Bringing the World to Philadelphia


 
During its last decades, the Commercial Museum was a forlorn and forgotten anachronism – little more than a hazy memory for aging Philadelphians of a long-ago junior high school field trip. When it was demolished in 2005, few mourned its passing. But during its first decades, there was probably no Philadelphia institution more dynamic, useful or better-known around the globe. It was much more than a mere museum. It was the de facto U.S. Department of Commerce, before the federal government established that department.

The idea for the museum was born with a visit by University of Pennsylvania biology professor Dr. William P. Wilson to the great Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. He convinced City Council and Mayor Edwin S. Stuart to purchase 24 railcars filled with materials from the fair when it closed. Wilson became director of the museum and added tons of new material from big fairs and exhibits around the world.

Six years after its founding in 1894, the museum consisted of five buildings along 34th Street near Spruce. Its large staff promoted world trade in a dozen ways including the collection of countless items of trade goods from every nation in the world. Collecting tons of foreign goods and raw materials was aimed at showing American businesses what other nations offered in the way of trade goods and what they might want to buy. The museum even compiled lists on which foreign firms to avoid.

The museum also spewed out an ocean of publications, reports and statistical data and did translations in two-dozen languages. It put together international buyers and sellers, boasted up-to-date scientific testing labs, and had a network of 20,000 overseas correspondents feeding statistics and facts on trade back to Philadelphia headquarters. It had a huge library of books and publications relating to world trade. Along with lectures for adults, it provided classes on trade and geography for school students and gave them a glimpse of exotic lands.

It was such a unique and useful concept that President William McKinley came to Philadelphia to speak at its birth – an address covered by the New York Times. The President also sent a message in 1899 for the dedication of the museum’s buildings and to welcome a Commercial Congress attended by trade officials from 60 nations.


 

While the City had provided the initial cash to launch the museum and start its collecting activities, the exposition and trade congress were authorized by both houses of Congress. The federal treasury gave $350,000, and money from Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia and private capital brought the total to $800,000. A major source of continued funding for the museum was membership fees of about $100 a year from businesses with an interest in export/import. Seventy percent of the member businesses were from outside the Philadelphia region.

When the U.S. Department of Commerce was born in 1914, the museum began to lose its unique position in the country. In 1930, the Philadelphia Convention Hall opened in the middle of the museum buildings. Buildings south of Convention Hall were replaced with modern exhibit space in the 1960s. Eventually, the complex became known as the Civic Center on Civic Center Boulevard although the ornate northern-most building retained its role as the Commercial Museum It enjoyed some brief glory in the early 1960s with gala trade fairs and fashion shows focused on Italy and France.

The complex became derelict in the late 1990s after the opening of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. The University of Pennsylvania eventually purchased the complex to expand its medical research facilities. Although truckloads of museum material had been discarded over the decades, there were still about 27,000 items in storage including some rare and expensive craft and folk items from Africa and Asia. Curators at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and other museums were delighted to share the hidden treasures.

References:

  • Hunter, Ruth. The Trade and Convention Center of Philadelphia: Its Birth and Renascence. City of Philadelphia, 1962.
  • Philadelphia Daily News. “A Museum is Set to Pack It In,” June 13, 1994.
  • Philadelphia Daily News “Museum Exhibits Parceled Out,” June 19, 2001.
This entry was posted in Historic Sites. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Categories

  • Archives