SAN FRANCISCANS HAD every reason to be proud of the success of the California Midwinter International Exposition. Many another older, more established city in Europe and America had witnessed its illustrious exhibition end in financial ruin for backers and humiliation for the host city. Though certainly not of the magnitude of the great expositions of Chicago or Paris, the Midwinter Fair proved what it set out to prove: that San Francisco was a truly cosmopolitan city capable of planning and executing a major event with great skill.


It is not difficult to trace the effects of the exposition on the immediate environment of Golden Gate Park. For better or for worse, the exposition set the precedent of large-scale construction and traffic within the Park itself. The Midwinter Exposition provided not only the precedent, but the first building for this new complex: McDougal’s Fine Arts Building, which survived until 1928. This structure became San Francisco's first de Young Museum. Part of the profit from the fair was used to buy its first major work of art: Gustave Doré's huge "Poem of the Vine" sculpture, which stood at the entrance of the de Young Museum for many years.

The Doré vase in front of the Fine Arts Museum at the Midwinter Fair

The Doré vase in front of the Fine Arts Museum at the Midwinter Fair

The story of how de Young acquired the Dore vase is a textbook example of American hardball bargain-driving in that era. The French foundrymen who had cast the vase were unable to sell it (Gustave Doré, the artist, had died in 1883, leaving the casting bill unpaid) or to recoup their expenses. They had shipped the vase first to Chicago for the Colombian Exposition, then to San Francisco for the Midwinter Fair. De Young wanted the vase very much — it seemed to him a magnificent example of French art and, with its theme of wine and wine-making, a most appropriate work for California.

The Thiebaut brothers, owners of the bronze-casting firm, needed 60,000 francs to pay for the costs of casting, storage, and transportation of the eleven foot tall vase. They were asking 80,000 francs, but were apparently willing to settle for the 60,000 francs just to be rid of the burden.

De Young called them into his office at the San Francisco Chronicle and offered them 50,000 francs. They refused. After a long series of proposals and counterproposals, de Young reached into his pocket, extracted 50,000 francs, and calmly spread them out on the table in front of the Thiebaut brothers.

"Take it or leave it, gentlemen," was his final offer.

Seeing five-sixths of their longstanding debt so tangibly close for the taking proved too strong a temptation for the Frenchmen. They took the money, and Gustave Dore's vase had found a home in San Francisco.(34)


De Young's bravado bargaining and the foundation of the de Young Museum portended a great change for San Francisco's major public park. The original plan for Golden Gate Park — to serve as a wilderness within the city, a place of greenery broken only by rustic, utilitarian structures (such as stone bridges) or plant related buildings (such as the Conservatory of Flowers) — underwent a drastic revision in the wake of the Midwinter Fair. Today, where the buildings of the exposition once stood, a large academy of science, an art museum, and extensive parking lots occupy the space that the original designers of the Park planned to be a natural area reserved for music in the middle of trees and shrubs. Both the educational aspirations and the financial necessities of operating the Academy of Science and the de Young Museum necessitate coaxing large crowds of people to attend the exhibits and events there — crowds that may use Golden Gate Park only as a place to drive through on the way to some special event or school outing.

The Three De Young Museums

The Three De Young Museums

Once the buildings of an international fair are razed the story of its accomplishments remain to be rediscovered in the pages of newspapers and magazines, and in photographs. Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912) was the official photographer for the Midwinter Fair. Born in Massachusetts, he worked as a whaler, gold miner, rancher and dentist before settling into a career as a photographer in New York City. In 1864 Taber moved to California where he first worked at Bradley & Rulofson's gallery. He opened his own studio in 1871 and by 1894 was the leading portrait photographer in San Francisco. Taber and his assistants were said to have made over 5,000 negatives of exposition views.

There are other legacies as well. The Music Concourse today occupies the area excavated for the fair's Court of Honor. Several statues from the exposition— Thomas Shields Clarke's Cider Press (also called the Wine Press) and plaster replicas of Arthur Putnam’s original granite sphinxes among them — have survived from the fair and adorn the Music Concourse today. 

