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Lesson Plan America at the Centennial

This lesson uses images and texts selected from the digital collections of the Library of Congress to engage students in studying the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Its central topic is the question of what items and images of the Exposition said about America. Students examine other images from the era to see the Exposition in the context of its time, and work as historians using primary source images and documents to construct museum exhibits on the issues of the Centennial Era.

America at the Centennial is about reading documents and images as primary sources in history. This lesson is an opportunity for students to strengthen their skills of close reading, collaborative hypothesizing, and conducting online searching within a library collection. It also engages students in learning history by working as historians as they select and assemble evidence to assert and support hypotheses about American life in the 1870s.

In addition to search, interpretation, and analysis, America at the Centennial poses an authentic task for students to construct historical presentations for an audience of classmates who are similarly engaged as a way of creating a classroom community of active learners.


Students will:

  • Search the Library of Congress digital collections for documents and images;
  • Read and analyze texts and images as primary source documents;
  • Examine primary sources of the Centennial era and hypothesize about the lives and values of Americans in 1876; and
  • Create an exhibit of documents (images, and texts) to tell the story of one facet of American life in 1876.

Time Required

Two weeks

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Activity 1: Analyzing Images of the Centennial

In 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated by millions of Americans who visited a vast Exhibition held in Philadelphia. Many others knew of this event through widely distributed illustrations. Statues, exhibit halls, and the overall layout of the exhibition grounds were designed with care to facilitate the enjoyment of visitors and to speak to them about the nation and its achievements.

In this part of the lesson, examine images from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition as primary sources of the history of the event and its time.

The Centennial of 1876 represents America's telling the story of the nation's accomplishments to its citizens and to the rest of the world. Examine the images -- whether of buildings, monuments, works of art, machinery, or artifacts -- in light of this motive. What does each image say about our then 100-year-old nation? What did Americans want to say to the rest of the world in each of these products?

Students analyze the image, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teachers' guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt discussion and analysis.

The Corliss Engine was useful as a source of power and important as a reflection of national pride. It was a large steam engine that stood in the center of the hall, dominating the space and siezing the attention of visitors, and supplying the power that drove the hundreds of machines on display in Machinery Hall of the Exhibition. Its importance was emphasized by its central position and imposing size, but also by the decision of the Exhibition organizers to officially open the celebration by having President Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil start the engine.

1. As a whole class, examine the image of the Corliss Engine, perhaps the most impressive item displayed at the Centennial. Analyze this image.

2. Choose one image from the collections listed below. You will be part of a collaborative team made up of 4-6 students who choose images from the same category.

Image Collections:

  • Fill out a Primary Source Analysis Tool for your choice.
  • Share the results of your study with your team.
  • With your team, write three hypotheses about American life or ideas in 1876 which can be supported by evidence drawn from the study of two or more images.
  • Report your results to your class.

3. As a class, consider:

  • What are the strengths of these images as historical evidence of American life or ideas in 1876?
  • What are their weaknesses?
  • How did the exhibits at the Centennial Exhibition function as history for Americans in 1876?
  • How do they function as history for you and your classmates in the twenty-first century?

Activity 2: Images as History

Historians interpret any moment in the past by examining as much evidence from as many different perspectives as they can gather. Using evidence in this way enables them to appreciate the diversity and complexity of life at any time.

Activity 1 of this project asked you to study the maps, buildings, and items used to celebrate the Centennial. These items were evidence of how America chose to celebrate. Activity 2 asks you to assess how evidence of the political and social issues of 1876 compares or contrasts with that of the Exhibition. As you turn your attention from the ideals of the celebration to the issues of real life, consider these questions:

  • What social issues were Americans concerned about in 1876?
  • What were the major issues being contested in the Presidential Election of that year?
  • What was politics like in 1876?
  • What were the civil rights challenges of the era?
  • How did issues involving women, African Americans, and immigrants reflect the challenges posed by the diversity of American society?
  1. Working in teams, choose one category of images for close examination.
  2. Working alone or with your group, consider each image in your category carefully.
  3. Complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool for each image in the category.
  4. As a team, formulate hypotheses that consider each image in terms of its historical context.
    What do the images tell us about the significance of this topic in the history of the Centennial Era?
    How do the images support what you already knew about the era?
    How do the images differ from what you already knew about the era?
    Describe the Americans whose lives were shaped by this particular topic. To what extent was their situation known or understood by the rest of the nation?

Issues of the Centennial Era:

Activity 3: Displaying the Issues of the Centennial Era

This part of the project invites you to construct a museum exhibit that tells the history of the topic you studied in Activity 2. Here's your opportunity to undertake the work of historians as you interpret the story of your topic for your classmates. Consider whether 1876 should be remembered as a year to celebrate the accomplishments of a century of independence, or a time when the American dream was facing profound threats. The question to address in planning your response is:

  • What are the key elements of the issue, and how does an analysis of this issue provide insight into American society in 1876?
  • Your thinking in response to this question will be presented in two forms:
    1. an essay in which you explore an image from Activity 2 of the project and
    2. a collaboratively designed model of an exhibit that uses images and captions to explain the significance of this issue in the context of its time.


1. Your product is to be a well researched essay in which you select one of the images presented in Activity 2 of the lesson and use historical and visual sources to:

  • tell the story behind the image
  • analyze its significance in the history of the Centennial Era

2. Your model is to be a plan for a museum exhibit in the form of a room that consists of four walls illustrated with images and words.

  • Using primary source images, present an accurate and balanced representation of the issue your group studied in Activity 2.
  • Draw from your research essay and those of your teammates to plan your exhibit.
  • The images used can be from any historical source, but the origin of each must be clearly documented.
  • The exhibit - the four walls - must include a minimum of twelve images. Written captions, presented in miniature form in the model and also submitted in list form on a sheet of paper, must clearly explain the point of each image.

The room you are designing can be imagined to be any size, but for the purpose of this model, it must be represented in the form of an intact cardboard box no smaller than 8.5 X 11 inches on any side. Think of this box as a room turned inside out. The sides of the box represent the walls of the room, although shown on the outside of the box for ease of display. The sides are to be covered with plain paper prior to the attachment of any design items. The top of the box is the ceiling of the room. The bottom of the box is the floor of the exhibit.

A successful exhibit will have the following characteristics:

  • The issue being presented in this exhibit will be immediately apparent.
  • The significance of this issue in the history of America in 1876 will be apparent.
  • The exhibit design will use images and captions to "tell the story" of this issue and explain its significance.
  • The exhibit will engage the viewer by how the issue is presented.
  • The exhibit will contain a minimum of twelve images, eight of which did not appear in the "America at the Centennial" lesson.
  • A separate page will present the captions, thumbnails of the images associated with each caption, and the appropriate bibliographic citation for each image.
  • The exhibit will be completed on time and all work will be done in a neat manner with attention given to scale and visibility.
  • The exhibit will be the result of a successful team collaboration, giving attention to each team member's work on Activity 2 of the lesson.

Lesson Evaluation

Each exhibit will be graded using the project rubric (PDF, 67 KB).


Nancy Fitch and Charles Flanagan