by Elizabeth Logan

Californians plant a world in 1915

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

In June 1914, Golden Gate Park Supervisor John McLaren and his team of landscape engineers placed an enormous order: 7,000 rhododendrons, 200,000 daffodil bulbs, 158,000 tulips, 45,000 anemones, 23,000 ranunculus, and 15,000 hyacinths.1 Those flowers and the thousands more they would order over the following eighth months were needed to meet an audacious goal: to re-create the entire world within the grounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that would open in February 1915. They aimed to construct “a microcosm so nearly complete that if all the world were destroyed except the 635 acres of land within the Exposition gates, the material basis of the life of today could have been reproduced” from the examples. California’s soil and climate would provide the connective tissue.2

The project was a rousing success. Between the blooms McLaren and his team nurtured and the other gardens and exhibits on site, flowers and plant life defined the experience of the exposition for many; after the fair, novelist and lecturer Peter Clark MacFarlane of New York City reflected on his visit: “The Exposition was a perfect flower.”

Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

To re-create the world in microcosm on the exposition grounds was ambitious enough—and it eerily prefigures some of today’s efforts to protect samples of seeds and DNA in case the “life of today” on Earth should need to be reproduced. But fair planners had another message they wanted to convey to visitors, through plants and flowers, about San Francisco’s changing place in the United States and the world. The fair strived to put The City at the center of it all.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 had greatly expanded the imperial and territorial ambitions of the United States of America, making Californians middle-westerners at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, part of an empire stretching from Maine to Manila. San Francisco’s political leaders understood early on that a world’s fair would give them an opportunity to reposition their city from an outpost at the end of the continent to a place central to the nation’s interests.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In January 1904, department store tycoon Reuben B. Hale wrote in a letter to potential investors in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go West, young man’; but when he goes west from San Francisco he goes east. It is the beginning of the east, and the ending of the west. We are the center around which trade revolves between the United States and all European countries that are looking for trade with the Orient and other Pacific Ocean points.”3

It sounds like something Lewis Carroll might have written: west was east and east was west. But redefining space was key to the fair. Six years later in an article promoting San Francisco as the host city for the exposition, Rufus M. Steele concluded: “San Francisco is remote only to that American whose consciousness has failed to keep pace with the expansion of his country. Measured laterally, the United States presents five capital cities marking the westward course along which empire has taken its way. They are New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, Manila.” Continuing his pitch, he teased, the “city’s blood is red, its heart clean, its hospitality as rich and undiscriminating as the breath of its flowers.”4

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Much has been written about the exposition as a showcase for San Francisco’s recovery from the great earthquake and fires of 1906, and as an opportunity to promote trade in the wake of the opening of the Panama Canal. Less well-studied are the messages that fair planners hoped to convey to the millions of visitors who strolled the grounds. The physical embodiment of those goals could be found on the grounds and among the floral exhibits, which conveyed subtle arguments about the nature of California and its new place in the wider world. Their success was mixed; reading fairgoers’ descriptions of their experiences—of the exposition more broadly and the grounds specifically—the limitations and unintended consequences of the planners’ visions are as apparent as their triumphs.

Using flowers to represent California as a refined part of the Euro-American world was old hat by 1915. From their beginnings in the 1850s to their establishment as fixtures in the societal and intellectual life of San Francisco in the early twentieth century, flower shows in San Francisco attempted to provide the same enriching experience that visitors enjoyed in refined cities across the continent and in Europe. San Francisco’s flowers were pleasing in their own right, but they were also always compelled to convey the superiority of California’s climate and soil, which promised exciting possibilities for growing non-European plants such as cacti and tropical plants, some of which were often not native to California either. Flowers were at once decoration, commodity, and symbol through which local, national, and imperial meanings were created and conveyed, although not always internalized.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Even though they sometimes used language that positioned themselves as “westerners,” San Francisco floriculturists more often demanded that the state—and more specifically their city—be seen as not west of center, but as the center of an inclusive whole defined in reference to Chicago and New York, but also to England and Europe, as well as China and Japan. San Francisco was the middle point in the US empire. Sometimes the language ventured into hyperbolic space as San Franciscans announced, “Hong Kong or Manila or Yokohama seem nearer to us than Chicago or St. Louis.”5 Sometimes the dialogues forecasted tensions between northern and southern California, as when a business in 1913 remarked, “Los Angeles is western…we are not. We are ‘the Coast.'”6

