Empire on Display: San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915

Empire on Display: San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915

by Sarah J. Moore

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The world’s fair of 1915 celebrated both the completion of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of San Francisco following the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. The exposition spotlighted the canal and the city as gateways to the Pacific, where the American empire could now expand after its victory in the Spanish-American War. Empire on Display is the first book to examine the Panama-Pacific International Exposition through the lenses of art history and cultural studies, focusing on the event’s expansionist and masculinist symbolism.

The exposition displayed evidence—visual, spatial, geographic, cartographic, and ideological—of America’s imperial ambitions and accomplishments. Representations of the Panama Canal play a central role in Moore’s argument, much as they did at the fair itself. Embodying a manly empire of global dimensions, the canal was depicted in statues and a gigantic working replica, as well as on commemorative stamps, maps, murals, postcards, medals, and advertisements. Just as San Francisco’s rebuilding symbolized America’s will to overcome the forces of nature, the Panama Canal represented the triumph of U.S. technology and sheer determination to realize the centuries-old dream of opening a passage between the seas.

Extensively illustrated, Moore’s book vividly recalls many other features of the fair, including a seventy-five-foot-tall Uncle Sam. American railroads, in their heyday in 1915, contributed a five-acre scale model of Yellowstone, complete with miniature geysers that erupted at regular intervals. A mini–Grand Canyon featured a village where some twenty Pueblo Indians lived throughout the fair.

Moore interprets these visual and cultural artifacts as layered narratives of progress, civilization, social Darwinism, and manliness. Much as the globe had ostensibly shrunk with the completion of the Panama Canal, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition compressed the world and represented it in miniature to celebrate a reinvigorated, imperial, masculine, and technologically advanced nation. As San Francisco bids to host another world’s fair, in 2020, Moore’s rich analytic approach gives readers much to ponder about symbolism, American identity, and contemporary parallels to the past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806188980
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/31/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 52 MB
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About the Author

Sarah J. Moore is Professor of Art History at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and author of John White Alexander and the Search for National Identity: Cosmopolitan American Art, 1880–1915.

Read an Excerpt

Empire on Display

San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915

By Sarah J. Moore


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8898-0


Redefining the Frontier in Post-Turnerian America

Turn-of-the-Century World's Fairs and the War of 1898

On July 12, 1893, in the halls of the World's Congress Auxiliary Building, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his address "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" to a meeting of the American Historical Association. Founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889, the association was devoted to the professionalization of history, the preservation of archival materials, and the articulation of a distinctly national history. Its 1893 annual meeting was part of a host of international congresses at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's landfall in the Americas. Assistant Professor Turner of the University of Wisconsin, the last to take the podium that day, delivered what would be not only his best-known address but one of the most defining texts in the history of American history. For the audience of some two hundred historians, however, little about it excited enthusiasm, and some members reportedly drifted off. One who was present later recalled, "The audience reacted with the broad indifference normally shown a young instructor from a backwater college reading his first professional paper." Much to Turner's dismay, the paper solicited not one question from the audience. However, such scholarly indifference to his observations about the role of the frontier in the definition of America's national profile and history would not last long. The stock market crash just prior to the opening of the 1893 world's fair was followed by hundreds of bank closures, steep unemployment rates, scores of companies going into receivership, and labor uprisings. The crisis caused by this severe economic downturn and accompanying social unrest threw Turner's thesis into high relief. Although the closing of the frontier marked the nation at a critical watershed in its history, having exhausted the empty spaces in which the nation crafted its character and essential features—rugged, democratic, independent, expansive, masculine, always pushing back the limits of the frontier—Turner's thesis offered a way out of the crisis.

Indeed, implicit in Turner's claim that the frontier was closed was at least the possibility that frontier was a fluid concept and that the geographical closed door of the 1890 census was but one part of the broader narrative of national progress and expansion. Turner's thesis easily accommodated the idea that American "westering" had produced a succession of frontiers, as historian Richard White argues, from the Appalachians to the Pacific. Understanding frontier as a plural concept, rather than one fixed at a specific geographical boundary, Turner's frontier thesis was more celebratory than mournful of what had passed. The frontier thesis looked backward ("For nearly three-hundred years the dominant fact in American life has been expansion," he wrote) and bemoaned the contemporary state wherein westward expansion, which Turner and others assumed to be the natural and inevitable movement of the national body, had come to a fateful close with the settlement of the Pacific coast. Nonetheless, he remained optimistic that the West represented not one particular place or coordinate on a map but rather a national mind-set premised on progress and the manly triumph of civilization over wilderness. Turner stated reassuringly, "Decade after decade, West after West, this rebirth of the American society has gone on," and he posited the coordinates of American masculinity, nationhood, and progress along the imperial frontier.

