“THE JEWEL CITY” BY THE GOLDEN GATE: THE 1915 PANAMA-PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION
Last week, Associate Librarian Nicolae Harsanyi was on hand to greet a VIP visitor to the collection interested in the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (1915: San Francisco). In advance of the visit, Dr. Harsanyi and I had pulled a small sampling of materials created for the world’s fair. Here is Dr. Harsanyi’s report:
While visiting the Wolfsonian-FIU, Brent Glass, director emeritus of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, stopped on the third floor to see a small selection of the library’s holdings related to the San Francisco 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Indeed, it was only a small selection that was displayed for viewing by the distinguished visitor, because this world’s fair is substantially represented among the world’s fairs holdings in our library.
Playing host to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which ran from February 20th to December 4th, 1915, San Francisco held one of the most extravagant and memorable world’s fairs on record. Its declared purpose was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. This exposition was of special significance to San Franciscans in particular and to Californians in general. It illustrated to the world San Francisco’s amazing resurrection after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. (Ironically, at the time of the fair, World War I had already been raging in Europe, bringing man-made death and destruction to the continent.) Selected by Congress over several other aspirant cities (New Orleans among them), San Francisco filled 630 acres of bay front tidal marshland–extending three miles from Fort Mason through the Presidio waterfront to just east of the Golden Gate–to build the grand fair. On this new land, thirty-one nations and many U.S. States built pavilions connected by a network of walkways totaling 47 miles. The following three oversized postcards are illustrative of the extent of the Exposition within the geography of San Francisco. The first one shows the site with some of the pavilions still under construction. The second one is a colorized bird’s-eye view of the fair in daytime, while the third one conveys the grandeur of the buildings as enhanced by lighting effects.
The Exposition’s most spectacular structure was the Tower of Jewels. Designed by architect Thomas Hastings as a combination of triumphal arch and tower, it occupied the center of the large rectangular area. Standing 43 floors high, the Tower’s exterior was decorated with more than 100,000 glass beads of various colors, which were strung on wires so they would blow in the wind. To enhance their shimmering effect, tiny mirrors were placed behind the beads.
GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF
In addition to postcards and souvenir photograph albums, the library collection holds a number of stereographs, produced by the Keystone View Company, showing several spectacular views of the various pavilions at the Exposition:
The ground breaking of the works on the site of the Exposition was immortalized on an allegorical postcard featuring Uncle Sam with one hand holding an axe splitting the Isthmus of Panama, and with the other hand helping President Taft to emerge from the panorama of the Exposition:
Other postcards also linked through allegorical images the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the Exposition celebrating it in 1915:
A booklet promoting the Exposition lends the engineering achievement of the Panama Canal a mythical dimension by presenting it as the “Thirteenth labor of Hercules”
Another anniversary feted by the Exposition was Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, after he crossed the Isthmus of Panama. He named the newly found body of water “Mar del Sur” – Southern Sea (the ocean’s current name was coined by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521).
The women of the state played a prominent role at the fair. Operating from the California Building, the Women’s Board of the Panama Pacific International Exposition were involved both economically and socially in the project. They supervised many of the special events and social occasions held throughout the fair. In addition, they actively promoted peace and universal suffrage.
The “Zone” or “playland was the amusement section of the fair. The familiar figure of Uncle Sam overlooked the front of the Watch Palace. The building standing at the head of the Zone was Ghirardelli’s factory where eight machines turned cocoa beans into chocolate. The words of the explanation on the reverse of the stereograph liken this process to baby care: “Chocolate in the making needs much pampering, else it has a tendency to sulk.”
Also in the “Zone” was the Cawston Ostrich Farm’s Exhibit.
The Panama Pacific International Exposition closed on December 4, 1915. Having hosted nearly 19 million visitors, it was one of the most successful expositions of the era.
Constructed from temporary materials (primarily “staff”–a combination of plaster and burlap fiber), almost all the fair’s various buildings and attractions were pulled down in late 1915. However, The Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck, is still standing nowadays, as a witness to the elegance and majesty of the Exposition.