Sweet Liberty: World’s Fairs’ love affair with the Liberty Bell

05 February 2016

Area Studies | Cultural Studies | History

The Liberty Bell, which has long been the symbol of American independence, is now a very familiar object to everyone in the office who’s been working on our upcoming World’s Fairs resource. Many of America’s expositions proudly hosted the bell on the fair site as a central attraction, with millions of visitors flocking to catch a glimpse of this famous national symbol.

 

Interestingly, in the same way that world’s fairs had their origins in Britain (with the Great Exhibition of 1851 widely acknowledged as the first major event of this type), the Liberty Bell also started off its life in Britain. Originally known as the State House Bell, it was made in London in 1752 under a commission from Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris. Who knows how or why, but that first bell was a bit of a dud, and cracked the first time it was rung. It was subsequently recast in Philadelphia, with a little more success.

 

The bell is, of course, well known for the sizeable crack that runs down one its side. This crack is proudly depicted in the souvenir bells which were made available as souvenirs at various exhibitions where it appeared:

Souvenir Liberty Bell from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago. © Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

 

Souvenir Liberty Bell from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis. © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Strangely enough, no one quite knows how or when the bell got cracked, although it probably occurred between 1837 and 1846. The large crack that you can see, though, is actually the repair job done to try and restore the tone of the bell so that it could be used again. This unfortunately failed, and the bell has never tolled since.

Despite this sizeable and silencing crack, the bell continued to enjoy a position of celebrity – certainly within Philadelphia, but also country-wide. The bell takes pride of place on the cover of this almanac, published for the Centennial Exhibition, which took place 140 years ago in 1876.

 

United States centennial almanac for the year 1875. © Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 
The bell also went on tour, featuring as a main exhibit at a number of other world’s fairs, including the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis in 1904, where one visiting amateur photographer took this shot:

 

Photograph of the bell in a visitor’s album of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904. © Missouri Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

So desperate were world’s fairs organisers to have the bell at their events, they would sometimes recruit schoolchildren to help campaign for the bell to appear. This was the approach taken by the planners of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. For this, over 250,000 San Franciscan schoolchildren signed up in support, using petition letters like this template:

A petition letter template from 1912, used to get the Liberty Bell to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915. © Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This particular campaign began three whole years before the exposition took place, and it was certainly touch and go for a while, but eventually the Philadelphia officials granted San Francisco’s request. Over 19 million people attended the fair, and on the bell’s journey to and from the event, another 10 million people had the chance to see the famous Liberty Bell. This turned out to be the bell’s last outing – to a world’s fair, or indeed anywhere outside of Philadelphia. I managed to get a glimpse of it myself when I visited the city to research material for this resource. The bell may not ring out any longer but seeing it certainly resonated with me and brought me just that bit closer to all those millions of world’s fairs visitors who flocked to see the famous bell.

Photograph © Claudine Nightingale.

 


World’s Fairs: a Global History of Expositions
will be available from March 2016. Full access will be restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Claudine Nightingale

Claudine Nightingale

I work as a Senior Development Editor at Adam Matthew. Since January 2014, I have developed a wide range of projects, including our fantastic theatre titles 'Shakespeare in Performance' and 'Eighteenth Century Drama'.

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