"The Biggest Thing Ever Seen or Dreamed of in North Carolina”: Women’s Work and the New South Vision at the North Carolina State Exposition of 1884

The Exposition of 1884 served as North Carolina's debut as a progressive member of the New South, with a focus on promoting investments in and expansion of new industries. While this would appear the particular domain of men, women were not pushed to the fringes of the event. Rather, women made substantial material and cultural contributions at the Expo that echoed their expanding roles. The highly visible groups of middle-class white and black women worked tirelessly to organize county and educational exhibits in completely segregated spaces. Many of them produced and displayed objects that garnered praise and reaffirmed the centrality of the domestic role for middle-class women. Most women were much less visible, especially those who were at the Expo to earn money by providing food, clothing, housing, and other services to fair visitors, organizers, and workers. Yet among women with a presence at the event was the ever-expanding number of educated white women who labored to support themselves and their families in the struggling economy, and moved away from the domestic ideal. They became both a subject of discussion for Exposition President William S. Primrose and a handful of newspaper reporters and a symbol of the new place for women in the New South economy.

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digital projection system