The 1901 Pan-American Exposition
Significant in History and Collecting
By Matthew Orsini
During the 19th century, across Europe and the Americas, a peculiar and often popular multi-form event emerged that significantly advanced many advertising and entertainment channels that remain popular to this day. That event, often labeled an "exposition", came to prominence as a way to promote a cause, or oftentimes many causes, in a manner that regularly resulted in widespread public attendance. The spectacular nature of these events drew people from all social strata and from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. These events, which often achieved true historic relevance, would introduce the work of masters of art and industry - inventions that transformed work and leisure, works of art that are even now prominent museum centerpieces, and agricultural implements that would change the way we produce and consume. Also an invariable product of the expositions, and a sign of the great cultural influence that the events bore, was the keepsake - sometimes made as an ephemeral object and at other times purposed as a souvenir or an award worthy of a showcase. For many collectors, the culmination of historical significance alongside lasting material objects strikes an ideal balance.
One notable exposition was the Pan-American Exposition. Held in Buffalo, New York in 1901, and coming on the heels of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Pan-American Exposition was intended to promote commercial well-being and an enhanced understanding of American republics (i.e North and South American countries). Constructed on a 350-acre plot, tickets to the exposition were 25 cents. Between May and November when the exposition was open, approximately 8 million people made the voyage to attend. Attractions were the many merchants who were competing for awards in various categories with the hope of recognition and fame. Also highlighting the event was the display of Thomas Edison's X-ray machine, an advancement in medicine that until that point was unfathomable. Most astonishing to attendees, however, had to be the adornment of the grounds and structures in thousands of light bulbs. While electricity was at this point gaining familiarity, the extravagance associated with lighting of this magnitude was surely a magical event. And while the exposition was an unquestioned success and surely an enduring memory for those that attended, today, its continuing memory largely lives through two things - the existence of relics from the event and the death of a President.
On September 5th, 1901 William H. McKinley, the 25th President of the United States attended the Pan-American Exposition. That day, he gave a speech that lauded, generally, the exposition.
"Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world's advancements. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people, and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of the people. They open mighty storehouses of information to the student..."
The following day, President McKinley, while at the Temple of Music, was shot by Leon Czolgosz. Eight days later McKinley died from complications, an outcome that would permanently stain the legacy of the Pan-American Exposition.
Outside of the history books however, the tangible history of this event remains alive and well through its relics. Medals, tokens, stamps, postcards and many other forms exist today. Some of the more unusual items include oil lamps, spoons, jars, saws, pincushions, tankards and more. Because of the geographical theme and location of the Exposition, nearly all items possess a seldom-rivaled visual charm. The incorporation of a buffalo, a classic American icon, can be seen on many items. Also, a map of the Americas was frequently used to celebrate and promote the gained understanding and collaboration between lands - the official logo of the Exposition being two women stylized into North and South America with hands grasped in union. A particularly iconic work was a large 64mm award medal, produced in silver, bronze and gilt bronze, that was designed by renowned sculptor Herman MacNeil and struck by Gorham and Co. The medal's obverse features a striding Liberty alongside a buffalo. The recipient of the award sits at the base. The reverse, again adhering to the Exposition's theme, plays on the duality of North and South America, illustrating two Native Americans, one from each continent, sharing a peace pipe. The medal and its likeness, praised during its day, were used in numerous advertisements by the award winners to promote the accolades bestowed by the Exposition. Today, this remains one of the most highly sought after relics of the event, and survivors are prized by collectors.
The Pan-American Exposition, like many others, not only leaves collectors a rich amount of material to collect, but also provides a visual tie to a specific window of history that few others collectibles can. While the Pan-American's greatest lasting legacy is no doubt a grim one as the result of the death of a President, many other reminders maintain a positive iconography that continues until this day to define culture. These introductions include the telephone, the Eiffel Tower, the ferris wheel, and popular consumer items like Heinz ketchup. If looking for a new area to collect, expositions often offer the ability to collect at entry level up to that of great advancement. For the collector intrigued by the prospect, but unsure of a starting point, a short list of expositions by region has been listed below. Hopefully, for some, it serves as a jump-off point to a rewarding collection.
Other Expositions with Rich Collectible Histories:
1876 - Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia
1892 - World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago
1904 - Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis
1915 - Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco
1851 - The Great Exhibition, London
1862 - The International Exhibition, London
1889 - Paris Exposition, Paris
1900 - Paris Exposition, Paris