These notions of California’s abundance and of San Francisco as the emerging center of the American Empire were central to the fair planners’ vision—and they said it with flowers. The organizers recognized the importance of horticulture and floriculture to the success of the exposition, even though the business leaders backing the endeavor were not particularly interested in the commercial growing of flowers. The Panama Pacific was the first international exposition to create a separate and independent department of horticulture. Chief of the Horticultural Department G.A. Dennison and Chief Landscape Engineer John McLaren worked together to landscape the fair focusing not only on fruits and flowers but the methods and tools for their successful culture.7

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

These messages about California’s role come to life in three settings at the fair: McLaren’s expansive grounds, Carl Purdy’s California Garden, and Dennison’s exhibits for the department of horticulture. Taken together they paint a picture of San Francisco, and California more broadly, as a place that was emerging from a European past into a more worldly future.

John McLaren was hired as landscape engineer for the exposition in February 1912 and tasked with gardening twenty-six separate areas, landscaping more than seventy-three acres, with a budget of $620,784 (approximately $14 million in current dollars).8 Portraying the nature of California, it turned out, required a significant investment of money and labor. The mammoth undertaking required gardeners to transform dunes, swamps, and wetlands into verdant, natural-appearing landscapes.9 Thirty thousand cubic yards of fertilizer and fifty-five thousand cubic yards of loam were brought in to prepare the ground. McLaren’s team turned swamp into land, displacing water by pumping up mud from the floor of the San Francisco Bay and depositing eighteen inches of soil over the filled in bayshore.10

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Once this new land was complete, McLaren tackled plans for diversifying the scene. He and his team brought in seeds and bulbs from Japan, Holland, Belgium, and England to supplement thousands of blooms bought from local growers.11 While the Panama-Pacific International Exposition welcomed the world, fair planners had to ensure that foreign exhibitors did not put California’s horticultural interests and growing industries at risk. Plants began arriving from abroad in October 1913, more than a year before the official opening of the fair. To ensure no import threatened California’s plants and industries, state inspectors built an inspection shed and fumigating room and demanded all foreign horticultural materials pass through it. Non-offending plants received a certificate. Japan and the Netherlands earned unofficial prizes for sending the cleanest specimens. Every Japanese sample passed inspection, as did all but one from the Netherlands.12

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

McLaren and his team prepared by growing flowers and “bedding plants” in greenhouses years in advance of the exposition.13 Just a month after he was hired, McLaren began collecting and nurturing seedlings, and set up a temporary nursery in Golden Gate Park. A permanent one followed in November of 1912 in the Presidio, with six greenhouses and thousands of flats of seedlings transplanted from Golden Gate Park.14 McLaren “rehearsed the whole floral scheme” for three seasons before the exposition opened. Day by day, he “knew the time that would elapse between the planting and blooming of any flower he planned to use.”15

The fairgrounds, under McLaren’s supervision, showcased San Francisco’s ability to nurture abundant flowers from every corner of the world, demonstrating the city was at the center of the map. The Court of Flowers featured fifty thousand yellow pansies, and the same number of red anemones, red tulips, and red begonias.16 The South Garden re-created “a formal French garden.”17 Moving past yellow-themed blossoms, visitors encountered twenty thousand pink begonias “blended” into a floricultural “old-rose carpet around the Fountain of Energy.”18 Orchids, lilies, and bulb begonias surrounded the Palace of Horticulture, as well as alternating beds of plants and ponds, including a Japanese garden.19

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

State and regional gardens represented the varied flora of the United States. The Massachusetts Garden captured the colonial era with carnations and gladioli from B. Hammond Tracey one of the “most noted gladioli growers in America.” The Eastern Garden featured roses from Rhode Island and Maryland, heliotropes “of exquisite color and rich fragrance” from New Jersey, and irises and peonies from Pennsylvania.20

Although McLaren and his team worked on the grounds and conveyed the worldliness of San Francisco and the fecundity of its soil, the task of designing the California Garden fell to Carl Purdy, who was widely known for his work on the domestication of California wildflowers.21 Purdy’s vision for the garden was supported by California nurserymen, including noted plant geneticist Luther Burbank, who pitched in to fill the space and draw attention to their stock and seed catalogs.22

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The California Garden was nestled inside a cypress hedge surrounding the California Building, designed to mirror the Forbidden Garden in Mission Santa Barbara. Donald McLaren, John McLaren’s son and assistant, explained: “the scheme of the California Building’s exterior and the California Garden together is to epitomize the State as she is known in art and nature. Mission architecture and native flora join in unity of purpose.”23

