Before the P.P.I.E.: the Mechanics’ Institute and the development of San Francisco’s Fair Culture (1857-1899)

2015 was an incredible year for me and for the San Francisco Bay Area! The Mechanics’ Institute and myself participated in the Centennial Celebrations for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. I developed this talk as one of the events hosted by Mechanics’ Institute and it was so well received that I was invited to give it also to the Bancroft Library as a Roundtable Discussion, and for the Corral of Westerners. As always, my dear filmmaker is Mike Duckworth of Mike D Video.

The following is the transcript or you can watch the videos!

The Mechanics’ Institute hosted 31 exhibitions between the years of 1857 and 1899. These fairs were hugely important to the development of industry in California and supported local ingenuity. Each fair has its own extraordinary tale but for this talk I’ve tried to focus on the overarching story and how the fairs led up to the City hosting the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915.

I’m going to tell you how the Mechanics’ Institute got into the fair business. I’m going to describe in detail a couple of the more important fairs, especially the first one which set the tone and pattern for all the others.

At the end I will briefly touch on their legacy and the Mechanics’ Institute’s involvement in larger expositions that took place at the turn of the 20th century. After that I’ll be happy to take some questions.

Vue of San Francisco from the Clay Street HillSo first let me tell you about the Mechanics’ Institute’s foundation. In 1848 San Francisco had roughly 800 people. Then gold was discovered and by 1852 the population had mushroomed to 34,000 with over 100,000 a year still coming from all parts of the world.

Most of the immigrants left the city immediately to try their hand at mining but the gold had gotten harder to find. By 1852 San Francisco began to experience an influx of former miners returning – exhausted, depressed, and often without enough money to support them.

Meanwhile, there were now a significant group of residents who were hoping to “make their pile” by starting businesses and making San Francisco their permanent home but they were stymied by the city’s lack of infrastructure and organization.

The whole time, the newspapers abounded with stories of mechanics’ institutes around the world and how they helped their communities prevail. The laborers of this city began to see the need for such an organization – one that catered to their socio-political needs, their reading interests, and their professional growth. Keep in mind – California had no universities or libraries to speak of yet.

On the evening of December 11, 1854, two scores of men who worked in the building trades assembled in the tax collector’s office, at City Hall with the object of forming a mechanics’ institute.

Our founders all had:

  • boundless faith in the future of San Francisco as a port and industrial center
  • concern about the moral atmosphere of San Francisco – all the casinos, saloons, and sporting houses that made up the bulk of the City’s entertainment options were not conducive to a healthy society.
  • And most importantly had an intense aversion to imported goods, which they believed kept prices high and deprived local people of jobs.

By June 1855 the Institute had enough reliable income to rent a room on the 4th floor of the Express Building on Montgomery Street. And this is where our story about the fairs gets started.

James Lloyd Lafayette Warren. Courtesy Bancroft Library.

James Lloyd Lafayette Warren. Courtesy Bancroft Library.

Down the street was the office of the California Farmer – a newspaper that championed the agriculture and industry of California. The paper was published by James Lloyd Lafayette Warren, a horticulturalist from Boston who had a seed store in Sacramento. Warren was a man with limitless energy. He had organized the first State Fair, held in San Francisco in 1854. But he was ultimately disappointed by that experience – he wanted to see more industry represented. He was aware that the world was watching California and he wanted to ensure that it lived up to its natural potential as a producer of foodstuffs, as the heart of industry on the west, and as a port. But, the infant State didn’t have the means to do what he wanted. He looked to the Mechanics’ Institute to fulfill its role as champion of local industry.

He invited the Mechanics’ Institute to participate in the 1856 State Fair by sponsoring the mechanical department – receiving entries and coordinating their delivery to the fairgrounds. That success encouraged the Institute to investigate holding its own fair- one that focused on the creative achievements of California and Home Industry.

“Home Industry” was a concept similar to the “buy local” movement of today that encouraged the production and purchase of goods locally. In 1850’s California it was hugely important because its economy was completely tied to the production of gold – a very unstable source of capital, and most goods had to be imported – which was really expensive and took a really long time. Goods from the East had to go around South America, as there wouldn’t be a railroad across the country for another ten years, or a Panama Canal for 58 years!

So, in early 1857 we started an aggressive advertising campaign for a fair scheduled that September.

Flyers were distributed at post offices, labor exchanges and in newspapers up and down the State inviting manufacturers, inventors, farmers, and artists to take part. The opportunity to exhibit was open to anyone regardless of race or gender.

