The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) took place 100 years ago in San Francisco. It officially commemorated two major events: the opening of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Now San Francisco is celebrating the centennial with parties and discussions and art shows, all nurturing a nostalgic ardor for the long-forgotten Fair, its short-lived but stunning fair grounds, and less consciously, a yearning for the certainties of that bygone era.
Like all World’s Fairs during the pre-WWI era, it was an extravaganza of technological and industrial innovations, fueling desires and shaping imaginations. Before multimillion dollar advertising budgets, World’s Fairs gave businesses their best chance to present their wares to a broad, often international audience. The PPIE benefited from the concentration of so many products and manufacturers, helping to stimulate a lively convention business in San Francisco during its run. As Laura Ackley’s fine overview of the Fair (“San Francisco’s Jewel City”) emphasizes:
The exhibits reflected the Fair’s dual goals: to serve as “University of the World” and “Shop-Window of Civilization.” … A week at the Exposition “will give you a view of the World’s Progress that could not be obtained in a Year of Travel,” proclaimed a pamphlet marketing conventions at the Fair… More than 900 congresses and conferences were held during the year, and were credited with boosting daily attendance from about 25,000 per day to more than 60,000 per day.
The PPIE enthusiastically celebrated the promise of accelerated and expanded global trade facilitated by the opening of the Panama Canal, even while WWI raged across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. The European world system, dominated by England, France, and Germany, went to war despite the massive socialist working-class movements in each country. Internationalist and socialist workers who opposed national frontiers and nationalist wars on principle nevertheless voted in their respective parliaments for the war credits that paid for the barbarism that ensued.
The United States was determined to stay out of the war and during 1915 President Woodrow Wilson maintained a non-interventionist foreign policy. His Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, committed to avoiding war, resigned in June when Wilson sent a letter of reproach to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm after German u-boats sank the Lusitania in 1915. Two weeks after Bryan gave a speech at PPIE on July 5 calling for peace, former president Teddy Roosevelt came through to exhort the belligerent inclinations of the population and to demand “preparedness,” the code word then for war.
San Francisco had large immigrant populations of German, Irish, Italian, and Chinese. The city was divided between those with sympathies toward the British and French side, or the Germans on the other, but after the sinking of the Lusitania, most Americans turned against the Germans. Meanwhile, General Pershing was in Texas preparing to lead an army into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa and his revolutionary troops in 1916, before he would lead U.S. forces into WWI in 1917. Other U.S. soldiers were still engaged in hostilities in the Philippines, seventeen years after the United States had fraudulently annexed that country under the cover of the Spanish-American war. The Presidio—adjacent to the PPIE grounds—was an important military base housing thousands of soldiers coming and going from these wars. Isolationism still had political support from many, but realistically, the U.S. was well on its long path to global superpower status.
The PPIE helped showcase new developments which came to underpin the U.S. war machine in following decades (from Ackley’s “Jewel City”):
… a grim portent of the Great War (WWI) was on display. The Holt Manufacturing Company of California displayed a train of Holt Caterpillar trucks drawn by a Caterpillar tractor featuring the first commercially successful continuous track, the forerunner of modern tank treads. In 1915 six European armies were using these vehicles for military transportation, and by the following year Holt machines were being sold to the Allied Forces and refitted as true armored tanks.
Adventurous citizens could take airplane rides at the Exposition, as brother Malcolm and Allan Loughead ran a charter hydro-aeroplane service, offering ten-minute flights for $10. Each flight passed over the Presidio to Fort Point, up the Marin Headlands, and back over Sausalito and Alcatraz before landing in the water and taxiing up a wooden ramp. This was the first airplane ride for nearly every customer, made all the more hair-raising because the blue of the bay could be seen through the floorboards of the homemade craft.
The PPIE marked a turning point for the Loughead brothers. The… early charter flights failed to make money. After paying Exposition concession fees the brothers made a $4,000 profit, money they used to found what would become—after a spelling change—the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
During the years-long planning and construction process, local businessmen dominated the preparations and controlled the event, keeping corporate enterprise in the driver’s seat. Already the ideology of “growth” dominated the political visions of businessmen and citizens across the political spectrum. Organized labor, so strong during the first decade of the 20th century, had seen its power diminishing since the election of “Sunny Jim” Rolph, displacing the Union Labor Party from the mayor’s office for good. AFL unions, especially those organized under the Building Trades Council, were nervous about asserting themselves too aggressively, a stance that suited Fair managers just fine. In fact, tens of thousands of unskilled workers had poured into San Francisco between 1911 and 1914 seeking work building the Fair, threatening to undercut the wages and standards established by the unions. More »