Beginnings of Japanese influence on American design—The International Expo of 1876

 by Karl Bareis (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 2, October 2016)

Japanese elements in present day American architecture are so omni-present and so natural that many people would assume that such features and treatments have always been around. Large overhangs, irimoya style roofs, the careful use of exposed timber, open floor plans, natural finishes and materials throughout, reduced barriers between nature outside and the man-made interior, astute selection and expert handling of natural materials, etc. These are the norms for many a modern project. Rewind to 1876.

In 1876, Victorian decorative style was in full swing across the land. Gingerbread, stained glass, ornate scrollwork, turnings, overstuffed furniture, heavy draperies, Gothic. Overpowering. Then came the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia.

This exposition was a six month celebration of 100 years of American independence and the latest in a string of expos that had been taking place among “civilized” nations in recent years. What was notable about this expo was that it was the first international expo in the US since the opening of diplomatic relations with Japan in 1854.

For these expos, participating countries from around the world typically sent their finest achievements in technology, science, agriculture, and fine art to be exhibited, judged, and compared to all others – and many items were for sale.

Understand that international expositions measured crowds, receipts, and the cost – in millions. These were immensely popular events, drew visitors from around the globe, and were a grand stage upon which to shine.

This was just the stage that the Japanese government was hoping to use to show the world the great pace of modernization and industrialization that was occurring in Japan. However, it was the traditional Japanese art, crafts, architecture, and gardens that stole the show.

By design, the US exhibitions dominated the acres and massive exhibition halls constructed for and devoted to the expo, but most countries (and many US states) constructed their own pavilions, gardens, and other structures to display their unique culture and talents. Japan built two primary structures: the Commssioners’ Building and the “Japanese Bazaar” (below). The materials for the buildings and the craftsmen themselves were shipped from Japan at great expense (a story in itself).

Apparently the effort was well received:

COMMISSIONERS’BUILDING from The Illustrated history of the Centennial Exhibition by James D. McCabe 1876

COMMISSIONERS’ BUILDING from The Illustrated history of the Centennial Exhibition by James D. McCabe 1876

This building (Commissioners’ Building) is now nearly completed, and causes astonishment at its beauty and elegance of finish. It is regarded as the finest piece of carpenter work ever seen in this country. The wood of which it is built is most beautifully grained, and as smooth as satin. Every portion of the building is most carefully fitted together, and the carving is truly wonderful…

Quote from: The Centennial Exposition Guide by G. Lawrence 1876

Prior to this expo, America knew Japan only from limited photographs, engravings, and the rare written word. After it, the demand for things Japanese grew rapidly and the thirst for information about these wonders deepened dramatically. Unfortunately for us, details of the structures and the many of the intrepid craftspeople who made the expo structures appear to be lost to history. Such is the case with many of the projects, public and private, that were soon to follow.

If you are interested in seeing more of the early expositions that featured Japanese architecture and design, please search on:

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition
1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915 Panama-California Exposition

JAPANESE BAZAAR from The Illustrated Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition 1876 by Frank Leslie 1877

JAPANESE BAZAAR from The Illustrated Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition 1876 by Frank Leslie 1877