1st Pavilion, (Mechanics' Institute Archives)

1st Pavilion, (Mechanics’ Institute Archives)

By the summer of 1857 the Institute had erected this Fair Building. It was made of wood with a canvas roof and was decorated with the flags of many nations. Encompassing 18,000 square feet it was the largest building then in California.

The opening ceremonies were on the evening of September 7 at Musical Hall on Montgomery Street. The President of the Institute, John Sime, gave a short speech and then he turned the podium over to Henry F. Williams – a twenty six year old building contractor who moonlighted as the manager of the fair. Due to his extraordinary abilities he was selected to give the opening address. He astounded everyone by giving a rousing speech that outlined the State’s achievements in industry thus far and his lavished praise upon those who practiced the mechanic arts.

The next evening was the first day of the fair!

The first fair lasted for nearly four weeks and had about 10,000 visitors (roughly 25% of the adult San Francisco population at the time). There were 650 different exhibitors. Approximately 25% of them were women which is interesting as women were not yet 25% of the population. I also have identified three exhibitors, so far, who were African American.

Mifflin Gibbs & Peter Lester

Mr. Mifflin Gibbs and Mr. Peter Lester who were proprietors of the Pioneer Boot & Shoe Emporium. The third person for who I don’t have a photo was Mr. James Dyer – he was proprietor of the New England Soap Company.

Their participation I find fascinating because though California entered the Union as a free state, African Americans did not enjoy full citizenship – they couldn’t vote, they couldn’t give testimony in court. They could however display at the Mechanics’ fairs. 

Main & Winchester's display. Courtesy Mechanics' Institute Archives.

Main & Winchester’s display. Courtesy Mechanics’ Institute Archives.

This illustration is the only known photo from the ‘57 fair. These are saddles and horse tack from manufacturer Main and Winchester.

Other items exhibited included 4 different examples of billiards tables, mining machinery, a full sized windmill outside the building, a complete set of armor made of tin, quilts, shoes, lamps, stoves, guns, musical instruments, furniture, locally made beer and wine, and a lot of embroidery samples.

The first fair was such a remarkable success that it set the pattern for virtually all the other fairs. Which were opening ceremonies marked with rousing speech by a local personality about the state of California’s industry, nightly musical concerts, cash prizes for research conducted on various areas of technical innovation, an all night dance party, and a charitable donation.

Many products that you all know and love debuted at our fairs including cable cars, Levi Strauss’ riveted pants, Folgers & Hills Brothers Coffees, Ghirardelli and Guittard chocolates, Martinelli’s cider, Betts Springs, Phoenix Iron Works (they make man hole covers), and Boudin Bread.

The Institute would hold another fair in ’58, and 1860, both on the same plot of land.

In 1864, this building was erected on Union Square.


It featured 55,000 square feet of exhibit space – plenty of room for an ice-skating pond, a hedge labyrinth, a 40 foot tower of flowers and the West’s greatest display of quartz crushers, grindstones, loaves of sugar, mounds of apples, carrots and pears, and piles of cowhides, wool and the thirst quenching fruit of eight breweries.


muybridgeThe ’64 fair looked like this inside.

Note the abundance of bunting. This fair was one of the largest civic gatherings since the outbreak of the Civil War so the bunting was to stimulate everyone’s patriotic feelings and it was a rockin’ success in part because of this special exhibit – a 4000 pound cheese is hiding inside this tower of flowers and potted plants.

sanitary cheeseThe Cheese was made by the Steele brothers of Pescadero, and one paid 25 cents for the privilege of seeing it. The proceeds went to the Sanitary Commission – the progenitor of the Red Cross – who provided aid to the wounded soldiers of the Civil War. After the fair was over, the Cheese was cut up and sold – a piece of it purportedly went to President Lincoln.

The 1864 fair was undoubtedly made successful by the efforts of a young man named Andrew Smith Hallidie. You know him as the father of the San Francisco Cable Car but in 1864 he was Vice President of the Mechanics’ Institute.

Andrew Smith Hallidie, Courtesy State Library.

Andrew Smith Hallidie, Courtesy State Library.

Hallidie was a wire rope manufacturer and he came from a family of engineers who were heavily involved with their local mechanics’ institutes. Thus Hallidie knew the role a mechanics’ institute should play in its community. This experience enabled him to help our Institute overcome its financial difficulties and realize its potential as a civic leader. Hallidie would be directly involved with our next 13 exhibitions, most of them as President of the Institute.

