Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Mechanics' Institute's Industrial Fairs

Last week, Mechanics' Institute librarian Taryn Edwards gave a slide lecture about the 31 industrial fairs hosted by the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute in the period 1857 - 1891. We learned that in 1848 the population of San Francisco was just 800, but it boomed rapidly in the 1850s to well over 50,000. Most things still had to be imported into California, so these fairs promoted the production & consumption of local goods.

Ms. Taryn is a perky historian & presented many entertaining facts that made the era sound a lot more fun than today. The 1st fair in 1857 took place where the Crocker Galleria is now, in a pavilion with a canvas roof that was the largest building in California at the time. Visitors saw a range of products, including machinery, clothing, wine, beer & paintings. The fair had its own song, a skating rink, a hedge maze & a post-exhibition ball that was attended by 1,000 people. The dogged Ms. Taryn managed to identify 3 African-American exhibitors & noted that 25% of the exhibitors were women, even though women made up a far smaller proportion of the general population.

I liked seeing the bunting-filled photos by Carleton Watkins of subsequent fairs & learning about the 4,000 pound cheese on display in 1864. By the 1860s, San Francisco was already being viewed as a gateway to trade with Asia, & products from Japan were exhibited. After 1906 the fairs stopped being daily news & dropped from local history.

The lecture was well-attended & seating was cramped. Refreshments were available. An attendee brought along a stunning quilt made from silk cigar wrappers that was stitched by her great-grandmother. The quilt is in beautiful condition & has been on the Antiques Road Show, but the owner admitted to me that a museum conservator who has seen it is appalled by the way she currently handles it.

§ Before the PPIE: The Mechanics’ Institute and the Development of San Francisco’s “Fair Culture” (1857–1909)
A lecture & slideshow by Taryn Edwards
Thursday, April 16, 2015 - 6:00pm
The Mechanics' Institute

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