The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum: How a Forgotten Museum Forever Altered American Industry


hen the doors of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum closed for the final time on July 1, 1994, they shut on an institution that was a shadow of its former self, operating within a fraction of its former footprint, its original purpose and contributions long forgotten. Opened in 1897 at 34th and South Streets, the Commercial Museum was the turn of the century United States' greatest resource for international trade information, essentially serving the role of the not-yet-existent federal International Trade Administration. Despite its enormous contributions to early 20th century history, the museum faded from the public memory, overshadowed by the adjacent Civic Center, eventually surrendering its role in history by taking the name "Civic Center Museum." In its waning years, the museum designed for the American businessman closed to the general public, reaching audiences solely composed of schoolchildren, teaching them about local and global culture and commerce. Yet even some of those school-age visitors must have guessed that at one point, it had been more. With towering Grecian columns, vaulted ceilings, and the curious glass display cases of another era, the building spoke of the grandiosity of a long-lost time, born of a period when no statement was too large, and the dreams of enterprising individuals were only limited by how far those dreamers were willing to push them. It came about in a sweeping era for the United States, a time when America sought to conquer the world, not by vanquishing enemies in war, but by defeating their competitors in the global marketplace [1].

A Fair Plan: The Early Years of the Commercial Museum

The Philadelphia Cultural Museum came into existence at a high point in the history of exhibition, the era of the great World's Fair celebrations. Designed as displays of mankind's triumphs of engineering, design, architecture, and ingenuity, the World's Fairs ran for months on end and showcased machinery, textiles, and engineering marvels, such as the first Ferris Wheel. At the height of America's industrialization, these fairs served as the major demonstrator of progress for many individuals, with millions crossing the ticket gate to see for themselves just how much their fellow man had accomplished since the previous fair. It was in this heady state of excitement that Dr. William P. Wilson, a botanist employed by the University of Pennsylvania, visited the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and was struck by the importance and potential of the exhibits surrounding him.

It was a pivotal point in American industrial history, a time when the United States was beginning to realize the importance of competing in the global marketplace, yet finding themselves painfully shorthanded in their ability to do so. In the late 19th century, there was no federal agency devoted to international trade; any individual wishing to sell goods overseas had to do all the groundwork independently, an insurmountable challenge to most. Industries seeking to sell products had no knowledge of foreign markets, and were lagging far behind the European and Asian nations that had been exchanging goods for centuries [2]. Surveying the exhibits of raw materials and goods displayed before him, Dr. Wilson surmised that the World's Fairs contained the root of the solution to America's problem. He saw the exhibits as a traveling classroom on world commerce, and felt that with such a resource permanently in one place, anchored by an authoritative commercial library, Americans would be able to catch up with the rest of the world and become a major force in international trade. With this ambitious goal in mind, Dr. Wilson, with the assistance of University of Pennsylvania Provost Dr. William Pepper, purchased nearly every exhibit held at the Chicago World's Fair. He then loaded his bounty onto a line of twenty-four railroad cars, and shipped it back to Philadelphia, where it would form an institution that quickly and significantly impacted American international entrepreneurship [3]. Opening its doors to the public in 1897 and formally dedicated in 1899 (in conjunction with the Philadelphia-hosted National Export Exposition), the Philadelphia Commercial Museum immediately became the pre-eminent source of international trade information for enterprising individuals. Writing in 1900, economics specialist W. Colgrave Betts passionately expounded upon the usefulness of the museum:

Where else in the United States could you learn at the shortest notice what shape of butcher's knife was preferred in Servia, or how tenpenny nails had to be wrapped up in order to suit the requirements of Beyrouth; whose brand of condensed milk was in favor in Colombo, or whose make of agricultural forks were being used in Argentina...? Was there any demand for oilcloth in Brazil? What would be the freight on forty brass bedsteads ordered from Rangoon? How would you write "Handle with care" in Russian? [4]

To the turn-of-the-century globally-minded entrepreneur, the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, with its collection of raw and manufactured goods and vast library of international trade and market reports, represented a unique and essential resource in getting the information they needed to expand their business. Working with over forty international governments, and offering the rare luxury of an in-house translation department to decipher critical foreign trade reports, the museum and its library –known as the Bureau of Information—helped many Americans expand their business. However, the scope of the museum's assistance was not limited to aiding domestic capitalists. The museum also offered free information to foreign industries hoping to gain a footing in the United States, and published a monthly magazine on American goods, Commercial America, for the international markets.