In 1867 Hallidie attended the Paris International Exposition. He saw the Japanese and Chinese exhibits and returned to California charged with the concept of California hosting a world fair. Hallidie strongly believed that California’s destiny was to be preeminent economic power of the Pacific and he, as a manufacturer wanted to encourage trans-Pacific trade.

Hallidie aimed to make the ’69 fair “international” by inviting China, Japan, British Columbia, the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and the neighboring states to participate. While he experienced warm feelings from these countries only a few of them sent articles to exhibit.

In 1871 Hallidie would get his wish. A Mechanics’ member named Horace Dunn, who was on his way to Japan on business. Hallidie asked him to obtain from that country a full exhibit of its raw and manufactured goods and to alert its Government to California products which were cheaper to import than goods from Europe.

Dunn was more than successful, he returned triumphantly in mid July with 85 tons of goods from Japan and China.

The Japanese sent pieces of art, samples of woods, fibers, and cereals, fabrics, swords, stoneware, bronze work, paper, cabinetry, skins and lacquer goods. It was possibly the second time they had exhibited in a foreign land – the first being the Paris Expo of 1867. Unfortunately there are no known photos of it!

Horace Dunn also brought with him nine Commissioners headed by Junjiro Hosokawa who were to remain in California for the next several months to inspecting the resources of California. Hosokawa was in charge of Department of Agriculture in Japan and he sent homesamples of American grains, vegetable seeds, nursery stock, and agricultural tools and implements. These imports were purportedly the first time fruit trees were imported to Japan from the Americas.

Not part of the Iwakura Mission – members of that group landed in December 1871 on board the SS America.

In preparation for the Exhibition, Hallidie enlarged the Union Square Pavilion by 20,000 feet so now the building was approximately 100,000 square feet and the south wing’s ceiling was opened up, roofed over only with canvas so to as to permit the flourishing of a giant garden. The Japanese exhibit occupied its own wing.

The exposition was a resounding success – its best single day featured an unbelievable 22,000 visitors.

The 1870’s were one of tremendous growth for the fairs. In the ‘70’s and ‘80’s the fairs would typically see 600,000 to 800,000 guests in the four weeks they were open. From 1874 to 1881 the fairs were held South of Market, at Eight and Mission in this building.

Courtesy Mechanics' Institute Archives.

Courtesy Mechanics’ Institute Archives.

Figer Brothers Carpet Sweeper Display. Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers.

Figer Brothers Carpet Sweeper Display. Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers.

Here we have of the Figer Brothers’ Carpet Sweepers – the Ladies Friend, Thompson’s Soda, and a gorgeous display – in the back of stained glass by John Mallon.

Courtesy Society of California Pioneers

Courtesy Society of California Pioneers

Here we have Bowen’s Yeast Powder, Pacific Rolling Mills, and a cider display on the balcony. Perhaps it was Martinelli’s, which back then was much more fun – alcoholic!

Note also the giant Wine cask – local wine was always was a huge part of the exhibitions – free tastes only enhanced the carnival-like mood. The Institute did a lot to bolster the California wine industry but that’s the subject of a whole other lecture.

Courtesy Society of California Pioneers

Courtesy Society of California Pioneers

This idyllic waterfall was powered by a steam engine and constructed of natural rock covered with moss and other plantings. This is a passage way that allowed one to go under the falls and reconnect with the main room of the pavilion.

Courtesy Bancroft Library

Courtesy Bancroft Library

This illustration comes from the Wasp – a weekly Satire magazine founded by the Korbel brothers before they got into the champagne business. This picture is just so wonderful. Here we have the Mechanics’ Institute being personified by Minerva – the Roman patroness of the arts and crafts – handing out the laurel wreaths to the cherubs toting the products made by local companies.

Here we have the Pacific Saw Blade Manufacturing Company, Gundlach-Bunchau wines, Patrick Kelly’s shoes. I want to draw your attention to the left of Minerva’s hand. What do you see there? Looks awfully like a movie camera….yes, Eadward Muybridge’s photos of the running horse were on special display at the 1878 Exhibition. And right next to the saw blade is something that looks like a cylinder phonograph without the horn. Edison had only invented it the year before but it naturally swept the nation and by May was on display at the Mechanics’ Pavilion.

In 1882, the exhibition building was moved to the block of land that now contains the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – kitty corner to City Hall. This building hosted fifteen industrial fairs as well as many civic and cultural events. It was nearly 170,000 square feet – or nearly 4 acres big. It could hold well over 10,000 people.

Courtesy Mechanics' Institute Archives.

