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Fridays with Fred: Beloit women and the Centennial Exposition of 1876

February 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

A few years ago, a local history buff decided to visit one of her favorite haunts, a nearby thrift store. She glanced over the shelves of bric-a-brac--a garish vase from the 1960s, mismatched, but colorful Fiesta dinnerware from the 1940s, some cute animal figurines--and then moved on to the book corner, where the bursting shelves seemed ready to pull off the wall. There, amidst bestsellers and non-sellers, paperback romances, and books about long-forgotten fad diets, a large, rectangular, clearly ancient volume caught her eye. Its gaudy, marbled cover had seen better days, edges here and there torn or scuffed. However, the burgundy-colored, embossed leather shield at its center seemed almost as pristine as the day an artisan created it almost 140 years ago. “1776-1876,” the golden letters read. “International Exhibition. Women’s Centennial Club, Beloit, Wis. Mrs. H. P. Strong, Miss Julia A. Salmon, Secretaries.”

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Inside, the blue-edged pages revealed 75 pages of handwritten minutes. This was quite a find. She took it up to the cash register, where she paid 75 cents plus tax. After spending some hours perusing her newfound treasure, she realized it needed a proper home. Although the ledger might fetch a good price at auction or on eBay, she felt that it ought to stay close to its original locale and that it ought to be available to others also fascinated by Beloit history. She and a friend brought it to the Beloit College Archives.

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Between May and November of 1876, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial International Exposition in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The massive undertaking, which entailed construction of more than 200 new buildings, was the United States’ first official World’s Fair. Not only did exhibits travel to Philadelphia from all over the world, cities and towns and small villages from every nook and cranny of the United States also contributed, among them a thriving 40-year-old Midwestern community, Beloit, Wisconsin. Planning began early in 1875, when Miss Martha Peet received a letter from Mrs. J.G. Thorp of the Women’s State Centennial Executive Committee in Madison, inviting her to become “Chairman of the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee for the City of Beloit.”

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By April, Peet and others had organized the “Women’s Centennial Club of Beloit, Wisconsin,” complete with constitution and bylaws. “Article 2nd” stated the club’s purpose:

The object of this club shall be to devise means for the proper representation of the City of Beloit at the International Exhibition, to be held in Philadelphia in 1876. Also, to develop Woman’s higher nature, aesthetically, mentally, morally and socially.

The 48 vice presidents and honorary vice presidents represented the United States and its territories and included the wives of distinguished Beloit citizens, among them familiar names from the annals of Beloit College history, such as Emerson, Bushnell, Clary, Merrill, and Peet.

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Meeting minutes reveal the group’s programs and activities, including patriotic festivities held at the opera house, which featured flags and portraits, “representations of the great Centennial Buildings now in process of erection in Philadelphia,” a “real American Eagle,” and “thirteen airily dressed young ladies [personifying] the thirteen original States.” That May they discussed the best method for showcasing at the Centennial Exposition, “an accurate representation of the country, and also the City of Beloit, its growth from the Commencement forty years ago until the present time…” The minutes dated May 10, 1875, announced their decision:

The model which the Ladies have accepted is a design of the Seal of Beloit College – an Institution around which our affections cluster, where our sons and brothers and friends are educated – and which is a Dove over an open Bible, inscribed in characters of Greek and Hebrew, upon a Shield, surrounded by the Latin motto, (translated) “True Science and Firm Faith” – this again encircled by the pure English of today: “Beloit College in Wisconsin, U.S.A.”

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In order to pay for the creation of the elaborate seal, Beloit women raised money through entertainments and programs and the selling of Centennial medallions. A report published in Centennial Records of the Women of Wisconsin (Atwood and Culver, 1876), provides more information about the ongoing creation of the gigantic seal:

The Beloit Club (ladies) will send to the Centennial a beautiful piece of work – women’s work in very truth. It represents the seal of Beloit College; is wrought in silk and chenille. The foundation is satin, gros-grain silk and velvet, all as white as snow. Its diameter must be at least three feet. The work is designed and wrought by Miss Sarah T. Bodtker, who has been since June last diligently employed upon it, and is no more than two-thirds completed…The work, from the gilt-edged Bible and perfect colored dove to the last stitch taken, is most exquisite. It is to be framed in a setting of black walnut, and will cost $500.

Once Bodtker completed her work, the meeting minutes explained the iconography of the seal in meticulous detail, noting “such additions as have suggested themselves to the Artist, to add interest and beauty to the work”:

  1. The center is a Shield with an open Bible, surmounted by a Dove, representing the Holy Spirit, with rays of light, the whole resting upon a bed of Forget-me-nots.

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2.The motto of the College, “Scientia vera cum fide pura,” is interwoven with field of flowers in miniature, selected to correspond with the sentiment of the motto, an anchor forming the period.

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      3. Dividing line ornamented with golden wheat, as the principal product of Wisconsin.

         4. “Col. Beloit in Rep. Wisconsin, U.S.” In these letters are miniature flags (with Pilot and Merchant flags interspersed in the curves) of the following nations, in the order mentioned, beginning in the letter C: Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Russia, Germany, Prussia, Switzerland and Austria, Turkey, Persia, China, Japan, Sandwich Island and New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil, New Granada, Peru, and the United States, underneath which are the American Eagle, Shield and Banners.

5.The large wreath surrounding the whole consists of emblematic flowers, such as Passion Vines, Ivies, Lilies, etc., etc. and Oak Leaves and Acorns, representing the strength and endurance of the Badger State. In the left of this wreath is an Indian Tent, representing Beloit as it was in 1833. In the right is the first log cabin in 1836, and at the top is our magnificent High School Building, representing the intelligence, refinement and culture of the place in the Centennial year.

The women exhibited the framed seal, or “medallion” (as they called it), for several days in Beloit, charging admission in order to replenish their coffers. They also sold “quite a number of stereopticon views and photographs of the Medallion,” two of which survive in the Beloit College Archives.

The Beloit medallion journeyed to Madison where it joined other state-wide contributions before the long haul to Philadelphia and its allotted 25 feet of space at the Exposition’s “Women’s Pavilion.” “Arriving in Philadelphia,” the minutes tell us, “it was unpacked and placed on an easel of suitable height, where it attracted admiring crowds, and received, as it deserved, unbounded admiration.”

After the Centennial Exposition closed in November of 1876, the medallion returned to Madison for exhibit there until coming home to Beloit and its campus on the hill. As the minutes report, the women intended the great seal “to remain in Beloit College Memorial Hall forever, as a lasting memorial of the taste, skill, and executive ability of the women of Beloit in 1876.” The college received the medallion in a formal ceremony held at Memorial Hall on Dec. 12, 1876, where speeches by the Centennial Club’s Martha Peet and by Beloit College professor, Joseph Emerson extolled its beauty and appropriateness as a civic monument.

However, a note scrawled on the back of one of the college’s stereopticon images indicates that at an unknown date the college donated the Centennial Medallion to the Beloit Historical Society, where it resides today in remarkably fresh condition, its colorfully hued silks and threads still vibrant, still proclaiming that Beloit--and Beloit College--is well worth knowing about.