Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, Lee Bruno (Cameron + Company, 191pp, $29.95) and San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Laura A. Ackley (Heyday, 352pp, $40.00)
A critical appreciation
by Elizabeth Logan
Why does the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition still captivate Californians? The centenary of the fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, and showcased San Francisco’s reemergence after the 1906 earthquake and fires, has been greeted with much fanfare in the city including press coverage, museum exhibitions, a dramatic lighting of the Ferry Building, and several new books to mark the occasion. Two of those books, Lee Bruno’s Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and Laura A. Ackley’s San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, offer a kaleidoscope of possible explanations for this enduring interest.
The root of the authors’ fascination is simple to pinpoint. Lee Bruno’s Grandma Ruby piqued his interest early through the stories she shared about her father, Reuben Brooks Hale, a prominent San Francisco businessman and one of the exposition’s masterminds. For Laura Ackley, the draw was less familial; the exposition caught her attention as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she attended a series of lectures on the Beaux-Arts built environment. Both authors highlight that the fair celebrated innovation, shifting geopolitical power, and commercial opportunity, and that it brought the world together just as it was being ripped apart by World War I.
The draw for Californians more broadly, may be in observing a recognizable past in California’s present. But perhaps collective interest in the fair’s centenary is also symptomatic of an increasingly complicated relationship with the ephemeral.
We live in an age in which we constantly encounter the paradoxical longevity of digital media. When we send an email, tweet, or post something on the Internet, our actions, comments, and photographic achievements endure in a virtual yet permanent space largely available for the world to explore. Even rapidly “vanishing” selfies on Snapchat can be stored forever. With Bay Area and Silicon Beach companies leading the charge toward greater and greater e-innovation, are Californians in the middle of the redefinition of what is considered ephemeral and ephemera? Does some of the fascination with a 100-year-old exposition stem from our own interest in the temporary and the fair’s momentary and fantastical qualities?
Panorama and San Francisco’s Jewel City both approach the exposition’s fleeting nature as well as the details of its day-to-day fanfare through photographs, postcards, tickets, pamphlets, and the written words of planners, visitors, and scholars.
Bruno’s Panorama consists of thirteen sections celebrating the 100-year-old narrative of a reemergent San Francisco and capturing short biographies of the exposition’s visionaries. The exposition springs to life through the story of “Big Alma” Spreckels, who arranged for five Rodin sculptures to travel by sea to San Francisco, and through the stories of builders, such as Bernard Maybeck, and visitors ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin. Bruno painstakingly curated the images and created a visually attractive souvenir of the centennial. Panorama personalizes the exposition in a mesmerizing way, and the design and graphics impress.
San Francisco’s Jewel City, published in a partnership between Heyday and the California Historical Society, offers a detailed account of the fair, perhaps bested only in its breadth of coverage by Frank Morton Todd’s official five-volume history printed around the time of the exposition. Inserted within Ackley’s nineteen substantive chapters are vignettes set aside in gold and images of printed material fair-goers in 1915 could have hardly imagined would have survived 100 years. Ackley uses narrative to tell the history of the exposition, addressing even the darker “evils of the era” from eugenics to gender and labor battles. Ackley’s discussion of the important role that light played is particularly captivating, as when she describes the colorful light shows projected onto the fog by the Scintillator and the electric kaleidoscope—ephemeral illustrations of the modernity of the entire venture. For those seeking a comprehensive memento of the fair, San Francisco’s Jewel City provides a detailed and compelling account.
By printing some of the exposition’s ephemera and plotting the details of the exposition in print, these two works alter its very ephemeral nature. Just as bits of paper served as physical reminders of the exposition, the two books serve as souvenirs of its centennial. They help change the fair into something more durable that might attract more readers, tourists, anthropologists, historians, visual studies scholars, and collectors not just to these two books, but to the archives that house its sometimes dusty remnants. Expansions in digitization promise increased access to those who might reimagine the event from its remaining pieces. In today’s digital age, it makes a historian smile to see books continue to play such a vital role in this process.
If you wander San Francisco this weekend in search of remnants of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or any of the many citywide centennial celebrations, your guidebook or iPhone might lead you to the Palace of Fine Arts, the remaining architectural gem from the 1915 exposition—but just start your search there. Keep going. Panorama, San Francisco’s Jewel City, and the city’s archives and libraries dare us to go a little further as we contemplate the ephemeral.
Elizabeth Logan is a historian and assistant editor of Boom. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Photograph at top courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.