Midwinter Fair: California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894

The California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, referred to as the “Midwinter Fair,” was a World’s Fair, like the U.K.’s Great Exhibition or Paris’ Exposition Universelle. The Midwinter Fair came about after U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, grandson to the ninth U.S. President, William Henry Harrison, appointed Californian Michael H. de Young as a national commissioner to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. De Young realized that the depression California was suffering from could be alleviated by a Midwinter Fair because it would stimulate California’s economy. He therefore suggested it be held, Congress liked the idea, and it was approved in August of 1893.

Michael H. de Young. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most Californians loved the idea of a Midwinter Fair and many newspapers touted the benefits that Californians would reap. For instance, the Hanford Review stated, “The advantages that California will derive from the Midwinter Fair are too many to manifold to express in a few words.”[1] The Daily Evening Record likewise noted, “The benefits … by the Golden State … are a thousand fold.”[2] The Daily Californian agreed stating, “The benefits to be derived by California … are, in my opinion, so patent that even the wayfaring man, though he be a blanket-packer, can understand them.”[3]

Despite the popularity for a Midwinter Fair there were still some people who criticized the idea. Harper’s Weekly, an American political illustrated magazine that featured reports on foreign and domestic news, fiction, and essays on a variety subjects, reported in December 1893 on why some people were opposed to the idea:

“Many persons in many parts of the country are laughing at San Francisco for undertaking an international exposition at this particular time. … The scoffers urge that, having just closed the gates of the greatest exposition in the world [the Chicago World’s Fair] … people of this country are weary of such shows, and must have at least a decade of rest before undertaking another. They claim that San Francisco is too far away, that the financial situation is too bad, that times are too hard, that a great fair cannot possible be got ready in the few months allotted to preparation, etc., etc.”[4]

Despite the criticism, there were many advantages to holding the exposition in California. One clear advantage was that the state’s winters were mild. San Francisco also had a swift running cable-car system that ran to parks and ferries and connected with trains, thereby making travel within the city easy for fair attendees. Another advantage was that the city was touted as  “romantic,” meaning “whether the approaching traveller be an American or a foreigner, he cannot enter the Golden Gate or swoop down from the towering Sierras toward this home of the Argonauts without feeling the same anticipatory thrill that heralds his approach to the most famous cities of the Old World.”[5]

California’s Midwinter Fair opened in 1894 in San Francisco and operated from 27 January to 5 July. It was held in San Francisco’s most famous park, Golden Gate Park, which was described in the following manner:

“Golden Gate Park, the scenes of the Midwinter International Exposition, lies on the western side of the city, beyond the outer terrace of hills. … The Park is an oblong tract of land fronting on the ocean beach for a distance of one half miles, and reaching eastward into the heart of the city at Stanyan Street – a distance of three miles. It embraces 1013 acres of land … It is charmingly located. The broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean spreads out to the westward. South and east it is hemmed in by an amphitheatre of hills.”[6]

Midwinter Fair

Buying tickets for the Midwinter Fair. Author’s collection.

The park had been established in the 1860s and developed by a field engineer named William Hammond Hall, who prepared a survey and topographic map of the park site in 1870. He also had an assistant. His name was John McLaren and he had apprenticed in Scotland. He thought of the park as a natural escape within the city and when asked by the Park Commission if he could make Golden Gate Park one of the most beautiful spots in the world, McLaren replied, “With your aid gentleman, and God be willing, that I shall do.”[7]

Although McLaren might have been supportive of creating Golden Gate Park, he was not supportive of holding the Midwinter Fair there. He objected and argued that the damages caused from such an event might never be reversed. However, whatever concerns and objections McLaren had commissioners overruled and the “Midwinter Fair … opened … after a total expenditure of $147.00.”[8]

The idea for the fair proved so popular that 4,400 exhibitors committed to move from Chicago to San Francisco to support the fair. The public also supported the idea and donated various amounts resulting in the fair beginning and ending without debt. In fact, no federal, state, or local bonds, loans, grants, or subsidies were needed. Public donations completely financed the fair resulting in “the various campaigns [having] raised $344,319.59, including $2.74 donated by the city’s newsboys.”[9]

The Midwinter Fair was a massive undertaking that included numerous buildings. Besides the Administration Building that housed the fair’s department heads and was so bright from the incandescent lamps that it could be seen miles away, there were also the Agriculture and Horticulture Building, Fine Arts Building (now the de Young Museum), Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, and Mechanical Arts Building. In addition, there was also another building that became the largest source of income for the Midwinter Fair; It was the Bonet Tower, designed by the French architect Leopold Bonet, for who it was named.