An International Resource: The Commercial Museum Reaches its Height 

The museum expanded quickly over the next twenty years, growing to reside within a sprawling, five-building campus which included the former city landmark Convention Hall. As World's Fairs came and went, the exhibitions were shuttled back to the Commercial Museum, which came to be considered the unofficial museum of the World's Fair [5]. As the museum became internationally renowned for its role in trade, foreign countries began seeking to connect with the institution, recognizing its importance as the liaison between their own countries and American commerce. The museum received numerous gifts from these countries, including musical instruments, works of art, weaponry, sculpture, and clothing, which were displayed alongside commercial materials in large galleries grouped by country. In a telling example of the Commercial Museum's presumed authority on commerce and World's Fairs, museum director Dr. Wilson was commissioned to create a massive exhibit on Filipino life and industry for the 1909 Fair. The "Philippine Exhibit" proved to be the largest-drawing attraction of the Fair, due no doubt in large part to the inclusion of a living diorama of tribal society, put on by over 1,200 live Filipinos [6]. The inanimate pieces of the exhibit returned and comprised the Philippine collection of the museum. Admission to the museum was always free, which quickly made it a popular destination for school field trip.

By the 1920s, international trade was thriving in the United States, yet the decade would mark the beginning of the Commercial Museum's steady decline into irrelevancy, a slide punctuated by three major factors, beginning with the creep of the federal government into its domain. The US Department of Commerce, content in previous years to allow the museum's Bureau of Information to handle much of the information needs of the public, expanded dramatically under its leader at the time, Herbert Hoover. Heavily patterned from the methods used by the Commercial Museum's Bureau of Information, the International Trade Administration was developed, and took over many of the duties previously covered by the museum. While the library continued to collect material, it became a less important resource for business professionals both home and abroad. Secondly, public interest had begun to wane in the World's Fair exhibitions, particularly in the wake of the First World War, which had sapped technological progress of its perceived innocence, showing instead the brutality capable with advancement [7]. Finally, the Commercial Museum was dealt its worst blow in 1926 with the death of founder and director Dr. William Wilson. The museum was his dream, and nobody seemed able to follow in his footsteps with the same enthusiasm and drive he brought to the institution. These factors, combined with the lack of production that followed the arrival of the Great Depression, gradually pushed the museum into obscurity. Collections languished in cases, untouched for years, then decades, and the once-thriving museum became a dusty memory to many who had passed through its doors.

Civic Role: The Commercial Museum in the Late 20th Century

An attempt came in the late 1950s to revitalize the museum and its surrounding area, through the idea of a new public space. This space, dubbed the Civic Center, would incorporate the museum and already-existing Convention Hall and update it with hopes of drawing trade shows, national conferences, and sporting and entertainment events. The museum and its library, fallen into organizational and structural disrepair, was dramatically downsized, then restored and repackaged as part of the Philadelphia Civic Center and renamed the Civic Center Museum. Though some remnants of the international collections continued to be shown, the museum took on a decidedly more local focus, with a large replica of the city designed as a feature exhibit. This display, titled Philadelphia Panorama, was meant to be updated continuously to show the growth of the city. However, despite these efforts, the panorama and the museum itself would only enjoy fleeting relevancy. While the museum hosted a trio of successful temporary festival-style international showcases between 1958 and 1961, the permanent museum collections remained neglected and static [8]. The completion of the Spectrum in South Philadelphia diverted much of the business from the Civic Center and Convention Hall, a major source of foot traffic to the Civic Center Museum. Interest in the museum gradually tapered off, with the Civic Center Museum finally closing to the public in 1982. Portions of the collection were relocated to the Port of History Museum (current site of the Independence Seaport Museum), where the displays attracted as little as 15,000 visitors per year. Back at the main building, from 1982 to 1994, the Civic Center Museum functioned solely as an educational center, visited by schoolchildren from the surrounding states. The museum was extremely popular with these groups, as it was one of the few institutions that allowed and encouraged the young visitors to touch and play with many of the materials contained within the collections. However, the appreciation of schools was not enough to keep the museum going, and in 1994 the city determined that the property was to be razed, and all remaining collection materials stored or dispersed, with most going to Philadelphia-area museums [9].

