The Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, a showcase for amazing new technologies, innovative diversions, and the latest in art and culture, became a congressional campaign issue in 1910. World’s fairs such as the Exhibition were big business at the turn of the 20th century, and constituents—with scores of pro-fair campaign postcards in hand—lined up behind San Francisco Representative Julius Kahn’s efforts to bring the 1915 event to the city by the bay.
In 1910, San Francisco vied with New Orleans to host the 1915 celebration of the Panama Canal’s completion. Old-school social networking came into play in the city’s bid for the fair. The Panama Pacific Exposition Company—the organization of prominent citizens spearheading the community’s effort to win the fair—included a “Postcard Committee” that organized a “postcard week” in support of the cause. At a mass public meeting, they handed out tens of thousands of these postcards. Attendees came equipped with address books and stamps, ready to send cards to friends around the country. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in a September 16, 1910, article, “Californians may unite for seven days beginning October 10th in a campaign of enlightenment that will spread San Francisco’s cause before the people of the East and West.” At the time, postcards were on the cusp of becoming a full-blown craze, with 1911 marking the height of their popularity.
The official postcard urged the recipient to “Get your Congressmen to vote for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the Exposition City San Francisco-1915 California Guarantees an Exposition that will be a credit to the Nation.” The imagery emphasizes these lofty intentions. An allegorical female figure stands to one side, wearing an armored breastplate, holding a shield in one hand, a laurel branch in the other. A bear crouches at her feet, along with California’s state flag and grapes and other examples of California’s agricultural bounty. Opposite, a workman hoists a shovel over one shoulder and a bucket in the other, with a U.S. flag and laurel branch at his feet. A ship steams through the majestic Golden Gate in the background, against a glowing yellow sky.
World’s fairs had become such a big business that the House established a standing Committee on Industrial Arts and Exhibitions in 1901, and exposition was an economic development opportunity that Kahn did not want to pass his city by. He introduced a bill in the House for San Francisco’s candidacy, asking for an appropriation of $5 million to assist with the costs of launching the elaborate event.
While the symbolic reasoning was persuasive—San Francisco was a growing city, now far more accessible by water because of the Panama Canal, hoping to show off its remarkable recovery from the disastrous earthquake and fire of 1907—his main selling point was the city’s commitment to support the fair. San Francisco had out-fundraised their primary competition by about $7 million. Kahn provided an opportunity for citizens to express their investment in the fair by making it a central issue in his re-election campaign that year. Electing all the Republicans candidates, “to the last Justice of the Peace,” Kahn declared, would guarantee “San Francisco recognition as the exhibition city of 1915.” He won the election, and the city was behind the effort to win the fair.
Sources: Robert Rydell, Fair America-World's Fairs in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000; Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); "Fair a Campaign Issue, Says Kahn," San Francisco Chronicle, October 25, 1910.Follow @USHouseHistory