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The Charleston Exposition

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The Charleston Exposition


Most South Carolinians know that world's fairs are nothing new under the sun; they date back well into the 1800s. But, not many know that their home state played host to a world's fair about 100 years ago. The year was 1901 and the host city was Charleston.

The idea of Charleston hosting an exposition (that's what a world's fair was called back then) was first suggested by Col. John H. Averill in 1899. Col. Averill was concerned that Charleston was lagging behind other Southern cities in regaining the commercial prominence it had enjoyed prior to the Civil War. He believed that by hosting an exposition, Charleston and the entire state could highlight their commercial advantages, and in so doing, begin to regain the prosperity that was lost during the War Between the States and its aftermath. After all, other cities had been hosting expositions for decades, many with great success. Twenty-seven million people had visited Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, and Averill pointed out that if only a fraction of this number visited Charleston, surely the people of South Carolina would benefit.

The idea caught on rapidly, committees were formed, and the people of Charleston began to ready themselves for their world's fair. Money was raised by selling stock subscriptions and magnificent buildings were started. Enthusiasm ran high through the streets of Charleston; everyone was excited about the Exposition.

The fair was formally named "The South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition" in an attempt to stress that the port city of Charleston was ideally situated as a shipping point for trade among the southeastern United States and the West Indies. The formal name seemed a little too long for the tongue, so it was often shortened to "The West Indian Exposition" or "The Charleston Exposition."

The exposition grounds were located just north of downtown Charleston, near the old Washington Racecourse (where Hampton Park is located today). Streetcar lines were built to accommodate traffic to and from the city. Numerous buildings were erected to house the exposition displays, among which were exhibits from twenty states and three foreign countries.

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A photo of The Cotton Palace

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The Cotton Palace was the most imposing building on the grounds (320 feet long), and in combination with the Palace of Commerce and the Palace of Agriculture, formed the Court of Palaces. This central courtyard was the focal point of the Exposition, and also contained the beautiful Sunken Gardens. Many other buildings were constructed, and all were painted with ivory tints, which gave rise to the Exposition's nickname, "The Ivory City."

The Exposition opened formally on December 2, 1901 amid great fanfare (December 1 happened to fall on a Sunday). The governor of South Carolina, the mayor of Charleston, and some 22,000 other people witnessed the large parade and other festivities. Other notable happenings from the Exposition include:

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A photo of Teddy Roosevelt inside the Exposition Auditorium

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The Exposition closed on May 31, 1902 with "Charleston Day." Attendance for the entire 6 months totalled some 675,000 - a far cry from the millions that had visited other expositions. In fact, this was the smallest attendance figure that I was able to find for any world's fair before or since. Contributing to the low attendance was the fact that the Exposition was partly held during the winter months. Also, it seems that Charleston experienced some uncharacteristically severe weather during the Exposition, depressing attendance even more.

As a result of the poor attendance, the Exposition Company went bankrupt and was placed into receivership. (This seems to have been the primary hazard of having a world's fair, it has happened to a good many of them in the past.) The Exposition was successful in some ways, though. It did showcase the state of South Carolina to the world, eventually gaining several new businesses and industries for the city of Charleston. And even though the celebrations at the Ivory City had come to an end, there were many happy memories to remind the thousands of visitors of the good times that were had there.

Tourists are always prime targets of souvenir peddlers, and visitors to the Charleston Exposition were not spared from the propositions of these hucksters. There exists such diverse souvenir items as salt-and-pepper shakers, drinking glasses, dispensary bottles, collector's spoons, cigar cases, stamp holders, watch case openers, and coin banks, all which proudly proclaim their origin. Exonumically speaking, there were also a great many souvenirs in the form of tokens, medals, tickets, and badges. I have chosen just a few of the many items available for illustration.

The first item is one of the many medals that were sold at the fair. The obverse features the name of the exposition, along with some kind of plantation scene depicting farm workers under a palmetto tree. The reverse features pertinent information about the date and location, along with a small rendition of Fort Sumter inside a wreath of cotton. The medal is made of silver and measures 33mm. It was probably sold as a pocket piece, meant to be carried around with the spare change in one's pocket.

The second item appears to be part of a souvenir stickpin. The portion pictured in the two links below was probably attached to a stickpin by the hole at the top, and was meant to be worn on the coat collar or some other article of clothing. The obverse features a palmetto tree with the words: CHARLESTON, S.C. / WEST INDIAN / EXPOSITION / 1901-2. The reverse features a frontal view of the Cotton Palace. This small souvenir token measures only 18mm and is made of gilded brass.

The third item is a special souvenir admission ticket printed for use only on Wagener Day - May 22, 1902. (See above for comments on this special day.) The ticket measures 68mm by 120mm and is printed in black ink on cardboard stock. The upper left corner of the front features a portrait of Captain F.W. Wagener, the president of the Exposition Company. The central vignette features the Administration Building, while the upper right corner shows an insert of the Palace of Agriculture (also known as the South Carolina Building). The back features ornamental turnings and the engraver's signature, E.A. Wright, Banknote Engraver, Philadelphia.