Though the Philadelphia Commercial Museum ended its life solely as an educational center for children, classroom enrichment and student outreach were considered major focuses of the museum from its earliest years. It did not take long for local teachers to realize the boon of having such a museum accessible and free of charge, and they quickly came in droves to visit its halls. By the 1920s, the school crowds became so overwhelming the city appointed two full-time teachers to serve as class instructors for the museum, positions that existed until the last day of operations in 1994. Founder Dr. Wilson encouraged school use of the museum, believing that the early exposure of students to international trade would make for better entrepreneurs in later years. From the museum's earliest years Wilson conducted evening classes for Philadelphia teachers, instructing them in how to use the museum and its content to better teach their students. Wilson even accommodated rural districts, packaging extra samples of textiles and raw materials in custom-made cabinets for Pennsylvania schools that could not make it to Philadelphia [10].

In its 97 years of operation, the Commercial Museum was visited by generations of Philadelphia-area students. In its final year, the museum drew over 40,000 schoolchildren to its halls, proving that it had not been forgotten by all. The Independence Seaport Museum has collected a number of photographs of early school groups visiting the Commercial Museum. Follow the link below to visit the museum with these budding industrialists.

Commercial Museum history written by Katelyn A. Wolfrom, Spring 2010.


[1] Conn,Steven. "An Epistemology for Empire: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum, 1893–1926." Symposium: Imperial Discourses: Power and Perception. On p. 557 of his report, Conn recounts that "In a speech at Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition in 1901 [museum founder Dr. Wilson] had assured his audience that "the influence of commerce on the whole, has been steadily in the direction of peace and prosperity, until to-day it has become the one great factor in the prevention of war." For further insight on the Commercial Museum by Conn, also see his book, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[2] See W. Colgrave Betts. "The Philadelphia Commercial Museum" The Journal of Political Economy 8.2 (March 1900) pp.222-233

[3] Rydell, Robert W. "Review: Museums and Cultural History. A Review Article." Comparative Studies in Society and History. 34.2 (April 1992) pp.242-247

[4] Betts,W. Colgrave. "The Philadelphia Commercial Museum" The Journal of Political Economy 8.2 (March 1900) pp.227

[5] Conn, Steven."An Epistemology for Empire: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum, 1893–1926." Diplomatic History, Volume 22, Issue 4 (p 533-563)

[6] See Robert Rydell's chapter, "The Culture of Imperial Abundance: World's Fairs in the Making of American Culture" in Simon J. Bronner's Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920.

[7] As Conn writes, Americans were spared most of the negativity and nihilism that pervaded Europe in the post-war years due to their safe distance from the destructive fighting.   However, not only did international commerce fail at producing the peace Dr. Wilson predicted, the First World War actually drove international profits heavily for United States industries, nearly doubling revenues between 1914 and 1919 from $4.25 to $7.3 billion.

[8] The renovation and re-imagining of the Commercial Musuem, as well as the three international festivals held from 1958-1961, are discussed in great detail in Ruth H. Hunter's The Trade and Convention Center of Philadelphia: Its Birth and Renascence.

[9] See Santiago, Denise-Marie. "Hands-on museum is itself heading into history." Philadelphia Inquirer 21 February 1994.

