in the International Prison Congress to be held in Stockholm the following year. Grant argued before Congress that these exhibitions were the direction “advanced civilizations” needed to go and that they increased the elevation of industry and labor. These events promoted “good will” between nations.  

Too late now, I already booked the venue

Rutherford Hayes got the tradeshow bug in 1878. He urged Congress to adopt the necessary legislation to enable the people of the United States to participate in the International Exhibition of Agriculture, Industry, and the Fine Arts. He revealed that he had already reserved space in the exhibit hall so there was not much they could do except approve the President’s wishes. Next, he authorized and secured funding for two tradeshows in Australia. He attributed the “friendly” relations America had with the German Empire to a presence at the 1880 International Exhibition of Fish and Fisheries held in Berlin. Rutherford boasted that the tradeshow was “extremely successful and meritorious,”   winning the praise of the Emperor himself.  American exhibitors won awards not only for their private businesses, but for the country as well.  In view of the important scientific, industrial, and commercial advances being made in Europe, the President wanted to take part in an 1881 international exhibition at the Champs Élysées in Paris. Looking forward, Rutherford also wanted approval to send a U.S. representative to the International Polar Congress at Hamburg scheduled in 1893.

In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison instructed the joint session of Congress to provide means of support to take part in an Italian exposition.  This cooperation would fortify a relationship with their country.  The next year, 1891, Harrison wanted Congress to finance the construction of a Chinese-American exhibit booth at the Columbian Exposition (celebrating Christopher Columbus, not the country).  Meanwhile, Spain was planning a Christopher Columbus Exhibition of their own, a show that ran from September through December 1892; the President wanted funding for this event too. Since Spain promised to exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago it was only appropriate, reckoned Harrison, that America reciprocated.

It finally took an act of Congress, but in 1893 Grover Cleveland had provision for the celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.  The White House decided on having an international exhibition of arts, industries, manufacturers in Chicago. The event seems to be one of the earliest known corporate sponsorship events. Cleveland proudly announced the appointment of board members and managers of the Government exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. President Cleveland later chastised Congress in 1894 for lack of participation at the Antwerp Industrial Conference; their “falling short” of fully illustrating our nation’s ingenuity and industrial achievements at the tradeshow was blamed on lack of preparation.  

Hence, tradeshows and conferences proved to be a good investment for America. They not only benefited private industry but a means for sound foreign policy too.