Here some of the mixed messages of the fair’s landscape conflicted. Fair planners wanted to promote San Francisco as the center of a new empire, yet they fell back on well-worn depictions of the state as a regional, Spanish-mission style folkloric outpost. In an era dominated by Helen Hunt Jackson’s romantic novel Ramona, Charles Lummis’s efforts to “save” the missions, and San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, it is not surprising that the California Garden leaned on California’s Spanish past. But while McLaren’s grounds sought to demonstrate the richness of California’s climate and ability to support all of the world’s plants and by extension California’s global commercial ambitions, Purdy’s garden offered a nostalgic refuge in a romantic version of California’s past.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Then there were the flowers and plants in the first ever Department of Horticulture at a world’s fair. Chief of Horticulture for the Exposition, G.A. Dennison was a didact, and he wanted his exhibits “to appeal with equal interest” to five target audiences. The tourist needed to see “the pride and glory of the soil” from every corner of the world. The visitor must be “entertained by the beauty and novel wonder of all that is before him.” The student should find “an unequaled opportunity to increase his store of knowledge of all points pertaining to the horticulture of the earth.” The businessman could find every item so perfectly arranged that he could make an order before even leaving the display, and the investor might “discover, through actual living evidence, the productive possibilities of soil from almost every section of the earth.” To show off its wares, the Department of Horticulture built a massive conservatory, with a central dome larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Contributions from more than fourteen nations and twenty-three states were packed inside.24

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

So visitors to the fair walked the grounds and took in Dennison, Purdy, and McLaren’s efforts to capture the world and harness the power of flowers to entertain, educate, and inspire, just as they had planned. What was not in the plans was that the fair would open in the early months of World War I. Yet even the war and hopes for peace were reflected in the exposition’s horticulture. In showcasing how California fit into the world, fair planners created a place that visitors might imagine as an ideal, peaceful, harmonious, and diverse world revolving around San Francisco.

After the exposition’s gates closed for the last time, a committee gathered and preserved some of the many letters received from visitors. It is a curated, or even biased, sample. The committee seems to have chosen to preserve many of the letters based on the relative importance of the writers. Nevertheless, this archive allows us to gauge some of the public reactions to the exposition. Overall, the letters reveal that while the message that California was now at the center of the world resonated with many visitors, the dark shadow of World War I loomed over the fair. The letters are dominated by a desire for peace, and recognized the fair as a space where the world was drawn together for a spell.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Some letters point out the value of the exposition for promoting education, industry, peace, and even the “high ideals” that might be found in plants and flowers, at least metaphorically. T. Morey Hodgman, the President of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, noted, “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition is the handmaid of civilization, of which the perfect flower is industry and peace.”25 C.A. Tonnenson, the Secretary of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen of Tacoma, Washington, wrote: “Not only was there every opportunity to learn about plants and flowers and their appropriate settings, but there were featured high ideals through this work of landscape art which cannot fail to benefit those who were fortunate enough to visit and see the Exposition, and through their influence future generations will be uplifted by these emblems of purity and truth which can only be portrayed in plant life.”26

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Efforts to define California’s role within a newly expanded US empire blended with the rhetoric of peace. Lyman Abbott, editor-in-chief of New York City’s The Outlook concluded: “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition has not only testified to the unity of America, but it has served to bring to the national consciousness the truth not yet adequately realized, that the Pacific Coast with its western outlook is as important as the Atlantic Coast with its eastern outlook, and that it is as essential to the interests of America and to establish and maintain friendly relations with Japan, China and India toward the west as with the European nations toward the east.”27

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

When writer Peter Clark MacFarlane described the fair as a “perfect flower,” he added that its “fragrance lingers.” The exposition “helped the world to become acquainted with itself,” he wrote. “It was a revelation of the spirit and genius of many tribes and nations, a lesson in the brotherhood—in the essential neighborliness—of all mankind, which none who saw it, or from afar felt it, can forget.” Although the exhibition had closed, it “passed only out of the gates in order to make the whole world into an exposition of the things for which that institution stood and which it has inspired.” The fair’s “material features,” he wrote, “are buried like seeds, to sprout again—the seeds of this perfect flower—in every country in the world, to grow up in the lives of men, in better houses, better governments, better industry, better art, better life, better ambitions, better everything.”28

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

MacFarlane captured the universalism of the exhibitions in his florid metaphor. He conjured notions of seeding ideas, sprouting opportunities, and hopeful possibilities for superior regrowth in every aspect of life from politics to commerce to culture. He did not see California as poised at the Pacific edge of the United States ready to capitalize on commercial interests, as the planners probably would have appreciated, but he did see the exposition as a space that contained a world at peace and then pushed that metaphor out into a larger world of “essential neighborliness.” Perhaps MacFarlane and other visitors lost themselves in the world of the fairgrounds, imagining the possibility that the exposition was the world. But the neighborliness he articulated was the representation of human relations that the fair’s landscapers and gardeners consciously created and many living in the turbulent world of 1915 desperately craved.

