Post offices and exhibitions go hand in hand. Imagine a World’s Fair and Exposition that covered 635 acres, much of it sitting on land
that once was covered with water. That is what happened 100 years ago in San Francisco, when the city built the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). This event took place in what is now San Francisco’s Marina District, a stately neighborhood with elegant homes and thriving businesses, popular with singles, young families and seniors, to celebrate both the completion of the Panama Canal and the city’s recovery from the great earthquake and fire of 1906.
Many grand though temporary buildings were constructed for the 1915 PPIE, but today little remains of that giant world’s fair. The Palace of Fine Arts is one remaining structure, rebuilt in 1965; it was seismically retrofitted in 2009, and the adjacent lagoon was restored. Gone, however, is the Tower of Jewels, perhaps the most striking of the buildings, as well as the great halls that highlighted the latest technologies, including the Machinery Palace, Agriculture Palace, a model of the Panama Canal, the Manufacturing Palace, the Mines and Metallurgy Palace, and many others.
The Model Post Office, which encompassed 11,000 square feet in the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy,showcased the most modern mail sorting systems, but also “served all of the workers, concessionaires, and exhibitors in the Exposition grounds, and made deliveries to people living in that part of the city,” according to Frank Morton Todd’s exhaustive, 5-volume history, The Story of the Exposition. The facility sorted and delivered mail, sold stamps, delivered parcels, and offered 500 lock boxes, with mail collected on the grounds eight times daily.
An open gallery at the Model Post Office allowed visitors to view the journey of the mail, including multiple conveyor belts and sorters. A post card mailed at this location was available at General Delivery at the exposition within three minutes. Postal collection boxes were also scattered throughout the PPIE, including one depicting a giant mailbox in the “Irish Village,” as well as a model railway post office located in the Transportation Palace.
The U.S. Post Office issued a set of four commemorative stamps with “designs depicting a profile of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1¢), the Pedro Miguel Locks of the Panama Canal (2¢), the Golden Gate (5¢), and the discovery of San Francisco Bay (10¢). The stamps were first put on sale in 1913, to promote the coming event …. and then reissued in 1914 and 1915.” Letters and cards mailed at the Fair had the special postal cancellation. As noted in Laura Ackley’s San Francisco’s Jewel City, the San Francisco Call newspaper headlined: “The Whole Country Can Lick Us Now!”
For lovers of post cards, the PPIE offered hundreds of choices. From the Palace of Fine Arts to the international villages, the Tower of Jewels and more, there was a post card to celebrate every aspect of the exposition. There even were photo studios where one’s portrait would be made into a post card.
San Francisco has been celebrating the centennial of the PPIE in style. Galas, exhibitions, and more have been planned for the centennial. In February 2015, people were invited to hand-write a real, old-fashioned letter, decorate it, receive the commemorative postal cancellation, and mail it! The U.S. Postal Service was on hand to provide the centennial postmark with a special station set up and mail box in the San Francisco Main Library for the day.
To learn more about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, visit the San Francisco Main Library’s Sixth Floor Skylight Gallery between now and December 31. The exhibition Company’s Coming: San Francisco Hosts the Panama Pacific International Exposition, draws on maps, papers, photographs, organizational papers and other archival materials.
Ackley, Laura. San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Heyday, 2015.
Company’s Coming: San Francisco Hosts the Panama Pacific International Exposition. Exhibition: San Francisco Main Library, Skylight Gallery, September 9 – December 31, 2015.
Todd, Frank Morton. The Story of the Exposition, v.5.
Wikipedia, The Panama-Pacific International Exposition
Special thanks to staff at the San Francisco Public Library: Susan Goldstein, Thomas Carey, Ann Carroll and Christina Moretta.