California Welcomes the World: The Centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition

Special piece for SFSFF 2015
by Thomas Gladyz


The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a golden age for world fairs, and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915, is among the most celebrated. Officially, the exposition commemorated the completion of the Panama Canal and all that this new trade route would mean for commerce on the Pacific Coast. Accordingly, on display was all manner of industry and culture, including an oil derrick and working auto assembly line, as well as the peoples and pavilions of twenty-one nations.

Just as important, the P.P.I.E. was an opportunity for California to showcase San Francisco’s recovery from the ruinous 1906 earthquake and fire. The fair cost some $50 million, with many elaborate structures built on the 635-acre site in what is now the Marina District. Remarkably, more than 255,000 people visited the fair on opening day, with nearly nineteen million passing through its gates during its nine-month run.

It seemed to have everything, and everything new. There was a glittering 435-foot Tower of Jewels, military and industrial machinery, livestock, gardens, auto races, daredevil flyers, light shows, and the introduction of an instrument from the Hawaiian Territories, the ukulele. Also on display was the Liberty Bell. The iconic symbol of American independence was brought west from Philadelphia after fifty thousand California school children signed a petition to have it displayed at the fair, where some two million attendees took the opportunity to kiss the relic.

The P.P.I.E. boasted the world’s largest wood and steel building, as well as an exhibition of modern art displayed at the Palace of Fine Arts (the only surviving structure, which was rebuilt in the 1960s). Most of the buildings were constructed with temporary materials, intended to be torn down or left to decay because, as one of the architects said, all great cities have ruins.
There was a functioning fourteen-ton typewriter used to write news reports, one of the world’s largest refracting telescopes, and a Santa Fe Railroad exhibit that included Native Americans brought from New Mexico. Alexander Graham Bell placed the first ever transcontinental telephone call to the P.P.I.E. and, during the fair, astonished attendees could talk to the East Coast.

People from all walks of life across California, the United States, and the world attended. Along with those hoping to experience something new and thrilling, many saw the fair as a platform for social and political change. Progressives, suffragettes advocating for women’s right to vote, labor unions, and Prohibitionists known as “dry crusaders” all made their presence felt. Members of the African American, Chinese American, and German American communities gave speeches and staged pageants and parades that proclaimed their status as Americans and, more importantly, equal participants in public life. They, along with mixed-race Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, and Native Americans, challenged the dominant, sometimes racist views of the day.

Among the well-known individuals attending the fair were author and activist Helen Keller, educator Maria Montessori, western legend “Buffalo Bill” Cody, illusionist Harry Houdini, and former president Theodore Roosevelt. Major General George Goethals, chief engineer of the Panama Canal, was feted at the fair, as were inventor Thomas Edison, industrialist Henry Ford, aviator Lincoln Beachey, and race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker (soon to become America’s leading flying ace in World War I). Other attendees and performers included the popular Gold Rush-era actress Lotta Crabtree, Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini, and Loïe Fuller, famous for her “Serpentine Dance.”

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote “Hail, California” for the exposition. On opening day, a three hundred-voice chorus sang the piece accompanied by the P.P.I.E. orchestra, a massive pipe organ, and a band led by John Philip Sousa. Laura Ingalls Wilder, future author of Little House on the Prairie, visited and wrote about the fair, as did Sonoma County resident Jack London, who penned one of his last stories set at the event.

Along with aviation, automobiles, radio, and the telephone, motion pictures were an emerging industry with something to prove. The Motion Picture Exhibitors Association held a conference at the fair, and one participant pointed to the pace of change by noting the first screening at a world’s fair took place in Chicago in 1893 using a crude machine showing a film lasting only a few seconds.

The conference keynote speaker was director D.W. Griffith, then embroiled in controversy over his recently released The Birth of a Nation. Though praised as a great achievement in storytelling, the film was a racist depiction of African Americans that told a false history of Reconstruction and it faced censorship challenges across the country. Griffith’s address, given not long after the Supreme Court ruled movies were not protected under the First Amendment, argued against the censoring of his film.

A day honoring Metro Pictures took place on July 15. The studio’s popular leading man Francis X. Bushman attended and received a gold medal. The following evening, a grand ball closed the convention, where fans were able to dance with favorite stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Geraldine Farrar, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh, among others. Directors Mack Sennett and Cecil B. DeMille were also on hand. Charles Chaplin, then filming in the East Bay, visited the fair. So did fellow comedians Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who made the short film Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco.

“American Venus” Audrey Munson, whom sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder (father of the Calder famed for his mobiles) chose as the artist’s model for the P.P.I.E., parlayed her newfound fame posing for three quarters of the fair’s sculptures—as well as paintings and murals—into a brief film career. Her starring role in Inspiration, the story of a sculptor’s model, caused a stir for featuring a woman fully nude.

The following year, the P.P.I.E. published The Legacy of the Exposition: Interpretation of the Intellectual and Moral Heritage Left to Mankind by the World Celebration at San Francisco in 1915. The book excerpted some of the many letters received by the fair. Included were comments from attendees both known and unknown, among them orator William Jennings Bryan, media magnate William Randolph Hearst, and radio pioneer David Sarnoff. Robert C. Lanphier, general manager of the Sangamo Electric Company in Springfield, Illinois, summed up the fair’s overall optimism: “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition symbolized, in its wonderful beauty and completeness, all that the Twentieth century has brought to the comforts and service of mankind, and, even more, what we may look forward to in the coming years through the development of the arts, manufactures and commerce.”

With the outbreak of war in Europe, the world was perched on the cusp of change. As Laura A. Ackley notes in her recent book, San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, a child in the crowd (like California youngsters Ansel Adams or William Saroyan) might be seated near a Gold Rush forty-niner, Civil War veteran, or survivor of the Donner Party. That same child, decades later, grew up to witness a second world war, the birth of the atomic age, television, and man walking on the moon.

—Thomas Gladysz