Courtesy Mechanics’ Institute Archives.

The 1880’s saw the Exhibitions continue to grow but I want to skip ahead to the next decade.

The next fair I want to talk to you about is the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. What did we have to do with that? We hosted a dry run!


Going back to Andrew Hallidie – He and several other influential Mechanics’ leaders were appointed by the California Governor to oversee the representation of California at the World Fair. In order to make sure that the exhibits – which came from all over the state – were ready to go to Chicago, it was decided to host a “preliminary fair” or practice run at the Mechanics’ Institute’s Pavilion.

So, from January 10 to February 11, 1893 the residents of California had the opportunity to see the State’s contribution to the Chicago World Fair, here in San Francisco.

Prune horseI know of no photos of the Preliminary World Fair at the Mechanics’ Pavilion so this photo is from the exhibit as it stood in Chicago. One of the most popular exhibits was the “Prune Horse” which symbolized Santa Clara County’s production of prunes which stood at about 20 million pounds annually. Upon a pedestal of dried fruits, was a life-sized horse, surmounted by a man clad in armor – the entire surface of both covered with French and Silver prunes in dark and light colors.

Many of the California exhibits from the Chicago World Fair would find themselves back on display in Golden Gate Park for the California Mid Winter Fair of 1894. Many influential Mechanics’ would be directly involved with the Mid Winter Fair including Mayor James Phelan, and Union Iron Works President Irving Scott and Irwin Stump who was Vice President of the Executive Committee for the Mid-Winter.

In early 1899, the City’s business leaders started making noises about hosting a Pacific Ocean International Exhibition in 1901. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish–American War and transferred control of the Philippines from Spain to the United States had just been signed and this Committee of businessmen were eager to show off the nation’s latest acquisition – the Philippines – and that territory’s native products.

Unfortunately, the Treaty of Paris was made without the consent of the Philippine leaders, who then declared war against the United States on June 2, 1899. This unfortunately nixed any State backing for an international fair.

Not to be deterred, the Mechanics’ Institute’s last fair- held in September 1899 – an exhibit of the art and culture of the Philippines including a small village of grass huts and regular acrobatic performances. It was a disaster financially and spelled the end of our fair business.

Courtesy Mechanics' Institute Archives

Courtesy Mechanics’ Institute Archives

The Pavilion however continued to be rented out for other activities like dances, political rallys, ice and roller skating and indoor and outdoor bicycle races. This particular photo is of a girl who won a diamond ring for being the Queen of the Rollers – this photo was taken on April 17 1906 mere hours before the great quake.

The Pavilion survived the earthquake and was briefly used as a hospital before it burned in the subsequent fire. This photo is of injured people being evacuated by the Army.

Now, almost immediately after the rubble from the 1906 earthquake was cleared away, the City started eyeing our property at Larkin and Grove. They wished to create a “civic center” complex of buildings which was to include the new City Hall, and a municipal auditorium. At first Mechanics’ was against this idea because it wanted to rebuild its Pavilion and host fairs again. But in June 1909 an accord was reached and we leased the land to the city for 50 years.

executive officers panama pacific bancroft

In December 1909 the Mechanics’ Institute passed a resolution to aid the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and in January 1910, our President Rudolph J. Taussig was nominated to be on the Board of Directors of the Exposition. He held the position of Executive Secretary – and is in the middle row, extreme left.

The fairs legacy –

The Industrial Exhibitions were a great marketing opportunity for small businesses and inventors as the public was invited to attend and people would come from all over the State, particularly after the finishing of the transcontinental railroad and the proliferation of local railroads. They were a means for entrepreneurs to hook up with investors. They were great shopping and networking occasions – if you were looking for new employees, supplies or equipment the Fair was the place to see the goods.

Most importantly, they were a wonderful way to test new products or services on the market – particularly food items. Samples were offered to the public of beer, wine, chocolate, fruits, breads, jams and cheese. I imagine it was like Costco, only made better with live music, dancing and pyrotechnics!

The Mechanics’ Institute’s fairs were born out of a desire to create a superior society – one that was liberal minded, technologically aware, and economically sound. The fairs exposed Californians to all kinds of products and innovations including those from foreign countries and other states.

They were a manifestation of what today we consider to be quintessential “San Francisco” traits: optimism, outstanding creativity, and the plucky courage to innovate the answers to our region’s problems.

The desire to boost San Francisco’s image world wide and celebrate its status as a center for technological innovation did not start with the PPIE. It started here in 1857, or right across the bay.

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