1881, Atlanta US – International Cotton Exposition

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1881 Atlanta

Name:International Cotton Exposition
Dates:5 Oct – 31 Dec 1881
Days:87 days
Venue:Oglethorpe Park
Theme:North-south reconciliation – South espousing Northern industrial approaches
Exhibitors:1,113 exhibits – from 33 states and seven countries
Awards:See below
Visitors:290,000 attended, generating between $220,000-250,000 in receipts,
in sales and gate receipts.
Legacy:In the six months following the exposition $2m was invested into Atlanta

The original notion was that of a Boston textile magnate, Edward Atkinson, who saw the event as an opportunity to educate southern cotton farmers about ginning (separating cotton fibres from their seeds), this would, he hoped, result in cleaner bales being sent to the northern mills. However locals brought pressure to change this objective to instead demonstrate that the South and particularly Atlanta had espoused the Northern industrial approaches, to illustrate that the city was fully recovered form the civil war 1864 Battle of Atlanta.

In Feb 1881, the chamber of commerce proposed a corporation be organized under the general law. The International Cotton Exposition was formed and appointed as chairman Hannibal Ingalls Kimball, who had been behind the State’s largest cotton factory in 1879. Kimball concluded that funding would have to be started in Atlanta, and organised fund-raising locally. He and colleagues raised $36,600 in just six hours. This proved, once promoted widely, to be sufficient to raise much of the rest in the north – in New York he secured subscriptions to two hundred and fifty-three shares of stock (worth $25,300); Boston took sixty shares; Baltimore, forty-eight; Norfolk VA twenty-five; Philadelphia forty-three; Cincinnati seventy-nine.

Kimball prompted a survey that revealed the city, with just 37,000 population could only muster 3,000 rooms that could accommodate 5,000 guests. He judged this as insufficient and arranged for the construction of the Exposition Hotel, with 300 rooms and a capacity to accommodate 1,000 visitors. By setting the room rate at $2.50-$3.00 this also meant that other hotels could not escalate prices. The Hotel advertised that it had the ‘Largest Billiard Room in the City’, that the W&ARR railway stopped at the hotel and that streetcars ran from the hotel into the city until ‘the Amusements in the City are over’. Despite all of this the Exposition Hotel lost money.

Kimball planned a tent city close to the exhibition grounds for groups’ accommodation and urged residents of the city to offer rooms in their homes.

Disappointing early attendance meant the tent city was not created. Local rail operators were persuaded to offer specil fair tickets and attendance picked up.

Artist’s impression of Atlanta’s venue

The venue was built on city-owned land at Oglethorpe Park, 2.5 miles northwest from the railroad depot, and along the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks near the present-day King Plow Arts Center development in the West Midtown area of Atlanta. The main building had a Greek Cross configuration (a ‘+’ symbol with one side elongated). It was designed so that after the event it would become the Exposition Cotton Mill, employing 500, many of whom stayed in the Exposition Hotel.

Other buildings included a Railroad building and annexes, Agricultural implement building, Horticultural hall, a Carriage annex, the Art and industry building, a Judge’s hall, a police HQ, a Press paviloin and a Restaurant.

On 27 Oct 1881, designated as Governors’ Day, a clever stunt ws staged. At sunrise cotton was picked by machine in Oglethorpe Park, it was then ginned within the Exposition, then woven into cloth on a Crompton loom, that was tailored into two professional suits using Wheeler and Wilson sewing machines on their stand. These were worn by the Governors, one from the south (Georgia) and one from the north (Connecticut) to a reception that was held that very evening.

1881 Medal

Promoting the ‘Atlanta Spirit’ to potential investors, across the six months following the exposition, over $2m was invested into Atlanta’s expansion and industry. Placing Atlanta at the forefront os a Southern revival.

Cotton Office in New Orleans, Degas

This Impressionist painting from this period, Cotton Office in New Orleans, is by Edgar Degas it was painted in 1873, inspired by the moment when his uncle Michel Musson’s cotton brokerage business went bankrupt in an economic crash, according to Michael McMahon of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The firm was swamped by the postwar growth of the much larger Cotton Exchange. In the painting, Musson is seen examining raw cotton for its quality while Degas’ brother Rene reads The Daily Picayune. It carried the bankruptcy news. Another brother, Achille, rests against a window wall at left while others, including Musson’s partners, go about their business.

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