Professor of History, Diablo Valley College
(NOTE: This article appeared in the "Live From The Archives" column of the Martinez Gazette, March 5, 2015)
Valentine's Day one hundred years ago in Contra Costa County was utterly smothered by the excitement surrounding the opening day of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Even the Governor of California, Hiram Johnson, proclaimed the 20th of February a legal holiday and the Martinez Gazette made special note that Crockett's sugar mill would shut down on that day allowing employees at the refinery to attend opening day of the World's Fair. "The world is on tip-toe," said the Martinez Gazette, "to get a first glimpse of the wonders that are being worked when the curtain of secrecy is lifted February 20th."
Even though it was rather rainy (13.49" for the season) 500,000 people attended opening day. The Richmond Independent staff writers proudly disclosed that they would be "taking the night off so they could join the throng of Richmond residents" on the train to the exposition in the morning. It must have been hard for people of Richmond to oversleep as the city council okayed "every whistle and noisemaking device within the city limits be called into play from Richmond's factories." The great Standard Oil and Santa Fe whistles went off and the local fire department was asked "to do its worst in the noisemaking line." All of this occurred between six and seven in the morning, just in time to take the special Southern Pacific Excursion train to the PPIE for the total roundtrip cost of forty five cents!
London inaugurated the first World Fair in 1851 and Paris soon followed in 1889. Today, London's Crystal Palace and Paris' Eiffel Tower are iconic reminders—like our Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District—of past expositions. My favorite exposition landmark is Seattle's 1962 Space Needle which celebrated modernism. Our 1915 exposition celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, but it was also about San Francisco's triumphant rise "like a jewel from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire." The fairgrounds were thus called, The Jewel City. And yet, the Panama Pacific International Exposition celebrated much more: it brought diverse communities of people together and urged us not to look back, but to take one step closer into the future.
Before opening day, one of the first fears that had to be dispelled according to the Danville Journal, was that "the festive pipe, the seductive cigarette and the more imposing cigar will be tabooed." How much would directors of the exposition try to clean up the city's rough image before the guests arrived? There had been a ban on smoking during the construction of the fair because "a carelessly thrown cigarette might set fire to a pile of shavings." There was also talk about stamping out prostitution in San Francisco and making the fair alcohol-free (yeah, right). The Danville Journal soothed fears with the dark bold headline: "Devotees Of Nicotine May Enjoy Weed Except In The Buildings." It's hard to believe now, but San Francisco in 1915 still had a Barbary Coast-anything-goes reputation that the directors of the exposition worried would discourage people, especially families and women, from attending the World Fair.
World Fairs, even today, are meant primarily to entertain but they are also geared towards educating and showcasing new inventions and future possibilities: it's a place to learn. Expositions provide information and inspire new thoughts or new philosophies about life. When the 1915 fair opened, more than 80,000 exhibits were displayed and over the course of nine months 20,000 awards were bestowed upon recipients by international juries. In fact, Cora Boone of Danville exhibited her juried works in the Palace of Fine Art and the Palace of Education.
The PPIE made over a million dollars in profit and the attendance, at nineteen million, greatly exceeded expectations. How was San Francisco's reputation for vice and immorality instantly purged? What calmed the fears of family minded people, young women, and those traveling alone to venture to a city known for sin?
Just like the cowboys of the Ol' West, directors of the PPIE knew that only women could civilize the Jewel City: this was why a Woman's Board was created. Directors naively envisaged that a Woman's Board would simply act as hostesses and housekeepers of the fair ensuring visitors—long before they arrived—that the exposition was morally spotless. Directors had a big wake up call when Phoebe Hearst, a powerful supporter of women's suffrage and progressive reform, was appointed as the board's Honorary President. Remember, this was the heyday of the Progressive Era and California women had already earned the right to vote in 1911. Most women on the board, of which there were hundreds, were already active in various female reform associations that went far beyond mere "hostessing." Therefore, the fairgrounds at the Panama Pacific International Exposition became ground zero for world conventions, conferences and all activities surrounding women's rights and national suffrage. The climax, of course, would be the 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women's right to vote.
The Woman's Board created state and county auxiliary boards to help publicize the fair, raise money for pertinent causes, and boost the reputation of the State of California and particularly our fifty-eight counties. Some of us might recognize the prominent names of Contra Costa women associated with the board: Bancroft and Brubeck of Concord, Hook of Walnut Creek, Harkinson of Antioch, Meade and Hammond of Byron, Dean and Shafter of Brentwood, Jones of Martinez, Beade of Antioch, Tormey of Pinole and Abbott of Richmond. All of these members met frequently, often in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, and corresponded regularly. Like most club members, they each paid dues, received a ruby member pin and were provided with official PPIE stationary. It was a full time job, acting part hostess and part political booster (if one can separate the two) for their county. Women wrote and presented lectures to school children and city clubs about what could be learned at the exposition and also provided lunches at the fair for those less able such as the aged, infirm, or the poor. The main focus for most county auxiliary women was to prepare the county exhibit at the fair and to be prepared to host interested newcomers; The Richmond Daily Independent said it bluntly, "to show the world what we have here in Contra Costa county." One year before the exposition opened, The Independent also reported that "rubberneck wagons" would be hired for parties visiting the fair to come and see Richmond. From February until December, Contra Costa auxiliary board members were on alert.
