Louisville's Southern Exposition


Louisville's Southern Exposition


Southern Exposition (Louisville, Ky.)


The Southern Exposition, held in Louisville from 1883-1887, was driven by the city’s need to succeed in a competitive national economy. The Exposition provided Louisville with the opportunity to showcase its manufacturing capabilities and strengthen business relationships with both the North and the South. The Exposition opened in 1883 on the city’s southern outskirts—today’s Central Park, and St. James and Belgravia Courts. The Exposition’s main building—perhaps the largest wooden building ever erected in the United States—covered thirteen acres. Much of the main building was devoted to machinery exhibits, where products ranging from barbed wire to silk fabric were created. The Exposition’s agricultural department presented a working farm and horticultural garden, featuring crops of tobacco, corn, hemp, flax, peanuts, and castor oil plants, as well as a vast field of cotton growing to the south of the main building. An art gallery housed an exhibition of masterpieces by artists from around the world; visitors also enjoyed floral displays, concerts, theatrical performances, and a weekly fireworks show. One of the main attractions of Louisville’s Exposition was its ability to remain open at night. It was lit by 4,600 lamps, the largest display yet of Thomas Edison’s recently invented incandescent lights. Although originally planned to operate for only one season, the great popularity of the Southern Exposition resulted in its continuation until 1887.




The Filson Historical Society Print Collection


ca. 1883-1885


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black-and-white photographs


Still Image

Collection Items

Southern Exposition buildings and grounds
Color lithograph of the Southern Exposition buildings, 1883. An electric rail line, visible in the background, circled the Exposition grounds and delighted visitors by traversing an underground tunnel lit by Edison's incandescent bulbs.

Southern Exposition building and grounds
Illustration from Harper's Weekly of the Southern Exposition building and grounds. This image illustrates the residential development that grew up around the Exposition, a contrast to the open land that surrounded it at its opening in 1883.

Electric Generator at the Southern Exposition
The first electric generator in Louisville used at the Southern Exposition, 1883.

Streetcar in front of Southern Exposition building
Mule-drawn streetcar in front of Southern Exposition building, 1883. Mule-drawn streetcars were eventually replaced by the faster and more comfortable electric streetcars. Louisville's first electric streetcar line began operation in 1889.

Central Nave of the Southern Exposition's Main Building
The central nave of the Southern Exposition's main building, looking to the north.

Southern Exposition Main Building
A lithograph of the Southern Exposition's main building, with a small inset of the art gallery. Residential development resulted in the building's demolition in 1889. Components of the building were used in other construction projects, including the…

Swiss Cottage
This cottage was erected for the Southern Exposition by the Swiss colonists in Kentucky, under the direct of the Kentucky Geological Survey and the Bureau of Immigration. Photographed by E. Klauber in 1883.

Art Gallery at the Southern Exposition, 1883
Art Gallery at the Southern Exposition, 1883. The gallery exhibited paintings provided by the Smithsonian Institute, as well as art from the private collections of J. P. Morgan, August Belmont, Jay Gould, Victor Newcomb, and John Jacob Astor. Former…

Central Hall at the Southern Exposition
Color illustration from a German language newspaper of the central hall of the exposition building.

Southern Exposition Building and Grounds
Black and white image of the Southern Exposition main building and surroundings. The four interior courts and fountains of the main building are clearly visible.
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