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Landscape architecture, statuesque buildings, ornate gardens, art of many kinds, clever inventions, countless displays of wares and products, sports, and entertainment--the Panama-Pacific Exposition showed the throngs of visitors what the world looked like in 1915. Other fairs had done the same, some to almost the same degree, but the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was called the first truly modern world's fair, if for only one phenomenal reason. It was lit up at night by a fanfare of electric lights!
Electricity was not entirely novel. It had come to America in the 1880s, but seldom had the public been treated to such a circus-like atmosphere of innovative and captivating illumination. Now the expo city could be seen and enjoyed night and day. It was a phenomenon.
The General Electric Company, a novelty in itself in 1915, provided indirect lighting of all the fairgrounds, including something that the company called the 'Scintillator,' which was described as a battery of searchlights housed on a barge in the bay. It projected numerous beams of light--given any of seven colors by a gigantic fan made of colored rays--across the famous fog banks, and if no fog accommodated the moment then a locomotive's steam engine would be used to generate some artificial fog. A company of U.S. marines manipulated this fan using military drill precision, to enormous effect. It was said that this illumination was at its best on misty nights when the foggy air's moisture 'provided a screen to catch the colored lights and create the effect of an aurora overhead.' A visit to the fair was the first sight of electric lights for many people. General Electric impressed an awed public with its new technology.
Yet old technology could be just as impressive, and in truth the fair was a celebration of both venerated imagination and novelty. Many said that the Tower of Jewels was the focal point for all who visited the exposition. It stood more than 40 stories high and was festooned by a riot of cut-glass made with handmade precision. Some 102,000 pieces of Austrian crystal, in total weighing 20,000 pounds, hung from hooks all over the structure. Each reflector had a small mirror behind it. These crystals came in five colors--white, ruby, emerald, aquamarine, and 'canary' yellow. These would swing in the breeze and reflect the sunlight by day. The effect was never less than dazzling.
Indirect lighting, another novelty at the time, included concealed colored lights that glinted through the many fountains, and reflectors inside otherwise unlit buildings which bounced the beams of colored strings of lights into the night sky. These contrasted with the stark white lighting of the courtyards of some of the buildings, while others were lit a uniform red or green 'aura' which shone from powerful arc lamps. Visiting the fair at night was like being in a fairyland.
The buildings themselves were a marvel. Flags, shields and banners adorned replicas of palaces and courtyards, of familiar state buildings and of 'exotic' architecture shown on buildings of foreign lands. Travel abroad was not commonplace in America in 1915, and for many visitors the mere glance at a 'Moroccan palace' (its replica) was thrilling.
Some idea of the awe inspired by the fair may be gotten from the language used in guidebooks published at the time. The Union Pacific Railroad issued one. But the official exposition brochure waxed ecstatic. It proclaimed proudly that the location was 'a natural amphitheater, fronting on the wonderful island-dotted Bay of San Francisco, just inside the famous Golden Gate' and yet convenient, 'within fifteen minutes' street car ride from the City Hall.' It continued as follows: 'With this wonderful scene as a background, the architects, artists and landscape gardeners of the Exposition have planned and erected a city straight out of a beautiful dream.' ...'Through the portals of the Golden Gate the nations of the earth can bring their richest offerings to the very gates of the Exposition, avoiding a long continental haul and consequent damage from reshipping.'... 'Carnivals, maneuvers by the fleets of all nations, international yacht racing, motor boat racing, exhibitions by submarines and hydroplanes' could all be seen, along with an 'aviation field, race track, and live stock exhibit, terminating in the grounds of a great military reservation, the Presidio, where ... army maneuvers will take place.' Surrounding the Tower of Jewels there were eight exhibit 'palaces'--called Education, Liberal Arts, Manufactures, Varied Industries, Agriculture, Food Products, Transportation and Mines, and Metallurgy. The coinage from the exposition was no less spectacular than the grounds themselves. The fifty dollar gold pieces were struck in two variants, round and octagonal. The octagonal version reduces the image on each side slightly, but adds a border of swimming dolphins on each side, which Breen neatly summarizes as being 'friendly companions of boats throughout the continuous water route completed by the Canal.' The mint was authorized to strike 1,500 examples of each. The price was double face value, or $100 per coin. If anyone bought either one, or one of each, he or she would get, at no extra charge, one each of the three smaller coins. As tempting as this might seem to today's numismatists, it was a daunting price for all but the wealthy in 1915, when the average annual income was $1,267. The result was not surprising: only 645 octagonal fifties were sold (more popular than the round version, probably because it was so unusual in shape), and a mere 483 were not melted of the round fifties.
But how elegant these coins are! In 1915, America was on the verge of entering the first major war outside its borders, the world war in Europe. Athena shows us ready but wise enough to wait. On the octagonals, the dolphins are emblematic of the sailor's guardians, to be seen in the open seas on each side of the Canal, but also of the continuous water route it provided. The Panama Canal eliminated the long and dangerous sea-route for commercial shipping around Cape Horn, the southernmost headland of Chile, taking ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, or vice-versa, easily and quickly for the first time in history. The dolphins symbolize this flow as well.
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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