Back In Time (Bonus!): Forney In Europe | Alyssa J Freitas: Back In Time (Bonus!): Forney In Europe

April 17, 2019

Back In Time (Bonus!): Forney In Europe

This week should be an etiquette post. Instead, it's your lucky day and I'm doing a bonus Back In Time post instead! Last week we talked about the Centennial Exhibition in Philly in 1876. I mentioned that John Weiss Forney went to Europe for two years to get people pumped for the exhibition and how I thought there must be some good stories there.
Click to read now or pin to save for later! This week's post is a bonus Back In Time follow up from last week. Find out about what our friend Forney was up to in Europe when he was promoting the Centennial Exhibition
When I was writing the other post, I did my research and wasn't able to find any information about what went on during his time in Europe. I told Joe, and he proceeded to go hunting for a primary source and found that there was a book called A Centennial Commissioner in Europe that is a collection of Forney's letters from 1874-1876. Jackpot.

There is not a digital copy of the book (nor experts from what we could find), however, they had it at the New York Public Library! Using Joe's card, I requested to view it and this weekend we went to the research section of the library and I got to explore what was going on with Forney during his mission. The book itself was falling apart and they had it tied up (you can see in the picture the string around it), and I really felt like I was going back in time.

First of all, let me give you a quick background on Forney so you can understand just how big of a deal he was and why it's even more amazing that he put his life in the U.S. on hold to go promote the exhibition in Europe. Forney served as both the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives and as the Secretary of the United States Senate. At 16 years old he started working in newspapers and at 20 he bought his own publication. He was instrumental in helping James Buchanan get the presidential nomination and ran his successful campaign for president. Forney later became a republican and ran a daily newspaper throughout the years of the Civil War.

Ok, now on to what I found in the book. It was over 300 pages long and I only had a few hours, so my method of research was to look at the table of contents and flip to parts that appeared to be the most interesting. Since the other blog post started with a painting, I thought it only appropriate to begin with a painting here as well. In 1874 Forney visited Paris and spoke with Imogene Robinson Morrell who was a painter who wanted to contribute her work to the exhibition. Below is Provision Train, showing Washington and his troops.

Forney spent less than $15 per week while in Paris, but he was very concerned about getting ripped off. He tells a story where he and his friend were taking a cab and the driver was going very slow and they thought he was trying to rip them off. They had agreed the ride would take a certain amount of time and when it took longer they tried to get out of the car and start walking. The cab driver flipped out and since neither of the two men spoke French very well, they got back in and paid the extra fare.

Forney also spent time in England, where he observed that the food was not nearly as good as in America, comparing it against Augustin's in Philly and Delmonico's in New York. While in England he stayed with Lord North, Minister of George III and there was casually a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington in the bedroom he stayed in.

My favorite story involved Captain Boyton (go check out his Wikipedia page), an adventurer and waterman. In 1875 he performed his famous English Channel stunt, swimming across in 24 hours. After a night's rest, Forney went to see Boyton who proudly showed Forney the Centennial banner hanging outside his window. He told Forney that he wore it tied to his back during the crossing because he was so excited about the upcoming occasion.

Along Forney's way, he visited with Lafayette's grandson and with the Belgians, who were so psyched for the Centennial that they formed their own commission to prepare.

Two other little interesting facts. Around this time the U.S. was having great success in exporting folding chairs - American ingenuity at its finest. In 1875 Forney heard about the England National Cat Show that was put on at the Crystal Palace. I don't know if he went, but cat shows used to be a big thing in London.

Like I said, I wish I would have had more time with the book to read cover to cover, but I was so glad to get even a little bit more information about what went on in the two years that Forney was in Europe. It never ceases to fascinate me how people (of any day and age) can get an idea in their head, drop everything, and go after it.

-AJF

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