Thomas Shield Clarke's  Cider Press  at the Midwinter Fair

Thomas Shield Clarke's Cider Press at the Midwinter Fair

The facial features Arthur Putnam's Sphinx (seen today with the Doré vase in the background) were modeled on those of his friend, Alice Klauber

The facial features Arthur Putnam's Sphinx (seen today with the Doré vase in the background) were modeled on those of his friend, Alice Klauber

But the most "splendid survivor" of the Midwinter Exposition is the Japanese Tea Garden. The landscaping and the structures of the Tea Garden have changed radically in the years since its first opening; but it remains the one exhibit from the fair that most gracefully accommodates itself to the original plan of Golden Gate Park.

The Japanese Tea Garden at the exposition

The Japanese Tea Garden at the exposition

One of the most unusual indirect legacies of the Japanese Tea Garden was the invention of the so-called Chinese fortune cookie. Japanese landscaper Makoto Hagiwara was hired to serve as caretaker of the Tea Garden at the close of the fair. After a falling out with Park officials, he opened another Japanese pavilion across from Golden Gate Park. In an effort to attract customers, he introduced a novel item: small, hard cookies containing slips of paper with words of wisdom or prophesy printed on them. These "fortune cookies" became instant favorites with his customers. When Hagiwara and the Park officials came to an agreement and he returned to work at the Japanese Tea Garden, he brought his innovation with him. There is, of course, some irony in the fact that the "Chinese fortune cookie" was created by a Japanese public servant in San Francisco.


The long-range effects of the Midwinter Fair on San Francisco as a whole are more difficult to assess. The city continued to develop rapidly throughout the remaining years of the nineteenth century. But it is hard to say how much of the city's growth and prosperity can be linked directly to the influence of the fair. One of the major goals of the exposition was to showcase California's benign winter climate so that visitors might be induced to move to San Francisco and its environs. And indeed, the population of the city grew from some 300,000 to over 400,000 by the turn of the century. But it is impossible to say how many people were influenced, directly or indirectly, to make the move as a result of their experiences at, or hearsay about, the Midwinter Fair.

It seems clear that the exposition had an effect on the cultural spirit of San Francisco. The City Beautiful Movement undoubtedly drew much of its inspiration and confidence from the coordinated architecture and social idealism of international expositions. The appearance of sculptures on Market Street and throughout Golden Gate Park came as a result of the new civic taste for public monuments such as those that adorned the grounds of the Midwinter Fair.

The intellectual exchanges begun at the Fair also continued beyond the closing of the exposition itself. To cite only one example, the Afro-American Congress, held in San Francisco in July, 1895, would not have occurred without the impetus provided by the Midwinter Exposition and the activities of its Afro-American Day.

It is certain that by 1915 most people had all but forgotten about the Midwinter Fair. Planners for the great Panama-Pacific International Exposition (held in the Marina District of San Francisco) made scant reference to the previous fair. Organizers of the third world's fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition (held on the newly-created Treasure Island in 1939-1940), made even less reference to the Midwinter Fair. And certainly both the Panama Pacific International Exhibition and the Golden Gate International Exhibition outshone the Midwinter Fair in size, ambition, number of exhibitors, revenues -in short, in every category that counted. Today, most people are unaware that San Francisco's first world's fair ever occurred, so far has it faded from public memory.

But the California Midwinter International Exposition did take place. An energetic and fervent band of believers in the virtues of their city and in their own abilities managed to conjure up an entire "world's fair," complete with all the trappings, in an astonishingly short time. The kind of élan that comes with such a success cannot be easily measured; but it is no less real for that. San Francisco's reputation as the "city that knows how," a place where serious enterprise and fun can go hand in hand, was richly deserved in 1894. The effects of such a success surely outlived the closing ceremonies of the exposition. And, in the longer view of San Francisco's history, the phenomenal spirit and energy which produced an international exposition in slightly more than seven months, are revealing harbingers of the remarkable way in which the city would reconstruct itself in the wake of the cataclysm that befell it a mere twelve years later in 1906.