As such and somewhat ironically, Turner's thesis embodied the ultimate solution to the anxiety that the closing of the frontier caused in 1893. The apparent foreclosure of the American wilderness, where men were regenerated and the American nation was formed, was overturned with United States' embarkation upon a geopolitical shift from continental expansion to overseas empire with the Spanish-American War in 1898. The promise of imperial expansion offered, as historian Amy Kaplan argues, "a new frontier, where the essential American man could be reconstituted." Turner himself proposed overseas expansion, including the building of an isthmian canal, as a solution to "the problem of the west," as he called it. As such, as the frontier shifted from a prospect to an accomplished fact, it was transformed, as Richard Slotkin has noted, from a geographical to an ideological reference. With Turner's thesis and Theodore Roosevelt's writing, in particular his four-volume The Winning of the West (1889–1896), the frontier's "significance as a mythic space began to outweigh its importance as a real place, with its own particular geography, politics, and culture," and its imperial dimension was legitimized as the logical extension of the continental frontier.

In July 1900, U.S. senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana delivered to Congress an impassioned speech defending the War of 1898 and the subsequent annexation of the Philippines, which at the time was controversial. "In Support of an American Empire" evoked the heroic narratives, quasi-biblical mission, and discourse of civilization that defined imperialist rhetoric at the turn of twentieth century and that had only been alluded to in Turner's frontier thesis of less than a decade earlier. Beveridge began with a sweeping rationale for such engagement. "We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world." In addition to outlining the details of what an American administration in the Philippines would look like, the senator calibrated his arguments to not only rationalize but heroize American annexation of the archipelago through a contemporary racial lens. Defining the role of the United States in the Philippines as a chivalric mission to rescue those who could not govern themselves, he referred to the Filipinos as children and as "liberty's infant class who have not yet mastered the alphabet of freedom." He reminded his fellow congressmen, "We are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals," and concluded, "It could not be otherwise unless you could erase hundreds of years of savagery."

Perhaps even more compelling than the racial justification for annexation was access to what he called illimitable markets and the centrality of the Philippines to the future geography of power: commercial, military, national, and imperial. Positioning the Philippines as the "door of all the East," and as "a spot selected by the strategy of Providence," Beveridge sets his eyes on the Pacific Ocean, as had Turner and Roosevelt before him, as "civilization's untaxed highway ... needing no repair and landing us at any point desired." What Beveridge, Roosevelt, and other imperialists of the time desired was, in Beveridge's words, the "geography of the world" in which a providential nation would not leave "the savage to his base condition, the wilderness to the reign of waste," and in which the fluid boundaries of the nation would be the ultimate source of its strength within a global context. The international expositions that followed the 1898 war with Spain provided an arena in which the nation could try on its new mantle as chivalric rescuer of the world and recalibrate its national coordinates within the geography of the world.


The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition was not the first world's fair in the United States to cast colonizing eyes beyond the nation's continental boundaries or to have imperial aspirations and accomplishments as a guiding principal. In fact, the war of 1898 and its consequences for American empire building informed a number of expositions at the turn of the twentieth century in which the plot lines of empire were drawn from San Juan Hill to Omaha, Buffalo, St. Louis, Portland, Seattle, and Alaska. Each of these earlier fairs conceived of the borders of the United States as expansive and fluid and helped reshape the nation as one for which the frontier was no longer limited by the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Much as the taming of the western frontier in the nineteenth century served as a model for extracontinental expansion in the twentieth, so the expositions that followed the 1898 war and preceded the Panama-Pacific exposition marked the course of America's expanding empire along a trajectory of imperial desires.

When the USS Maine exploded under mysterious circumstances while anchored in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898, plans were well under way for two world's fairs in the United States: the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. With the declaration of war with Spain in the spring of that year, organizers of the Omaha exposition feared it would be delayed or canceled. That the exposition opened, as scheduled, on June 1, 1898, prompted at least one observer to consider Omaha's achievements as nothing less than Admiral George Dewey's decisive victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay.

The 1898 war and its implications of empire building were unmistakable at the Omaha fair with respect to its ideological assumptions, exhibitions, layout, and official as well as critical discourse. This was expressed perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the remarks of the official spokesman of the Omaha fair, James Baldwin, who observed on opening day, "The Exposition has become an instrument of civilization. Being a concomitant to empire, westward it takes its way." Casting the historical context of the Omaha fair within the westward trajectory of previous international expositions held in the United States—Philadelphia in 1876 and Chicago in 1893—Baldwin situates the 1898 fair within an imperial context and offers the Little White City, a diminutive reference to Chicago's fair, as inexorable proof of the United States' conquest of its internal colony, that is, the Trans-Mississippi West. Baldwin's statement concisely summarizes many of the organizing principles that fueled United States westward expansion and belief in Manifest Destiny throughout the nineteenth century and proposes that world's fairs now carry on that civilizing mission. Critical discourse about the Omaha fair regularly repeated Baldwin's official appraisal and referred to the astonishing speed with which the Trans-Mississippi region was transformed from a "wilderness into twenty-four states and territories ... [with] nearly one-half of the wealth and one-third of the population of our country." Another contemporary observer described the Omaha exposition as nothing less than a "miracle ... rising in what but yesterday seemed one of the earth's waste places," and concluded confidently that the fair should "strengthen the faith of Anglo-Saxons in the potency of their race and its institutions."

