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SF's First World's Fair

by James R. Smith

The United States found itself mired in recession in the first years of the 1890s. San Francisco and the state of California suffered with the rest. Unemployment was up and productivity and the markets were down. The only bright spot nationwide was the 1893 Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Shortly after the grand opening, San Franciscan Michael Harry de Young, vice president of the Columbian Commission, recognized an opportunity to promote his city and state. San Francisco Chronicle publisher de Young proposed an adjunct to the Chicago Fair for San Francisco, to be held in the dead of winter.

On June 1, 1893, de Young announced his plans to open the California Midwinter Fair in San Francisco by January of 1894. Eleven days later, local citizens had committed $41,500 to the project, and over four thousand of Chicago’s exhibitors petitioned for space. The fair committee selected only the best of those. By August when Congress approved California’s plan, the committee had $350,000 in private funding. The groundbreaking in Golden Gate Park took place on August 24, and the committee signed the contracts for structures by late September. The purpose of the fair was to promote California investment opportunities, growth, land sales, and trade as well as to create an infusion of cash.

The selected grounds encompassed two hundred acres centered on what is now the sycamore-shaded Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. The city’s landscape gardeners, managed by the stubborn Scotsman John McLaren, planted thousands of trees. McLaren detested the concept of the Midwinter Fair yet did his utmost to blend it in subtropical greenery. His vision for the park was a serene place without signs, statues, or undue ornamentation.

The four main exhibit buildings included the Palace of Fine Arts, constructed of brick and stone in an Egyptian motif – later to become the first M.H. de Young Museum. The remaining structures were temporary, using construction similar to modern day stucco: wood frame and wire mesh covered with plaster and horsehair. The builders copied this method from the Chicago fair.

They situated the Agriculture and Horticulture Building (Mission-style) just west of the Palace of Fine Arts. The Mechanical Arts Building (Indian Temple theme) stood on the present-day site of the California Academy of Sciences, and the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building in a Moorish style was located on the east end of the concourse (Panhandle side). The Administration Building, also using Moorish architecture, framed the west side of the concourse.

The fair centered on a large quadrangle of land consisting of a series of courts, including the central Grand Court and the Court of Honor, all surrounded by a roadway. These sunken gardens made up the Main Concourse, today called the Music Concourse. Erected in the center of the Grand Court, Bonet’s Tower rose to a height of 266 feet. Designed to display the power of municipal electricity, it presented a beacon drawing people to the fair.

Constructed similarly to the Eiffel Tower, the top supported an electric spotlight capable of two and a half million candlepower. Promoters claimed it threw a light so intense one could read a newspaper under its rays ten miles away and distinguish a ship at a distance of fifteen miles. Thousands of lights decorated the tower, outlining its structure in a breathtaking electric light show. The Belvista Café huddled beneath the center of Bonet’s Tower.

California counties and neighboring states erected their own exhibition buildings. Beyond those rose the exhibition sites from the Chicago fair as well as a few created locally, such as the Forty-niner Camp and the Japanese Village, later renamed the Japanese Tea Garden. Structures from the Chicago fair included the Esquimaux (Eskimo) Village, various Native American tribal camps, South Sea Islanders, and Cairo Street featuring camels, Whirling Dervishes, theatre, and “Little Egypt.” The fair proved to be a cultural and visual feast for those attending.

By early December, California’s newspapers reported:

There has been a decided flavor of foreign countries in and about San Francisco during the past week. Men with baggy trousers and Turkish fezzes on their heads have been promenading Kearny and Market Streets and mixing with the swell-clothed people in the theatres and in the mercantile palaces of the city.


The Chicago crowd is moving westward and the advance guard is already here. Each incoming overland train has every reservation occupied. The railroads are already starting to benefit from the Midwinter Fair project.

Local interest was high, with the populace clamoring for a glimpse. Cashing in on the curiosity, the Fair Committee offered previews for a reduced admission fee starting in December. The pre-opening was a hit. People strolled and gawked while sidewalk superintendents offered suggestions. Nothing slowed the breakneck speed of construction. However, unusually severe blizzards in the high Sierra held up the opening by stranding many of Chicago’s exhibitioners on the Nevada side. The railroad dug their tracks out by hand. The fair would open on January 27, 1894.

The California Midwinter International Exposition was prepared for its grand opening. Money and people flowed into California. Rich farmers left their frozen fields to see what the Golden State had to offer. Investors abandoned the cold to see if California dreams had merit. And of course, countries represented in Chicago came to sell their wares in the West. M.H. de Young’s strategy bore sweet fruit. The East soon learned that California was indeed golden.

Early storms in the Sierra slowed the deliveries of exhibits and exhibitors from Chicago. Though the fair had opened earlier at a reduced entry fare, January 27, 1894, marked the official opening, heralded by a parade and celebration said to number 10,000 participants. State and city offices closed in recognition of this event. After a number of speeches, Michael de Young pressed the button that switched on the fair’s engines and electricity.

