The censored cover has the ‘Opened by Censor’ label with 3 dots as well as a purple boxed PASSED BY/ CENSOR/ V 97 and the blue 3d KGVI stamp is postmarked with a roller cancel ‘EAT APPLES/ FOR HEALTH’ with a MELBOURNE/ 130 PM/ 11 APR/1940/ VIC AUST. It was addressed to The Connercial Museum, Foreign Trade Bureau, 34th Street below Spruce, Philadelphia. The sender’s name was partially obscured by the censor’s label but the firm is identified by Mackinder, Elizabeth House, Melbourne C. 1. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1) .
The Philadelphia Commercial Museum was the brainchild of William Wilson, a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by a visit to the monumental World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1883, he imagined creating a permanent world’s fair exhibition in Philadelphia. Wilson founded the commercial museum that same year. It became the official repository for artifacts from the world’s fairs of the era – most importantly, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis. In the years that followed, exhibits from fairs around the world were added.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Philadelphia Commercial Museum was among the biggest museums of any kind in the nation. It had hundreds of exhibits with tens of thousands of objects from countries all over the world. It functioned both as a popular destination for locals and tourists, and as a valuable resource for American businessmen wanting to learn more about foreign trade and economics in order to expand to overseas markets.
Wilson wanted the museum to be more than a storehouse for world’s fair materials. While he saw the museum’s primary purpose as collecting and displaying “the raw and natural products from every quarter of the globe, to study them with reference to their commercial, economic and scientific value or usefulness in the civilized world,” he also saw it as an agency “…designed to search the world for new products which may be made available in the arts, the sciences, in manufacturing and in agriculture.” Wilson wanted to provide information about world markets to American businessmen so that they could compete more effectively with the Europeans on the stage of international commerce.
This goal was achieved in several ways: 1) through the extensive and varied exhibits that served as educational resources for American businesspeople, 2) through international conferences, and 3) through an in-house department called “Bureau of Information,” which collected commercial data, issued reports and distributed information through a monthly publication, Commercial America. Wilson’s exhibition strategy arranged objects either according to type or region of production, strategies meant to explain what was available for purchase and where objects could be bought or sold. An example of one of a Commercial Museum’s exhibit is shown in Figure 2.
Several factors undoubtedly contributed to the decline of the Commercial Museum. First, the great age of world’s fairs, out of which the Commercial Museum sprang, came to a close in the 1920s. These grand events ceased to excite people in the way they had before the First World War. Second, the Department of Commerce, which was founded in 1903 primarily to oversee interstate commerce, grew to be an enormous agency in the 1920s under its dynamic secretary, Herbert Hoover.
Finally, while the Commercial Museum served initially as “a school for American businessmen,” that role was increasingly taken over by more formalized business schools attached to American universities. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania was the first one of these in the nation. Taken together, these factors made the original mission of the Commercial Museum less relevant by the 1920s. A postcard showing the Commercial Museum in Philadelphia is seen in Figure 3.