IN MAY OF 1893, Michael H. de Young, the energetic publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, stood at the entranceway to the California building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He marveled at the sheer numbers of fairgoers who poured through the gates — crowds that enriched not only the exposition vendors, but the merchants of the city. The world's fair meant good business for Chicago.
Later, seated at his desk in the Mission Revival style California pavilion at the Chicago fair, de Young's thoughts turned to home. Matters were not well there. San Francisco, along with the rest of the nation, was suffering through a depression in 1893. Though the city boasted a growing population of over 300,000, its economy languished. Several banks had failed. Labor and management had clashed violently, and a legacy of division and bitterness brooded over the city's business enterprise. Local politics was dominated by "Blind Boss" Buckley and a swarm of imitators. And atop "Snob Hill," the grandiose mansions of the Big Four (Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins) lorded it over San Francisco, literally and symbolically resplendent reminders of the power of the railroad in American life. Warring factions in Chinatown fought bloody battles with each other, while suspicious outsiders denounced the quarter as a morass of opium dens and slave traders. The notorious Barbary Coast perpetuated the city's world-wide reputation as a haunt and a haven for cutthroats, thieves, and brigands who settled down in San Francisco for a long life of unimpeded crime.
But there was a brighter side to life in San Francisco. The spirit of West Coast freedom and panache was carried forth by a group of artists and fellow travelers known as Les Jeunes. San Francisco's bohemians were writing and painting and regaling themselves with frolics and larks in the Barbary Coast and Chinatown between periods of poverty. The city was nurturing a genuine cultural renaissance.(1)
Local hotels, including the Palace and the Baldwin, were among the best run in the country. San Francisco boasted a full season's worth of theater, opera, symphonic music and intellectually substantial lecture series. In recent years, the city had played host to such highly-acclaimed writers as Oscar Wilde, Anthony Trollope, and Rudyard Kipling. San Francisco's schools flourished under the leadership of such educators as John Swett and Mary Kincaid. The Bay Area could boast of several institutions of higher learning, including the recently founded Stanford University. Clearly, the Boomtown and Barbary Coast images of the city were misleading as adequate portraits of San Francisco in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Despite a number of pressing economic and political problems, San Francisco possessed energy in abundant supply. There was a boldness of spirit in the city, and a population willing and eager to support and appreciate art and culture — to undertake the kind of enterprise so splendidly set forth at the Chicago world's fair.
As Commissioner of the California Exhibits and Vice President of the National Commission at the Columbian Exposition, de Young had ample opportunity to see the problems and the opportunities of his native city in perspective. Was there any way to heal the social and economic divisions that pitted so many factions against one other? How could some measure of unity be restored to the troubled community? The Columbian Exposition had clearly benefited Chicago in a number of ways. Perhaps San Francisco could profit from a similar experience.
De Young, wanting to capitalize on the impetus the Chicago fair had created, decided that San Francisco's exposition should open on January 1st, 1894, or in slightly over seven months.(2) San Franciscans would stage a great cooperative venture and make money for local entrepreneurs; the world would see the advantages of the city and the promise of the Golden State. The more de Young thought it over, the more excited he became.
But it had taken seven years to conceive, plan, and stage the Columbian Exposition. How could a newspaperman hope to bring about such a complex and expensive venture in seven months? A decade earlier, New Orleans businessmen had found to their sorrow that a world's fair was no guarantee of success. Poor planning, bad weather, adverse political or economic conditions — there were many treacherous roads to failure, but no sure path to success.
However, Michael de Young was not to be denied his dream of "the Sunset City," as he would call the Midwinter Fair. He gathered together the San Francisco businessmen at the Columbian Exposition and set forth his dream. Though there were skeptics among them, the majority liked what they heard and immediately pledged over $40,000 for the enterprise, the largest single contribution of $10,000 given by financier and future San Francisco mayor James Duval Phelan. De Young sent telegrams to the governor of California (Henry Markham), the mayor of San Francisco (Levi Ellen), and numerous business organizations in order to solicit support for his grand scheme. A governing Board of Directors, headed by Director-General de Young, and an Executive Committee to supervise and plan the fair were appointed by a Citizens Committee of Fifty appointed by Mayor Ellen. The major motivation for the exposition would be economic. This motive was so explicit that the first working name for the exposition was "The Commercial World's Fair." On June 1, 1893, headlines in de Young's San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted the grand proposal.
The publicity department of the fair encouraged local printing companies to come up with ideas that would show San Francisco's winter climate in a favorable light. This they did — and with a good-natured slap at New York. One advertising card shows, on the left side of the picture, a solitary woman huddled up against the freezing snow outside a New York tenement. On the right side, an elegant young couple enjoys an open-air picnic with food and wine in front of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. A second card shows a lovely young woman, whose hat announces her as "San Francisco," proffering a bouquet of fresh flowers to an aged, overweight man with frost for hair and icicles dripping from his beard. The old man is labeled "New York”.(3)