Engines fired up, steam whistles blew, and many thousands of lights flashed on around the park. Albeit on a smaller scale, California had accomplished in five months what had taken Chicago five years. In a nod to California’s ongoing unemployment, aside from foreign exhibits everything displayed in the fair, including the Firth Wheel, had to be manufactured or grown in the state.

The Midway, much of it inspired by Chicago, focused on thrills and amusements. The Firth Wheel, a Ferris wheel with enclosed cabins, offered great views of the fair and park. Thompson’s Scenic Railway, precursor to the roller coaster, soared above the Midway. Exciting for the times, it was extremely tame compared to Playland’s later Big Dipper.

The Haunted Swing was a Midway favorite. A large swing hung suspended from a beam inside a large furnished parlor within a small building. Two or three dozen people entered one of six compartments on the swing, the electric lights switched on, and the doors closed. The swing rocked lightly as the young operator warned the folks not to be nervous. Each oscillation of the swing rotated it higher until the youth shouted, “Now, over she goes!”

The swing quickly rocked upward until the riders felt themselves hanging from the ceiling, looking down on the chairs, table, and piano, each wondering how they could remain suspended without falling out of the swing. People crawled under the seats and others called out to whatever saint appealed to them. In fact, the swing did not rotate—the room did. The swing only provided the gentle motion needed to create the illusion that the rotating room remained stationary.

The Japanese Tea Garden proved the most popular attraction. In keeping with that theme, seventy-five Jinrikishas (rickshaws) provided transportation around the fair grounds, pulled by Germans dressed as Japanese. Local Japanese strongly protested the use of the man-pulled carts, considering it an insult in California where horses were abundant. California’s gold received much attention. The Mechanical Arts building demonstrated various types of machinery, including that used in transportation and mining. In the building’s center, a large gilded globe rested on a granite pedestal supported by granite columns and four carved California grizzly bears. The globe illustrated California’s total reported yield of gold to date. If made of that metal, the globe would have weighed 2,071 tons and would have represented a value of $1.3 billion 1894 dollars, or over $32 billion converted to current values.

Gold Gulch, a re-creation of a forty-niner camp, theater, and dance house, celebrated our gold heritage. Amazed at the lack of a school or church represented in the camp, visitors learned that there were few women and no children in the early camps. The demonstrations by early miners and the display of appliances for modern mining drew considerable interest, with more than a few trying their hand in the gold fields after the fair.

Cultural exhibits included an Esquimaux (Eskimo) Village, a Hawaiian Cyclorama with the volcano Kilauea erupting, Cairo Street, a Chinese Joss (Gambling) House and Theatre, as well as an Arizona Indian Village. A few of these exhibits included scantily or half-dressed women—a thinly disguised attempt at titillation. Little Egypt made her debut, doing her hoochy-koochy dance in front of leering crowds of men while women remained outside, scandalized by the “goings on in there.” The exotic food received a more positive response by the entire population, and the camel rides were a major hit.

The Hall of Agriculture and Horticulture displayed California’s bounty, and many a Midwest farmer headed home to sell his farm and relocate to a county that caught his fancy. Oranges, dates, and figs from the south, grain and livestock from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, and strawberries and artichokes from the Salinas Valley, as well as California’s winter crops, awed the crowds. California was ready to feed the world, and the land begged for farmers.

Other exhibition halls touted our mineral bounty, our ready workforce, and the industrious nature of our citizens. They also stressed trade opportunities—the “gateway to the Orient.” Natural resources such as fish, lumber, and game caught the eyes of the more adventurous sort. A new population influx began, just as planned. California shoved aside the recession and rolled up her sleeves.

The fair ended on 4 July 1894, leaving a profit and a mess for Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren to clean up. Restoring Golden Gate Park to its more natural form was not easy. Buildings were torn down and the lumber sold. The owners of the Electric Tower wouldn’t remove it, so McLaren dynamited two legs, crashing it to the earth, and sold the steel and copper for scrap. Adolph Sutro purchased many of the amusements, including the Firth Wheel, placed on the grounds of his Cliff House and Sutro Baths. The Concourse was reshaped to the Music Concourse, and the Japanese Village and the Palace of Fine Arts became permanent features of the park, the latter dedicated as the M.H. de Young Museum. The fair made a profit, funding the purchase of artifacts for the new city museum.

James R. Smith, a fourth-generation native of San Francisco, is the author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007).



Photo credits: Mechanical Arts Building and Concourse - Collection of Christopher Charles. All other historic photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Mechanical Arts Building

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Grand Court

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Moorish-style Administration Building

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Dante’s Inferno and Firth Wheel in Midway at Midwinter Fair. The Firth Wheel measured 100 feet in diameter with sixteen ten-person cabs.

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The Japanese Tea Garden offered cookies and tea served by kimono-garbed women for ten cents.

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