EVER SINCE THE French exposition universelle of 1867, world's fairs had offered visitors a chance to combine education with amusement. Critics of a more sober turn of mind criticized this trend, asserting that the addition of such frolics gave an exposition the vulgar air of a peddler's bazaar or a gypsy carnival. But exposition organizers realized that it was the "Midway," or amusement section, that often spelled the difference between financial success or failure for an entire exposition.
Borrowing heavily from the Parisian and Chicago fairs, the Midwinter Exposition offered a large and diverse amusement zone called the Midway Plaisance. One of the most ingenious of the amusements at the Midwinter Fair was "the Haunted Swing." Twelve to fifteen visitors at a time would pay their admissions, then proceed to their seats on a large swing situated inthe middle of a comfortably furnished parlor. The swing was suspended from a bar which crossed the room below the ceiling. Once settled in their places, visitors looked around at their surroundings and saw familiar objects: chairs, dressers, pictures on the wall, and a lighted kerosene lamp upon a table. Then, little by little, the swing appeared to move back and forth. It described greater and greater arcs until at last the astonished participants appeared to be hanging upside down in the room-yet their hats remained on their heads! Around and around they seemed to go. Many passengers became dizzy, and some even fainted at this point. Finally the swinging ceased, and the giddy visitors reeled from the room. In fact, the swing had remained stationary. The walls and ceiling of the room itself were mounted on a revolving drum with all the furnishings and fixtures cleverly and securely bolted down. The room revolved around the stationary swing; but so complete was the conviction that a room could not revolve, and that a kerosene lamp would spill its contents (it contained no oil: a hidden incandescent light bulb provided the light), no one suspected that the room itself rotated. Even those who came away half ill from the experience had to admit that the "Haunted Swing" was one of the most convincing illusions they had ever encountered.
Many of the exhibits in the Midwinter Fair Midway would be familiar to anyone who has visited an amusement park today. But in a world's fair held a century ago, even the amusements had to be justified with some sense of moral purpose. “Dante's Inferno," one of the central attractions of the Midway, was a house of horrors in the traditional American carnival mode. But to the writers of the San Francisco Wasp, the visitor who passed through the gaping jaws of the dragon at the entranceway would encounter the poetic vision of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri:
No painted imitation decorates the walls, but figures life-size and bearing all the semblance of an immortal part convey to the spectator's mind some idea of what Dante had in mind when describing the torments and horrors of hell. It is a scene at once of terror and sublimity, lost souls writhing in agony, and malicious demons adding to their misery by indescribable aggravations of their torture. To the spectator there comes a fear of the unknown in viewing the scenes enacted here.(15)
We have only to compare the experience of going through a carnival spook house today with the description quoted above to get a sense of contrast between the late nineteenth and the late twentieth century. Underlying the experience of "Dame's Inferno" at the Midwinter Fair was the almost universal belief in the existence of an afterlife, and the prospect of everlasting damnation as the reward for a misspent life. A century later, a comparable funhouse scene is merely a humorous trip through a sleazy world of poor illusions that only barely tug at the primordial fear that such scenes once inspired.
There were other illusions in the Midway that inspired awe of a different kind. The most famous of these tricks was "Roltair's New Illusion of Pharaoh's Daughter," an attraction that astonished everyone who had the good fortune to witness it. Spectators would see an apparently lifeless marble statue become a lovely young lady before their very eyes. The great French magician Robert Houdin originated this illusion, but performed it only in the dimness of gaslit interiors. Roltair's improved version enhanced the vividness of the illusion, and observers often gasped with astonishment as the transformation took place. "The change is incomprehensible," remarked the reporter for the wasp, "and sets all one's ideas of the eternal fitness of things at naught.”(16)
Roltair’s illusion was housed in the Egyptian Hall, one of many such bizarre architectural fantasies at the Midwinter Fair. Close by on the Midway was yet another Egyptian evocation: Cairo Street. The original Cairo Street was a feature both at the Parisian exposition universelle of 1889 and the Columbian Exposition of 1893. For the French, the street provided visitors an opportunity to experience a kinesthetic sense of the Mideast, where they had long been establishing an empire. But for San Franciscans, Cairo Street conjured up visions of the mysterious Near East. Native Egyptians led camels up and down, offered passers-by lemonade from huge tanks strapped to their backs, and beckoned them to enter into a theater to witness Little Egypt's scandalous belly dance. The goal was to surround the visitors with the total ambiance of an Egyptian marketplace. Cairo Street is an important ancestor of the theme park in California.