[10] In the October 1934 issue of The Elementary School Journal, Rupert Peters writes of these cabinets, saying: "The Philadelphia Commercial Museum has placed in nearly every school system in Pennsylvania from one to twenty cabinets of exhibits. Each contains from four to nine drawers of commercial raw materials…As a rule, the materials in the lending collections are functioning, educationally, to better advantage than do many of the class trips to museums simply because the teacher receives her material when she needs it and when it fits into the work being done."  Peters, Rupert. "Free Services Offered Children by Museums and Art Galleries. II" The Elementary School Journal 35.2 (Oct. 1934) pp.123-130

Timeline of Major Events: Philadelphia Commercial Museum/Civic Center Museum

1893: Chicago's World Fair/Exposition is held.  William P. Wilson, professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, attends and theorizes on the need for a "permanent world's fair museum."  Purchases the majority of the fair exhibits and ships them back to Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Commercial Museum opens in a temporary space.

1897: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum's official building opens, with President William McKinley in attendance as a speaker.

1899: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum is dedicated.  In this same year, it hosts the first-ever International Commercial Congress, a major convention with representatives of over forty governments present.

1900: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum begins sending cabinets to Pennsylvania schools outside of the Philadelphia area.  In the next decade, more than 2,500 of these cabinets are distributed to rural schools. Containing raw material samples, photographs, maps of international regions, and textile samples, they are seen as excellent classroom enrichment materials.

1906: William P. Wilson, founder of the Commercial Museum, takes a three-year leave of absence to put together an exhibit on the Philippines for the 1909 World's Exposition in Nancy, France. This massive exhibit featured 1,200 living Filipinos as a "living diorama"; inanimate portions of the exhibit were brought back to the Commercial Museum as a display.

1913: The US Bureau of Domestic and Foreign Commerce is founded as a branch of the Department of Commerce.  It will greatly expand its role during the next decade, taking on many of the responsibilities of the Commercial Museum's Department of Information.

1926: Philadelphia Commercial Museum founder Dr. William P. Wilson passes away.

1929: The crash of the stock market sends the country into the Great Depression, halting industrial growth nationwide.

1930: Convention Hall is dedicated.  Its opening drives conventions away from the halls of the Commercial Museum, causing further loss of revenue.

1952: The City of Philadelphia appoints a committee to renovate and repair the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, which is to become part of the new Philadelphia Civic Center planned for the area.  The museum is renamed the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum. $1,500,000 in funding is allotted for this "capital improvement program."

1958: The Civic Center and Civic Center Museum are opened to the public, following their construction and renovation. "Japan Today" exhibit opens at the museum, the first of three internationally focused exhibits to be hosted at the Civic Center Museum following its restoration.

1960: The "Festival of France" exhibit opens at the Civic Center Museum, featuring French fashion shows, jazz concerts, and cooking exhibitions, in addition to exhibit materials. The exhibit was put together with the French government, and drew nearly 200,000 during its ten week run.

1961: The "Festival of Italy" exhibition opens at the Civic Center Museum.  Done in collaboration with the Italian government, the exhibit featured working fountains, Roman ruins, merchant vendors, Italian fashion, and art, and drew over 250,000 during its two month run at the museum.

1982: The Civic Center Museum is closed to the public, citing poor visitor attendance.  The museum remains open to school groups, who continue to use it heavily.  Roughly 25% of the collection materials are transferred to the Port of History Museum (current site of the Independence Seaport Museum) for public viewing.

1986: The City of Philadelphia includes the Civic Center Museum as one of several suitable sites in its bid for the planned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Cleveland eventually wins the bidding for the museum.

1994: The Civic Center Museum is completely closed; the collections on display at the Port of History Museum are also removed.

2001: The City of Philadelphia disperses the majority of the Commercial Museum's collections to universities and museums around the city, through the city Orphans' Court Division. Relevant materials are received by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Mutter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Free Library, the University of Pennsylvania, and Independence Seaport Museum, among other institutions.

2004: The Civic Center complex is razed.

2010: The city's remaining holdings of Commercial Museum material are dissolved among city institutions.

View the Commercial Museum Photo Album on Flickr