Panama–Pacific International Exposition

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1915 San Francisco
Poster for the exhibition
BIE-classUniversal exposition
CategoryHistorical Expo
NamePanama-Pacific International Exposition
Area636 acres (257 ha)
Organized byCharles C. Moore
CountryUnited States
CitySan Francisco
VenueMarina District
Coordinates37°48′16.8″N 122°26′48″W / 37.804667°N 122.44667°W / 37.804667; -122.44667
OpeningFebruary 20, 1915 (1915-02-20)
ClosureDecember 4, 1915 (1915-12-04)
Universal expositions
PreviousExposition universelle et internationale (1913) in Ghent
NextIndependence Centenary International Exposition in Rio de Janeiro
OtherPanama–California Exposition

The Panama–Pacific International Exposition was a world's fair held in San Francisco, California, United States, from February 20 to December 4, 1915. Its stated purpose was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, but it was widely seen in the city as an opportunity to showcase its recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The fair was constructed on a 636-acre (257-hectare) site along the northern shore, between the Presidio and Fort Mason, now known as the Marina District.

Exhibits and themes[edit]

An exhibit by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Mines.

Among the exhibits at the exposition was the C. P. Huntington, the first steam locomotive purchased by Southern Pacific Railroad; the locomotive is now on static display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.[1] A telephone line was also established to New York City so people across the continent could hear the Pacific Ocean. The Liberty Bell traveled by train on a nationwide tour from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend the exposition.[2]

The 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup auto races were held February 27 and March 6 on a 3.84-mile (6.18 km) circuit set up around the Exposition grounds.[3] The Smithsonian Institution also had an exhibition at the Exposition.[4]

Indigenous representation[edit]

Native American culture was a topic of interest during the nine-month long exposition with multiple attractions dedicated to Native American life. The most popular attraction at the exposition that depicted Native American life is James Earle Fraser's statue The End of the Trail.[5] Fraser's statue, which showed a Native American man slumped over on a horse, reflected the American idea at the time, that the Native American race was doomed for extinction. The exposition not only celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, but also advances made by the American people, part of which were the conquests of indigenous people by Americans as well as Europeans.[6] These celebrations over the Native community, can be seen through artworks such as The End of the Trail and The Pioneer or tributes to Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés.[5] In comparison to previous world fairs, the Panama–Pacific International Exposition showcased Native Americans more as nobles rather than savage people, but who were still inevitably destined to become extinct. These ideas were presented in plays, known as pageants, where Native Americans played small roles such as in "Catalonian dragoons, muleteers, and a tribe of Carmel Indians."[6] While the demise of Native American people was a rhetoric created by fair organizers, scholars have argued that in reality, the Native persona was very present and did not reflect the idea that it was a disappearing civilization. Native Americans were in fact part of the fair, but also attended as visitors, performers, and workers.[6] More recently, scholars have focused on Native representation in San Francisco's 1915 rival world fair, San Diego's 1915 Panama-California Exposition, that showed Native American life in a more anthropological light versus this American ideal.[7]

Women and gender roles[edit]

During the Panama–Pacific International Exposition women were in charge of their own board, known as the Woman's Board of San Francisco's Panama–Pacific International Exposition.[8] The board, also called the Board of Lady Managers, allowed women to take part in organizing different aspects of the fair and more importantly gave them the opportunity to have a campaigning platform for discussing women's rights and social issues. It was commonly argued that the fair celebrated male dominance over women by not providing a building for women.[8] Also, men and women were depicted differently in artworks advertising the exposition. White women, specifically, were presented as caretakers while men as strong and powerful saviors, such as in the poster “13th Labor of Hercules.”[8]

Pioneer Mother (Charles Grafly)

At the time, there was an idea of a “New Woman” who was more progressive and advanced intellectually and sexually.[8] This idea of a “New Woman” related to the overarching themes of the fair: modernity, and progress. In efforts to promote the fair, organizers used the “New Woman” as an advertising tactic and proof that San Francisco was an evolving and safe environment for tourists.[8] During the fair, women could be seen posing with agriculture from around the state in celebration of California's produce. All the women were young, beautiful white women who were often the highlight of newspaper articles and events. This use of women presented the idea that they were useful only for their beauty but failed to appreciate their intellectual capacity and physical abilities.[8]

The International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace was held on July 4–7 in the "Peace Palace", a transformation of the Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium). May Wright Sewall, by appointment of Charles C. Moore, chair of the exposition, organized the peace conference. It was attended by women pacificists from all over the world, especially the neutral countries of World War I.[9]

One of the most memorable achievements of the Women's Board was the installation of statues that celebrated women, specifically mothers, known as the Pioneer Mother.[10][11][12][13]: 148, 151  [14]

The National Society Colonial Dames XVII Century was established by six women while attending the exposition.[15]


Map of Exposition
  A  Fine Arts
  B  Education
  C  Social Economy
  D  Liberal Arts
  E  Manufacturers
  E1  Varied Industries
  F  Machinery
  G  Transportation
  H  Agriculture
  I  Agriculture (Food Products)
  J  Live Stock
  K  Horticulture
  L  Mines and Metallurgy

The centerpiece was the Tower of Jewels, which rose to 435 feet (133 m) and was covered with over 100,000 cut glass Novagems. The 34-to-2-inch (19 to 51 mm) colored "gems" sparkled in sunlight throughout the day and were illuminated by over 50 powerful electrical searchlights at night.