The hub of the Woman's Board and all county auxiliary action was held in the California Building: five acres of centrally situated space near the bay entrance to the World Fair. As mentioned above, opening day of the PPIE was on February 20th but two other county days were equally, if not more important, to Contra Costa County auxiliary women. March 5th and then April 3rd specifically celebrated Contra Costa County. Parades, floats, and carloads of "pretty young ladies" celebrated the fertility and the endless possibilities of our county. Fourteen thousand people from Contra Costa County arrived on April's County Day wearing yellow county badges and various city badges. The parade line of newfangled cars, called "machines," and floats, explains the Richmond Daily Independent, "stretched a quarter of a mile along the streets. Prominent among the floats were those from Walnut Creek in the shape of an immense walnut!" The confluence of the parade line and those arriving by the Key System's special exposition ferry met at the California Building thus ushering in Contra Costa County Day with live music and our own Sheriff Veale as the master of ceremonies.
The Martinez Gazette tells us that once inside the California Building at the Contra Costa booth, a chorus led by Antioch's auxiliary member, Mrs. Beade, sang "It's A Short Way to Contra Costa" (to the WWI tune, It's A Long Way To Tipperary) and "fifty of Contra Costa's fairest daughters" served punch and handed out "walnuts, several pieces of asparagus and a head of celery" free to all visitors. Coffee and tea were also served by county auxiliaries of the Woman's Board.
If one were to solely believe what was written about the exposition in the county newspapers, it appears that women at the PPIE were merely sexy hostesses. Local newspapers tell us how men chauffeured "machines" amongst parade goers and avidly advertised the industrial and agricultural strengths of their respective counties, while pretty women smiled and passed out those same goods at the county booth. The portrayal of such gendered roles were common for society in the early twentieth century. However, if we dig behind the scenes of the PPIE, women—particularly those associated with the Woman's Board—were working hard to guarantee the safety and the well being of all women attending and working at the fair.
The Woman's Board dangled the threat of negative publicity in front of the directors of the PPIE to ensure that they held the reins of the exposition's reputation. Efforts to stamp out overt sexual exploitation of women, especially at the amusement section of the fair called "The Joy Zone," were frequent. The Women's Board insisted upon and raised money for a monumental sculpture dedicated to western women entitled "Pioneer Mother." The large bronze sculpture was centrally located near the Palace of Art and today stands in Golden Gate Park. Women were not going to be pushed into the background but celebrated and respected. Board members and auxiliaries worked hand in hand with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and our own California Traveler's Aid Society, which was specifically created for the fair by the Woman's Board, to guarantee that all women of all races felt safe and comfortable at the fair. Contra Costa auxiliaries to the Woman's Board financially supported all of these causes. The YMCA building, designed by Julia Morgan, was yet another central landmark, like the California building, that was run by women. Call them "hostesses" if you like, but here, women who visited and worked at the fair received meals, lodging information, day nursery care, individual counseling, and even job training such as typing or stenography for careers after the fair. Three thousand women workers of the fair sought services at the YMCA building: in the Jewel City, the Woman's Board made sure that white and nonwhite women were served equally.
Like women who were pushing for the national suffrage, women who supported the services at the exposition's YWCA also supported the idea that it was acceptable for women to work outside the home and that they should feel safe while doing it. As we can see, the Woman's Board welcomed the initial opportunity to ensure the moral standing of the exposition, yet they seized the reins and molded the exposition into something they could call their own. Advocates of universal suffrage gathered over 500,000 signatures at the fair, and the list of signatures was 3 miles long!
Wonders were certainly being worked at the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Just months before its closing, the task of getting those signatures back to Washington, D.C was left to a few suffragettes and a beautiful topless car decorated with a golden banner proclaiming, "Enfranchisement for Women!" All of this was colorful publicity for women's suffrage. For one week in September, there were festivities, then a parade, and then, finally, the frantic waving of goodbye to the car as it pulled away from the Jewel City and into the future. I'd like to think that it wasn't purely coincidental that this was the very same week, according to the The Danville Journal's society column, that half a dozen local women simply stated that they had "Gone to the City for a week to attend the fair."