The fourth item is also a souvenir ticket, this one good for admission on Charleston Day - May 31, 1902. This was ostensibly the final day of the Exposition. The front of the ticket (57mm x 88mm) features a vignette of a seated Liberty placed to the left of a bird's eye view of the Court of Palaces. The ticket is printed in black ink on banknote stock. The words "Charleston Day, May 31, 1902" are overprinted in red ink across the front of the ticket. The existence of this overprint suggests the existence of other tickets with different overprints for such "days" as Opening Day, Negro Day, Military Day, South Carolina Day, and President's Day. The back again features ornamental turnings and the engraver's signature, E.A. Wright.

These are only a few of the exonumic souvenirs from South Carolina's one and only World's Fair. A complete collection would probably include 50 or 100 different items. I wonder if those souvenir peddlers ever considered that their little trinket would be enthusiastically collected almost 100 years later.

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PLEASE NOTE: I am in the process of writing a book on the subject of the Charleston Exposition. It should be in print in time for the centennial of the Exposition, in the year 2001. I am extremely interested in purchasing any material from this Expo, souvenirs like the ones above, books, other items, and especially PHOTOS, so that I can illustrate the book. If you have any items for sale, or even ones that I can merely borrow, please email me at or by using the email link at the bottom of this web page. If you prefer, you can call me at 803-532-0130, or by snail mail at: PO Box 420, Prosperity, SC 29127. Thanks.

Copyright 1999 by Tony Chibbaro

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Charleston Exposition Items For Sale


I have a few duplicate items from the Charleston Exposition for sale. If you are interested in purchasing any, please follow the "How To Order" Instructions at the bottom of this page or email me at . Thanks.

This page was updated on November 5, 1999.

  1. Stereoview by Underwood & Underwood, "President and Mrs. Roosevelt receiving Guests on board the 'Algonquin,' Charleston, S.C." A nice view of the Presidential couple, along with Charleston mayor J. Adger Smyth greeting two women on the U.S.S. Algonquin, a naval vessel that took the Roosevelts on a harbor tour when T.R. visited the Exposition in Charleston. This view is part of a series of views made when the President visited the Expo. Nice clean VF view. Image. $65.00

  2. Sheet of stationery with title "Greetings From Charleston, S.C." Nice 8x11 single sided sheet of paper with four vignettes, published by Tom Jones of Cincinnati, Ohio. Two vignettes picture buildings on the Exposition grounds - The Auditorium and The Court of Palaces. The other two show City Hall and a private residence on South Battery. This piece of stationery was part of a set of 8 different sheets sold by Legerton's Drug Store in Charleston during the Exposition. Most sheets have some part of the Exposition pictured. See below for additional sheets. Nice xf sheet, small folded corner at lower left. Image. $28.00

  3. Sheet of stationery as above showing four vignettes, all from the Expo - Mines Building, Cotton Palace, Philadelphia Building, and Sunken Gardens. Grade vf, with somewhat rough right side border (folds and short tears). Image. $28.00

  4. Sheet of stationery as above showing four vignettes, none from the Expo, but three having "Black Americana" themes. Vignette titles "Fresh Vegetables" shows a black woman with a basket of vegetables balanced on her head. Vignette titles "Rapid Transit" shows a black man driving a bull cart. Vignette titled "Just a Nigger" shows smiling young black girl. Fourth vignette is titled "Birdseye view of Charleston." Condition is f or so, corners are rough, folds and tears across the top. Image. $28.00 SOLD

  5. Sheet of stationery as above showing four vignettes, two from the Expo - Palace of Commerce and Palace of Agriculture. Two non-Expo vignettes are Fort Moultrie, and The Battery. Folds on right and left margins, very small tears at bottom, otherwise nice vf. Image. $25.00 SOLD

  6. Sheet of stationery as above showing four vignettes, one from the Expo - Old Colonial Home on the Exposition Grounds. (This building was owned by F.W. Wagener and was the only building on the grounds that was not expressly built for the Exposition. It functioned as the Women's Building.) The other three vignettes are St. Michael's Church, St. Philip's Church, and the Oak Tree at Magnolia Cemetery. Excellent condition, no tears or folds. Image. $28.00

  7. Sheet of stationery as above showing four vignettes, none from the Expo, but two having "Black Americana" themes. One vignette shows a young black teenager holding a slice of watermelon, entitled "Perfect Bliss." The other shows an old black woman with a fan and is entitled "Ground Nutcakes." The other two view show the Auditorium (Charleston's auditorium, not the one at the Expo) and Fort Sumter. Excellent condition, no tears or folds. Image. $28.00 SOLD

  8. Final sheet of stationery, as above showing four vignettes, none from the Expo. Vignettes are: Calhoun Monument, Wrought Iron Gate, Post Office, and Private Residence Built in 1765. Excellent condition, no tears, lower right corner has very small folds. Image. $24.00

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How To Order

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Token or Medal of the Month
A Short History of Token Use in South Carolina
South Carolina Trade Tokens for Sale - Page 1
South Carolina Trade Tokens for Sale - Page 2
Other South Carolina Exonumia for Sale
Trade Tokens from Other States for Sale
Trading List
eBay Auction Listings
South Carolina Stereoviews
Links to Other Sites