"Roltair's Illusion of Pharaoh's Daughter," the Egyptian Hall, Cairo Street, the belly dance, the Fine Arts Building — the Midwinter Fair teemed with references to Egypt. What was the attraction of this ancient land for the inhabitants of a Pacific Coast metropolis? Part of the fascination was no more than the familiar Western attitude, compounded of attraction and repulsion, for the strange customs of the non-Christian nations of the world. San Franciscans watching the belly dance could indulge in both voyeurism and a sense of cultural superiority at the same time. Seeing the camels plod up and down the street, led by natives clad in Egyptian dress, visitors stared openly at the spectacle and enjoyed the sheer strangeness of it, while at the same time they could contrast such exotica with the American and European industrial exhibits in the Liberal and Mechanical Arts buildings.
Egyptian culture held other resonances for Europeans and Americans. For them, Egypt at the turn of the nineteenth century was typified by camels, belly dancers and picturesque costumes. In addition, informed San Franciscans knew contemporary Egypt as a harassed country besieged by British, Italian, Turkish, Abyssinian, and French forces, all contending for power. But ancient Egypt carried a universe of mysterious associations. The ancient hieroglyphs, though partially opened to understanding by the finding of the Rosetta Stone, were still incompletely interpreted, and offered translators nothing like the certainty of Greek or Latin texts. As a result, the ancient glory of Egypt was surrounded by tantalizing mystery, redolent of magical and mysterious rites, fabulous treasures, and forgotten lore.
Such exhibits also betrayed a decidedly political agenda at the Midwinter Fair Midway. Ancient Egypt might be a source of mystical wisdom. But modern Egypt was a colony, a once powerful nation now subjected to the colonial ambitions of European nations. The African country of Dahomey (now called Benin) was also represented at the fair -- but presented as the home of savages recently conquered by France. Photographs of the Dahomeans taken at the exposition show the men waving their weapons, while the women sit calmly before the camera with their breasts bare. Black San Franciscans, on the other hand, treated the Dahomeans as envoys from a foreign country, and invited them to local lodges for formal receptions.
Eskimos and Hawaiians were also present-as native inhabitants of America's own burgeoning colonial empire. The Alaskan village featured Eskimos, sled dogs, and imitation igloos fashioned from plaster staff. In 1894 the Alaskan exhibit attracted only moderate attention; had visitors known of the Gold Rush that would invade the Klondike only three years later, more attention might have been paid to the exhibits from Alaska, America's northernmost territory.
The Hawaiian village was far more attractive-in part, no doubt, because of the "Hawaiian dancing girls clad in their peculiar costumes.”(17) Once lured in by the undulating grass skirts, however, the visitor encountered a well designed display showing the history of the native Kamehameha dynasty, bamboo dwellings, war weapons and coffee trees. But the real attraction was the "cyclorama" of the crater of Kilauea, with its realistic simulation of burning lava lakes and surges of steam. At the edge of the simulated crater was a cadre of priests intoning prayers to the god of the volcano, and a choir of native musicians and singers invoking the deity. However, this exhibit too had its political sequel. The first scholarly discussion, as reported in the California MidwinterExposition Illustrated newspaper, was held as part of the Midwinter Fair's cultural program and took place on January 25, 1894, two days before the exposition opened. Its topic: whether or not the United States should annex the Hawaiian Islands.