Atlanta had grown during the post-war years in part because of cotton. Until 1838 cotton was not a major crop in the area. Even then its importance grew slowly, but by the mid-1870's cotton was a key agricultural component of the Atlanta area economy.
It was in August of 1880 that Massachusetts economist Edward Atkinson proposed a exhibition to promote better methods of manufacturing cotton. Northern textile makers were increasingly unhappy with the quality of cotton being purchased from southern manufacturers. Atkinson originally proposed New York or Washington for the exposition.
In Atlanta, Hannibal I. Kimball, Henry Grady and Samuel Inman tried to influence Atkinson to consider Atlanta for the exposition. They felt that a "cotton exposition" would serve to inform the world of the South's (and Atlanta's) role in textile production. By September of 1880 two cities were in the running for the show, Louisville and Atlanta. Finally, Atlanta was chosen because the object was to attract southern growers and the northern industrialist felt Louisville was too far north.
One problem facing Atlanta: accommodating for the estimated 100,000 visitors per month for the shows two-month run. With less than 40,000 full-time residents (1880 census), Atlanta was not ready to handle huge crowds. Only two major hotels, the Kimball House and the Markham House existed. A third hotel, the Exposition House, was added, as well as extending a plan used during the 1876 Centennial celebration in Atlanta: private citizens would lease space to visitors.
When the exposition opened on October 5, 1881, it was incomplete. A week later the final touches were put on the last buildings. With 1,013 exhibits from 33 states and six foreign countries, visitors had plenty to do when they arrived. One highlight of the Exposition was Eli Whitney's original cotton gin, put on display by the Willimatic Linen Company. Other displays included insecticides, crop planters, cotton seed cleaners and other machinery. Speakers addressed audiences on topics such as agricultural reform, regional agriculture and technical advances, both current and forthcoming. General William T. Sherman
visited Atlanta for the first time in 17 years to see the Exposition. He was impressed with the rebuilt city.
Joseph Brown's Western and Atlantic Railroad
began to give customers going to the Exposition a special rate to increase patronage. Other railroads soon followed. The decrease had a positive affect on attendance, pushing the total to nearly 300,000 by the end of the fair.
The show, held in Oglethorpe Park, included a working cotton mill, built specifically for the exhibit (present-day Ashby St.) Following the close of the exposition, the infrastructure, with the exception of the cotton mill was quickly dismantled. The mill was purchased by Lemuel Grant and others, who turned it into a major business employing more than 500 workers.
The long term effect of the Exposition was significant. With it, the regional sectionalism that existed following the Civil War seemed to be less noticeable. Atkinson, who proposed the Exposition, claimed to have helped finance the John Brown raid of 1859, yet he was warmly received, just as General Sherman was.