Cotton Expositions in Atlanta

In the late nineteenth century, fairs and expositions were an important way for cities to attract visitors who, in an era before radio and television, were eager to see new technological marvels on display. These events provided civic leaders with a showcase to lure visitors, who were urged to come and do business in the host location. In the years following the Civil War (1861-65), Atlanta's leaders hosted a series of three "cotton expositions" that were important to the city's recovery and economic development. These expositions helped Atlanta stake its claim as the center of the New South. The great promoter of the first two expositions was Henry W. Grady, the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution and one of the framers of a new vision for the South and its economy.

The 1881 International Cotton Exposition

Atlanta held its first exposition, named the International Cotton Exposition, in Oglethorpe Park in 1881. The city then had fewer than 40,000 residents, and the primary sense in which the first exposition was "international" was the display of cotton plants from around the world. Nevertheless, Atlantans were eager to host the 1881 exposition to promote investment and to help the city toward its goal of becoming an industrial center. Although attendance was lower than expected (fewer than 200,000 in paid attendance during its two-and-a-half-month run), city leaders demonstrated that they could work together to host a major event that provided favorable publicity for the city.

The 1887 Piedmont Exposition

The Piedmont Exposition, held during October 1887, was a more regional event, with nearly 20,000 visitors on opening day. A crowd of more than 50,000 was on hand when Grady introduced the popular U.S. president, Grover Cleveland. After the exposition closed, civic leaders agreed that it had successfully expanded Atlanta's reputation as a place to visit and to conduct business.

The 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition

The most ambitious of the city's cotton expositions was staged in 1895. Its goals were to foster trade between southern states and South American nations as well as to show the products and facilities of the region to the rest of the nation and to Europe. These objectives found expression in the official name of the event—the Cotton States and International Exposition. There were exhibits by six states and special buildings featuring the accomplishments of women and blacks. Also showcased was the latest technology in transportation, manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and other fields. Amusements such as the "Phoenix Wheel" and an early version of the motion picture were set up as part of a midway to attract visitors.
On opening day, September 18, military bands played, followed by speeches from political, business, and other leaders, including the prominent African American educator Booker T. Washington. In a speech that came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise" speech and that was greeted enthusiastically by white advocates of the New South, Washington did not challenge the prevailing ideas of segregation held by advocates of the New South; putting aside all claims to political power and social equality, he urged blacks to make progress as agricultural and industrial laborers. In spite of lavish promotion, fewer than 800,000 attended the three-month exposition, which was plagued by constant financial problems. The Cotton States Exposition did showcase Atlanta as a regional business center and helped to attract investment. Although most of the 1895 exposition's buildings were torn down so that the materials could be sold for scrap, the city eventually purchased the grounds, which became the present-day Piedmont Park.


Further Reading
Harold E. Davis, Henry Grady's New South: Atlanta, a Brave and Beautiful City (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990).

Bruce Harvey and Lynn Watson-Powers, "The Eyes of the World Are Upon Us": A Look at the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895," Atlanta History 39 (fall/winter 1995): 5-11.

Harvey K. Newman, Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).

Theda Perdue, Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

K. Stephen Prince, "A Rebel Yell for Yankee Doodle: Selling the New South at the 1881 Atlanta International Cotton Exposition," Georgia Historical Quarterly 92 (fall 2008): 340-71.
Cite This Article
Newman, Harvey K. "Cotton Expositions in Atlanta." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 05 August 2015. Web. 08 October 2015.
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