The 1884 Cotton Expo and New Orleans’ first case of World’s Fair fever
In 1884, one third of the world’s cotton passed through New Orleans, and the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, which opened Dec. 16 that year, brought more than 1 million visitors to the city to celebrate 100 years of the cotton industry. The fair was held on a 300-acre plot of land known as Upper City Park, the grounds of a former plantation. The National Cotton Planters Association and the U.S. Congress funded the event, which included multiple buildings featuring industrial exhibits, exotic plants and art from around the world. The city of Philadelphia even loaned the Liberty Bell for display. Despite the fanfare, the fair was a financial failure, losing the city almost $2 million.
World’s Fairs might not strike the inspirational chord they once did, as international communication has become instantaneous and international trade ordinary. Yet, the 1884 Exposition was a big deal in its time, and all these years later a few remnants of it remain. Upper City Park became the city’s much-loved Audubon Park. A large iron ore rock in the park that many mistake for a meteor was actually shipped in as part of the Alabama exhibit. Other relics of the 1884 Exposition include a sculpture installed at Gayarré Place on Bayou Road and the wrought-iron entryway to the Hebrew Rest Cemetery in Gentilly.
- After the National Cotton Planters Association proposed the expo, a number of New Orleans’ newspapers lobbied for the city to host the event. It was ultimately selected for its vital role in the cotton trade and because the city could accommodate the expected crowds.
- The main building was constructed just for the occasion. The 33-acre edifice took six months to construct. At the time, it was the largest building in the nation.
- The fair got off to a rocky start. The directors of the expo did not put out bids for venders until September 1884. The event opened that December, and many exhibits weren’t even completed.
- President Chester Arthur officially declared the fair open in a message received from Washington via a telegraph machine on the fair grounds. After the transmission of his message, Arthur’s portrait was unveiled, “while the bells chimed amid tremendous shouting and expressions of enthusiasm, while the cannon outside added their voices to the general rejoicing,” read an account in The Daily Picayune.
- The humungous Horticulture Hall, which was modeled after London’s Crystal Palace, was also constructed just for the expo. At the time, it was the largest greenhouse in the world, and it was the only building to remain on the site after the event ended. Unfortunately, a hurricane destroyed the building in 1915.
- The fair closed in May 1885. Over one million visitors came to the fair during the six months it was open. During the peak week of Mardi Gras, an estimated 36,000 people visited the exhibitions.
- When the fair closed, it was deeply in debt. The State Treasurer, Edward Burke, was also the director general of the exposition — and already had a history of less-than-legitimate business dealings. Later, the state indicted him for forgery and fraud, but he had already absconded to Honduras with $1.77 million, which was almost the entire budget of the exposition.
- Exactly 100 years after the 1884 exposition, New Orleans hosted another World’s Fair, which included a riverfront Centennial Plaza, commemorating the 1884 event. The 1984 world’s fair, like its predecessor, was a financial failure.
Even though the 1884 Cotton Exposition lost a great deal of money, it was a spectacular showcase of both New Orleans and the vendors it hosted. It put the global spotlight on Louisiana’s industry and potential economic power. And, of course, it demonstrated to the world that New Orleans would never fail to throw a spectacular party.