"Went to the Exposition Tonight": Louisville's 1883 Southern Exposition

By Kathryn Anne Bratcher
Cataloging Librarian

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A letter to the Louisville Courier-Journal in July 1880 suggested the idea of having a grand cotton exposition in Louisville. Louisville had held smaller expositions since the mid-1850s, and the hope for this large-scale exhibition was to show the South and the world that Louisville was ready to claim her place in the trade market. The Louisville Board of Trade quickly appointed a committee of 12 prominent civic leaders to investigate the idea. Atlanta moved faster, however, and announced its readiness for a cotton exposition in late 1880.

A second committee was appointed in October 1882. Major J. M. Wright, superintendent of the Louisville Board of Trade, was in charge of management and fundraising. Stock subscriptions were set up at $25 per share. From late November 1882 to January 1, 1883, over $221,000 was subscribed. Although short of the hoped-for $300,000, the planning and building of the Exposition proceeded. The site selected for the grounds included land from Weissinger Avenue (now Park Avenue) to Hill Street, between Fourth and Sixth streets, encompassing the existing Central Park.

The Southern Exposition opened on August 1, 1883. Thousands of people crowded the streets as President Chester A. Arthur pulled a silken cord, setting the machinery in motion. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under twelve, with a 25-cent admission for all on Saturdays. A total of 770,048 people attended the Exposition in the first 88 days. Originally planned to be open for 100 days, the popularity of the Southern Exposition allowed it to remain open for several years until it ended in 1887.

The Exposition’s main building was a large two-story wooden and glass structure designed by McDonald Brothers and Curtin that covered approximately 12 acres. Maps and drawings show four interior courts with fountains that would have provided light and ventilation within the building. A variety of exhibits were featured around the perimeter of the building. A branch post office, barbershop, boot-blacking stand and restaurants were available to visitors of the main building.

In addition to the main building, the Exposition featured a variety of curiosities for visitors to explore. A large carriage house displayed vehicles of all kinds. A lumber mill annex demonstrated modern milling techniques. A large art gallery built in Central Park held masterpieces from many famous international collections. The park also hosted several refreshment stands, a shooting gallery and a music stand. Visitors were treated to concerts, lectures, theatrical performances and weekly fireworks displays. The headquarters for the department of police and fire protection, organized to ensure the safety of visitors and exhibitors, was also located in Central Park. A police substation exists there today.

The Exposition’s agricultural department presented a working farm and horticultural garden of about three acres, featuring crops of cotton, tobacco, maize, hemp, flax, peanuts, corn and castor oil plants. This department also identified the trees in Central Park with labels.

The use of electricity made the Southern Exposition the first successful nighttime exposition in the country. The exhibition grounds, main building and art gallery were illuminated by recently introduced electric lights. Forty-six hundred lamps, made by the Edison Company for Isolated Lighting of New York, lit the main building. The courts and parks were illuminated by arclights created by the Jenny Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Electric lighting allowed for late afternoon and evening entertainment with the evening highlight being the illumination of the lights as the sun set.

The Southern Exposition marked the beginning of a new industrial era for Louisville and other cities of the South. As stated by a Courier-Journal writer the day after the Exposition opened, "We know now that whatever is worth doing Louisville can do, and when she undertakes it, the end will be entirely satisfactory."

The Filson Historical Society is fortunate to have several rare artifacts and items from the Southern Exposition in its collections. The Filson’s carriage house museum on Third Street displays some of these items.

Volume 4, Number 1

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