South of the Tower, the Fountain of Energy flowed at the center of the South Gardens, flanked by the Palace of Horticulture on the west and the Festival Hall to the east. The arch of the Tower served as the gateway to the Court of the Universe, leading to the Court of the Four Seasons to the west and the Court of Abundance to the east. These courts formed the primary exhibit area for the fair, which included the Palaces of Food Products, Agriculture, Liberal Arts, and Education and Social Economy and surrounding the Court of the Four Seasons; and the Palaces of Transportation, Mines and Metallurgy, Varied Industries, and Manufacturers surrounding the Court of Abundance.

The central court group was bookended on the east by the Palace of Machinery, the largest of all the halls built for the Exhibition, and on the west by the Palace of Fine Arts, which survives onsite.

Further west into the Presidio, down The Avenue of the Nations, were national and states' buildings, displaying customs and products unique to the area represented. The far western end of the Fair, past the states' pavilions, was reserved for live stock exhibits. At the opposite end of the Fair, near Fort Mason was "The Zone", an avenue of popular amusements and concessions stands.


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. Intended to fall into pieces at the close of the fair (reportedly because the architect believed every great city needed ruins), the only presently-surviving building on the Exposition grounds, Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts, remained in place, slowly falling into disrepair.[16] The hall, used to display painting and sculpture during the Fair, was repurposed as a garage for jeeps during World War II.[1] The Palace, including the colonnade with its signature weeping women and rotunda dome, was completely reconstructed in the 1960s and a seismic retrofit was completed in early 2009. The Exploratorium, an interactive science museum, occupied the northern 2/3 of the Palace from 1969 to 2013; the city-owned Palace of Fine Arts Theater, has occupied the southern 1/3 since 1970.

Several other buildings were saved immediately following the Exposition, including the California, Missouri, and Philippine buildings, which were built on government land.[17]

A panorama of the Palace of Fine Arts c.1919. The current building was rebuilt in the 1960s, and then seismically retrofitted after damage from 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake, and again in 2009.

Other surviving buildings[edit]

Buildings from the Exposition that still stand today (other than the Palace of Fine Arts) include what is now called the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium at Civic Center Plaza and the Japanese Tea house, which was barged down the Bay to Belmont, California, and operated successively as a private residence, speakeasy, and restaurant.[18]

Also surviving are the one-third scale steam locomotives of the Overfair Railroad that operated at the Exposition. They had been maintained in working order at the Swanton Pacific Railroad Society located on Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's Swanton Ranch just north of Santa Cruz. But a forest fire swept through the area in 2020, severely damaging the railroad, which has not run since then.[19][20]

The Legion of Honor Museum, in Lincoln Park, was the gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of the sugar magnate and thoroughbred racehorse owner/breeder Adolph B. Spreckels.[21] The building is a full-scale replica of the French Pavilion from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, which in turn was a three-quarter-scale version of the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur also known as the Hôtel de Salm in Paris by George Applegarth and H. Guillaume. At the close of the exposition, the French government granted Spreckels permission to construct a permanent replica of the French Pavilion, but World War I delayed the groundbreaking until 1921.[22]

The warehouse for the exposition was moved to Fort Hunter Liggett in South Monterey County and the structure, nicknamed the "Tin Barn", has served as the base fire department for the last 30 years. After its move, it initially served as a horse barn, and since then, it has served as a gym, PX and a movie theater for the base.[23][24]

Commemorations and legacy[edit]

Panama-Pacific Issues of 1913/1915
$50 octagonal gold commemorative coin by Robert Aitken

The US Post Office issued a set of four postage stamps to commemorate the exposition, with designs depicting a profile of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1¢), the Pedro Miguel Locks of the Panama Canal (2¢), the Golden Gate (5¢), and the discovery of San Francisco Bay (10¢). The stamps were first put on sale in 1913, to promote the coming event, and perforated 12, and then reissued in 1914 and 1915, perforated 10. Their prices today range widely; the 2¢ of 1913 is available for under a dollar in used condition, while an unused 10¢ of the scarcer orange-yellow variety in 1915 can be worth up to a thousand United States dollars.[25][26]

The United States Congress authorized the San Francisco Mint (also known as "The Granite Lady") to issue a series of five commemorative coins. Said coins were the 1915-S silver Panama-Pacific half dollar and four gold coins. The denominations of the gold coins were $1, $2+12 (quarter eagle) and $50 (in two types: a round coin, and an unusual octagonal coin). The Panama-Pacific coins have the distinction of being the first commemorative coins to bear the motto "In God We Trust", and were also the first commemoratives to be struck at a branch mint.[27] The two lower denomination gold coins are scarce, while the two $50 ones are extremely rare. The silver half dollar had a mintage of 27,134 and in modestly worn condition is available for several hundred dollars.[citation needed]

Souvenir booklet, The Jewel City 1915
Souvenir postcard

Numismatist Farran Zerbe supervised the creation of a series of commemorative medals, an award medal, a souvenir medal, and diplomas.[28]


In 2015, the California Historical Society, the Maybeck Foundation, and Innovation Hangar partnered with the City and County of San Francisco to commemorate the centennial of the transformative 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.[29]

On June 20, 2015 a commemorative orchestra, chorus and band concert was held at the Palace of Fine Arts to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the fair.