In the years following the exposition, California lost its place as the center of a vast transpacific American empire, and the century that followed was not scented with the fragrance of peace, as the more optimistic fair visitors had hoped. But McLaren and the exposition planners’ vision of California as a place neither exclusively Eastern nor Western, and well suited to support all manner of diverse living things persists.


Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

For title quote see, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, “The Lotus and the Rose,” Sunset Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 6 (Jun., 1914), 1288. Seed catalog images courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and California Historical Society.

1. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, vol. 2 (New York: Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company, 1921), 339.

2. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 28, 30; John Brisben Walker, “The 1915 Exposition and Education: The Subjects Submitted for Consideration by Educational Congresses During the Panama-Pacific Universal Exposition,” Sunset Magazine 28: no. 6 (June 1912), 751–758.

3. R.B. Hale, Letter to the Directors of the Merchants’ Association from 12 January 1904, reprinted in Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921), 35–37. See also, Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

4. Rufus M. Steele, “San Francisco the Exposition City,” Sunset Magazine 25: no. 6 (December 1910), 607–620, 608–609, 620.

5. As quoted in Carl Abbott, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 73.

6. As quoted from Edward Hungerford, The Personality of American Cities (New York: McBride, Nast and Co., 1913), 295 in Abbott, How Cities Won the West, 73. See also, Charles Sedgwick Aiken, ed., California To Day: San Francisco Its Metropolis (San Francisco: The California Promotion Committee, 1903).

7. The Blue Book: A Comprehensive Official Souvenir View Book of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco 1915 (San Francisco: Robert A. Reid, 1915), 12. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 110. See also, George A. Dennison, Chief of Horticulture of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, “Horticulture,” California’s Magazine, 1: no. 1, E.J. Wickson, ed. (San Francisco: California Publishers Co-operative Association, 1915), 337–340, 337.

8. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 307–8.

9. Donald McLaren, “Landscape Gardening,” California’s Magazine 1: no.1, E.J. Wickson, ed. (San Francisco: California Publishers Co-operative Association, 1915), 345–348, 345.

10. Arthur Z. Bradley, “Exposition Gardens: How Landscape Architects at California’s Two Exhibitions Have Kept Pace with Planners of Palaces, Designers of Sculpture and Wizards of Imagination,” Sunset Magazine 34: no. 4 (April 1915), 665–679, 668.

11. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. I, 308, 339.

12. Frederick Maskew, “The Work of the Quarantine Division in Connection with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” The Monthly Bulletin of the California State Commission of Horticulture 4: no. 8 (August 1915), 351–360.

13. Lela Angier Lenfest, “Interesting Westerners: The Landscape Gardener of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915,” Sunset Magazine 31: no. 6 (December 1913), 1,215–1,217.

14. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 308–9. Maud Wotring Raymond, The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful of the Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1915), 6–7.

15. Ben Macomber, The Jewel City, Its Planning and Achievement; Its Architecture, Sculpture, Symbolism, and Music; Its Gardens, Palaces, and Exhibits (San Francisco: John H. Williams, 1915), 20. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 308. Bradley, “Exposition Gardens,” 665.

16. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2, 340. See also Macomber, The Jewel City, Its Planning and Achievement, 78; and the fictional account in Elizabeth Gordon, What We Saw at Madame World’s Fair: Being a Series of Letters from the Twins at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to Their Cousins at Home (San Francisco: Samuel Levinson, 1915), 54.

17. The Blue Book, 24, 132. See also, Raymond, The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful of the Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 18.

18. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2, 340.

19. The Blue Book, 20.

20. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 339.

21. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 4, 314. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 338.

22. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 4, 314. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 338.

23. McLaren, “Landscape Gardening,” 348.

24. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340. Official Catalogue of Exhibitors, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915 (San Francisco: The Wahlgreen Company, 1915), 11–28.

25. James A. Barr and Joseph M. Cumming, The Legacy of the Exposition, Interpretations of the Intellectual and Moral Heritage Left to Mankind by the World Celebration at San Francisco in 1915 (San Francisco: 1916), 87.

26. Ibid., 165.

27. Ibid., 4.

28. Ibid., 119.

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