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Social and Political Tensions at the PPIE

On July 9, City Guides celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with a continuing education event at the California Historical Society. Guides enjoyed a reception and a private viewing of the PPIE exhibit City Rising. Anthea Hartig, CHS Executive Director, warmly welcomed City Guides and encouraged all of us to explore the collections of the CHS library when we’re doing research on San Francisco, Bay Area, and California history.

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The second part of the evening featured an insightful lecture by Abigail Markwyn, author of Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

According to her book, when the more than 18 million visitors poured into the Exposition in 1915, they encountered a vision of the world born out of San Francisco’s particular local political and social climate. By seeking to please various constituent groups ranging from the government of Japan to local labor unions and neighborhood associations, fair organizers generated heated debate and conflict about who and what represented San Francisco, California, and the United States at the world’s fair. Markwyn said the PPIE encapsulated the social and political tensions and conflicts of pre–World War I California and presaged the emergence of San Francisco as a cosmopolitan cultural and economic center of the Pacific Rim.

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Author Abigail Markwyn with City Guide Eric Jost who coordinated the event.

During her extensive research on the fair, Markwyn discovered that it coincided with the release of the controversial film The Birth of a Nation. In fact, racism was prevalent at the fair, she noted, especially in the Joy Zone, with its “Underground Chinatown” featuring an opium den and other attractions that demeaned Africans and African Americans. Despite attempts by local blacks to contact fair officials to arrange for exhibits that featured African American accomplishments, blacks remained sidelined at the fair. She also was curious about women at the fair, especially the Women’s Board of the PPIE, which had little authority but played an important role as cultural diplomats who hosted dinners for visiting dignitaries and officials.

Markwyn Is Associate Professor of History at Carroll University in Wisconsin. Her books include Empress San Francisco (2014) and Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World’s Fairs (2010). She graciously credits the San Francisco History Center and the Bancroft Library as being essential to her work, saying, “I’m forever grateful to librarians.”

Photos by Lisa Harrington

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An intricate diorama of the 1915 Fair is the centerpiece of City Rising

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