A feature film, When the World Came to San Francisco, which tells the story of the fair, was made by writer and director R. Christian Anderson. It was part of the city's official centennial celebration sanctioned by the California Historical Society. The film had its world premiere at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in Golden Gate Park on October 30, 2015.[30]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bragman, Bob (December 15, 2015). "Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915 - family photo memories". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  2. ^ "Liberty Bell Attracts Crowd in Greenville During 1915 Stop". Greenville Advocate. July 3, 2007.
  3. ^ Nye, Doug (1978). The United States Grand Prix and Grand Prize Races, 1908-1977. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-0-385-14203-8.
  4. ^ "Brochure for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 25 May 2012.
  5. ^ a b Markwyn, Abigail (April 2016). "Beyond The End of the Trail : Indians at San Francisco's 1915 World's Fair". Ethnohistory. 63 (2): 273–300. doi:10.1215/00141801-3455299.
  6. ^ a b c Munro, Lisa (2010). "Investigating World's Fairs: an Historiography". Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. 28 (1): 80–94. doi:10.1353/sla.0.0001. S2CID 142791404. Project MUSE 388610.
  7. ^ Krasniewicz, Louise (Spring 2015). "All the World in One Place". Expedition. 57 (1). Penn Museum: 7–13.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Markwyn, Abigail M. (February 2016). "Queen of the Joy Zone Meets Hercules: Gendering Imperial California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition". Western Historical Quarterly. 47 (1): 51–72. doi:10.1093/whq/whv039.
  9. ^ Davidson, Marie Hicks (May 1915). "To Promote Permanent Peace". Table Talk. 30 (5). Arthur H. Crist Company: 270–75. OCLC 1715377. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  10. ^ "Sculptor Grafly Chosen Will Model Fine Statue". San Francisco Call. August 18, 1913. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  11. ^ “The Pioneer Mother’s Monument—What it Should Be,” San Francisco Call and Post , 26 June 1914
  12. ^ Frink, Brenda D. (2012). "San Francisco's Pioneer Mother Monument: Maternalism, Racial Order, and the Politics of Memorialization, 1907–1915". American Quarterly. 64 (1): 85–113. doi:10.1353/aq.2012.0001. PMID 22826896. S2CID 46422099.
  13. ^ Simpson, Anna Pratt (1915). "IX. Motherhood Monument". Problems Women Solved: Being the Story of the Woman's Board of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition; What vision, enthusiasm, work and co-operation accomplished. San Francisco: The Woman's Board. pp. 146–164.
  14. ^ “Motherhood Monument to be dedicated to Pioneer Mothers,” folder 11, box 52, San Francisco Misc/Ephemera Oversize Pamphlets Relating to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company Papers, California Historical Society, San Francisco.
  15. ^ "Background to the Society". The National Society Colonial Dames XVII Century. The National Society Colonial Dames XVII Century. Retrieved August 27, 2023.
  16. ^ McCoy, Esther (1960). Five California Architects. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation. p. 6. ASIN B000I3Z52W.
  17. ^ Redman, Jeanne (November 8, 1915). "Fair Buildings Will Be Saved". Stockton Independent. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  18. ^ "History". The Van's. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  19. ^ "Swanton Pacific Railroad - Davenport, CA". Swanton Pacific Railroad.
  20. ^ "Swanton Pacific Railroad".
  21. ^ "About ArtPoint". Archived from the original on 2008-06-25. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
  22. ^ "History of the Legion of Honor". Legion of Honor. June 28, 2011.
  23. ^ "Fort Hunter Liggett". Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  24. ^ "Did you know: The Fire Station is a 1915 Tin Barn?" (PDF). The Golden Guidon. U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett. September 2016. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  25. ^ "Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue". Smithsonian national postal Museum. Retrieved November 25, 2023.
  26. ^ Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps, p. 68
  27. ^ "1915 Panama Pacific Exposition Coinage". Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
  28. ^ "Panama-Pacific Expo 5 Coin Set on exhibit at Santa Clara Expo : Coin Collecting News". Retrieved 2017-06-05.
  29. ^ "Home - Panama-Pacific International Exposition". Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
  30. ^ When the World Came to San Francisco,

Further reading[edit]

  • Laura A. Ackley, "San Francisco's Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915." Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2014.
  • Lee Bruno, "Panorama: Tales from San Francisco's 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition." Petaluma, CA: Cameron+Company, 2014.
  • Abigail M. Markwyn, "Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition." Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
  • Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

External links[edit]