Healthful Fermented Liquors at the Mechanics’ Institute’s Industrial Expositions – Part 1

On July 24, 2014 I gave a talk about the beer industry of San Francisco as it was reflected at the 31 Industrial Expositions of the Mechanics’ Institute. These expositions took place between the years of 1857 and 1899 and were marvelous “snapshots” of the city and state’s burgeoning industry all types. What does this have to do with my biography project? Well, my subject was heavily involved with the Industrial Expositions and learning about them – has helped enormously with understanding his times.

The following posts will be the text of that speech.

The Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco was founded in December of 1854. It aimed to be a school of technology, a library and lecture hall for the educational advancement of the working class – a group sorely in need of such an organization. However, by 1856 it became clear that membership dues were not enough to keep the lights on and pay the staff. The Institute’s finances were so dire that the librarian offered to work for free – a move that set a very bad precedent, I might say.

The directors had to come up with a plan, so they decided to host an Industrial Exposition like that of other Mechanics’ Institutes in the eastern United States and Great Britain with the goal of raising money to support the classes offered by the Institute, provide money for the purchase of Library materials, and to promote local industry and agriculture. The concept of “buy local” in California is not new. In the 1850’s it was just as important because there was very little industry in California. With its economy completely tied to the production of gold – a source of capital that fluctuated wildly – most goods had to be imported at incredible cost.

Text of 3rd Circular Issued for 1857 Fair.

Text of 3rd Circular Issued for 1857 Fair.

The upcoming Exposition was advertised via circulars that were distributed to the local post offices, labor exchanges and in newspapers up and down the state. Manufacturers, inventors, farmers, miners, and even artists were invited to take part. There was to be no cost for exhibitors and prizes were to be awarded.

Medals of Silver or Bronze (for the first fair, prizes changed from fair to fair) were designed to be awarded to the best in class – these were designed by celebrated artist Charles Nahl. “Diplomas” were also designed for the exhibits of merit.

Example of Silver Medal awarded at 1857 Exposition. Mechanics’ Institute Archives

Example of Silver Medal awarded at 1857 Exposition.
Mechanics’ Institute Archives

By the summer of 1857 the Institute had enough money to erect the first Fair Building on the block of land on Montgomery Street between Post and Sutter (where the Crocker Galleria shopping center is now). The wood frame building aimed to resemble London’s Crystal Palace albeit on a much smaller scale. It had a canvas roof and was decorated with the flags of many nations. Its interior was festooned with flowers and evergreens and a central fountain sparkled in the gaslight.

All the exhibits were judged by men unaffiliated with the industry. The judges in this class for the 1857 fair included an optician, an architect, a physician, a Customs House official, and a real estate broker – all fellows surely capable of judging good beer!

1st Pavilion, (Mechanics' Institute Archives)

1st Pavilion, (Mechanics’ Institute Archives)

The first fair hosted 650 exhibits, seven of which were breweries: Eureka offered up samples of porter “equal to the finest scotch” and won a diploma, Empire Brewery brought their Cream Ale, and Philadelphia brought some “splendid samples” although the variety is not described.

So why would someone exhibit at the Fair?
In order to properly understand the fairs, you have to have imagine them as being something like a trade show, with the latest inventions and machinery, a state fair with mounds of local produce and examples of handicraft, and the food sample tables of Costco as tastes of the local chocolate, cheese, beer, etc were offered to the crowds.

These fairs were a great marketing opportunity as the public was invited to attend. They were a means of hooking up with investors and marvelous networking opportunities; and they were singularly wonderful way to test new products or services on the market.

The 1864 Exposition was the next notable one for beer. This building was erected at Union Square. The Fair was to be one of the first “civic” events since the outbreak of the Civil War and the Institute had the backing of the City behind it to make it a memorable event. The structure featured 55,000 square feet of exhibit space – plenty of room for a small skating pond, a hedge labyrinth, a 40 foot tower of flowers, and the West’s greatest display of quartz crushers, loaves of sugar, mounds of apples, shoes, saddles, and the thirst quenching fruit of eight breweries.

There would be over 700 exhibits at this fair and the Institute has some marvelous photos, courtesy of our “official photographer” Carleton Watkins, on display on the 5th floor of the Institute.

As far as the beer on display, New York Brewery won a premium for “best Lager Beer”, Lyon and Company of Empire Brewery supplied two barrels of Ale for tasting and they were declared superior to any presented winning a Diploma. Eureka won a Bronze Medal for a “deserving barrel of Ale”, and Philadelphia won a Bronze for the best Lager.

At this time Lyons and Philadelphia were by far the largest breweries – at least they would pay the most taxes on their production a few years later.

Next post: part 2.



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  1. Ben H.
    Oct 6, 2014

    I’m sure these past San Francisco events were lots of fun! That The Mechanics’ Institute was a library and able to organize such large and exciting events really shows that a library can be the heart of civic and cultural engagement. Thanks for sharing this great piece of SF history.

  2. Ben H.
    Oct 6, 2014

    You may be interested in this photo of the Mechanics’ Institute Exhibition of 1876 by Carleton E. Watkins found at:

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