Assumptions about the frontier and the dual construction of empire as contained within and extending beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the continental United States pervaded the layout of the fairgrounds, which, as with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, located progress on an east-to-west trajectory. The U.S. Government Building was located at the western edge of the principal fairground and contained numerous artifacts and exhibitions relating to the 1898 war, including a model of the USS Maine. As with previous world's fairs, the midway functioned as the negative analogue to the official displays and featured numerous amusements, sideshows, ethnological displays, and curiosities whose offers of pleasure and diversion to fairgoers disguised their pedagogical and often racist intent. In addition to a re-creation of the Battle of Manila and a scaled miniature bombardment of Cuban forces, the so-called Indian Congress, featuring some thirty-five American Indian tribes, largely from the Trans-Mississippi West, was framed on the post-Turnerian assumption of the end of the frontier and offered a retrospective view of what one contemporary observer called "a great meeting of the vanishing race." Indeed, as historian Robert Rydell notes, the Indian Congress was designed to present the colonization as a fait accompli, and, as such, the distinction between the continental and imperial frontier was collapsed, the latter being construed as a logical and inevitable extension of the former.

The Philippine Village, the first of its kind and the predecessor of what was to become a standard feature in midway attractions at subsequent fairs, corroborated widely held contemporary views about racial hierarchies and confirmed prevailing notions of Filipinos as uncivilized savages whose only hope for redemption was through assimilation with their benevolent new colonial ruler. A contemporary advertisement of Pears' Soap, which features Admiral Dewey aboard his ship, the Olympia, washing his hands at a small sink, suggests the prevalence of these ideas and their popular appeal to a broad audience. The text of the advertisement says, "The first step towards lightening The White Man's Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears' Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, whilst among the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place." The central image of Dewey, an oval portrait that evokes the open porthole within the frame, is surrounded by four small vignettes of ships in Manila Bay, a missionary offering a bar of soap to a supplicating Philippine native, and a cargo ship unloading cases of Pears' Soap. The visual trope of a crouching native figure before a colonial agent, in this case Dewey, was widely used in both painted and sculpted images as early at the mid-seventeenth century to depict the colonial dynamic of the encounter between savagery and civilization. The image of the cargo ship dispatching soap refers to Dewey's requisition of six thousand pounds of soap for the Philippines in the summer of 1898 and ideologically to the United States' recent excursion into imperialism, which Rudyard Kipling extolled with his poem "The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippines" in February 1899. The discourses of health, cleanliness, and civilization layered in this advertisement find their way directly into the building of the Panama Canal and cast the canal builders' role, much like Dewey's in Manila Bay, as a chivalric rescue mission of enlightened and healthy white men delivering civilization and culture to parts of the world sullied by uncleanliness and savagery.

The unanticipated success of the Omaha fair led local businessmen to reopen it the following summer. Under the new banner of the Greater America Exposition, the definition of American national identity within an imperial context that had underscored the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition became the 1899 fair's stated mission. An official poster advertising the fair featured Uncle Sam embracing a globe encircled by a garland that read The White Man's Burden and pointing to the recent territorial acquisitions in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Outside of the potential reference to McKinley's apocryphal first response to the news of Admiral Dewey's victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila—he rushed to the globe to discover just where the Philippines was located—the image visualizes the prevailing assumption of the United States' benevolence in its civilizing mission in the archipelago. Putting the Philippines on the map of America, literally and imaginatively, was formulated as "bringing moral and intellectual uplift to a part of the world repeatedly perceived as inferior." Moreover, as Rydell has noted, the 1899 fair posited the centrality of imperial practices to continued American progress, and it laid the path for future expositions to engage in demonstrations of the United States' imperial prowess and new position of leadership in the international arena as evidence of its benevolent missionary efforts. Finally, the 1899 Omaha fair coincided with nationwide celebrations of Admiral Dewey's triumphant return from the Philippines in 1899. That same year, the Dewey Arch was commissioned in New York City; its iconographic references to Roman imperial architecture clearly aligned current American expansionism within a historical trajectory of what would have been widely understood as the westward march of civilization.


Excerpted from Empire on Display by Sarah J. Moore. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: "Stern Men with Empire in Their Brains",
1. Redefining the Frontier in Post-Turnerian America: Turn-of-the-Century World's Fairs and the War of 1898,
2. Realizing the Centuries-Old Imperial Fantasy: A Manly Nation Builds the Panama Canal,
3. Rebuilding the City of Dreams: From Calamity to the World's Greatest Exposition,
4. Naturalizing Progress and Territorial Expansion at the Golden Gate: An Overview of the Exposition,
5. From Wilderness to Tourist Site: Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as Dress Rehearsals for Imperialism,
6. The Thirteenth Labor of Hercules: Celebrating the Erotic Embrace of the Seas,
Conclusion: Re-creating the World in Gigantic Miniature,
Selected Bibliography,

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