Midwinter Fair Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building. Author’s collection.

Bonet Tower was a large steel tower modeled on the famous Eiffel Tower, constructed from 1887 to 1889 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. A third of the size of the Eiffel Tower, Bonet Tower stood 266 feet high. Like the Administration Building it was brightly lit having been decked out with 3,200 multicolored lights. The top level also housed a spotlight that illuminated popular locations throughout the park, as well as the nearby Lone Mountain, a historic hill in San Francisco. Elevator rides to the first floor cost 10 cents and to go to the top riders paid 25 cents each. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the tower stating:

“Conspicuous above all else at the Midwinter Fair is the tall, slender structure that springs from the center of the Grand Court – the electric tower. At night, with its thousands of gleaming, twinkling lamps, and with the restless search light’s beam flashing through the darkness from its top, the tower is the first thing to catch and hold the visitor’s attention. By day it is hardly less noticeable. … The elevator that carries visitors up to see the view is electric; so are the countless lights and the big search light that crowns the top.”[10]

Image of Bonet Tower at the Midwinter Fair. Author’s collection.

Although visitors to the Midwinter Fair could not ride the Ferris Wheel, there were four amusement rides they could enjoy. There was a roller-coaster that allowed riders to see the entire Fair and the surrounding area. Another ride was the Firth Wheel, initially referred to as vertical merry-go-round and a replication of the one that appeared at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also called the Chicago World’s Fair. A third ride was Dante’s Inferno described by the Los Angeles Herald in the following manner:

“Dante’s Inferno … has already begun to be spoken of about town as ‘Hell on earth.’ … the character of the entrance to the building containing the exhibit is one that will attract inevitable attention. A great dragon’s head, 15 feet in height, with bat-like wings protruding from either side, stems to crouch against the ground and grin a welcome to the passing crowds. The bat-like wings, and entire front in fact, are gilded to look like burnished gold, and, when the sun is reflected from it, it presents a brilliant … exterior as one can easily imagine. Out of the center of the lower part of this figure-head, so to speak, projects a long, red tongue of the dragon, and … those who care to venture in must step and walk between the teeth of the dragon’s lower jaw into the very body of the beast.”[11]

Midwinter Fair - Firth Wheel

Firth Wheel. Author’s collection.

Despite Dante’s Inferno being a ride from hell, perhaps the most hair-raising of the rides at the Midwinter Fair was the Haunted Swing. People who rode it talked about it long after. It cost 10 cents and supposedly caused people to feel as if they were spinning but they never left a stationary position as the room in which they sat spun on an axis, creating the illusion. It was also reported that “a visit … makes people feel as they describe it like ‘Nothing,’ in other words like that which could not be resolved in substance. It is a revolving room, yet the visitors fancy it is a swing that moves, and are ready to take oaths that they had been standing on their heads.”[12]

Besides the amusement rides there were several popular exhibits. For instance, there was Daniel Boone’s Wild Animal Show. Curiosity seekers went to see this wild animal show that was centered around and named after the lion trainer Daniel Boone (not the Daniel Boone of frontier fame). This exhibit was also the site of one of the most provocative events that happened at the Midwinter Fair. It happened in April when Boone was planning to have his fiercest and biggest lion named Parnell fight against a grizzly bear named Siskiyou. Thousands went to see this fight only to discover that police were there.

“Eventually about 2 P.M., when Boone promised Chief Crowley that the bear and lion fight would not take place under any circumstances, the police contingent was withdrawn and the show began.”[13]

Boone’s show was also the site of a terrible accident during the Midwinter Fair. Carlo Thieman was an attendant in the lion exhibit. One night in February as Boone’s show was in progress, Thieman was in the lions’ cage and attending to them. Suddenly the electric lights went out and everyone was in the dark, including Thieman. This was unusual as normally lit lanterns were nearby to deter the lions from attacking in the dark, but for some unknown reason the lanterns were not there that evening. The audience heard Thieman’s screams and calls for help. Boone tried to enter the cage, but the door was stuck and by the time he got into the cage and hit the lions with a metal bar to force them back, a grisly scene ensued when the lights came on.

Midwinter Fair - Daniel Boone with one of his lions

Daniel Boone with one of his lions. Author’s collection.

Thieman had been scalped and scratched all over but luckily his vital organs had been missed. He was rushed to the hospital still breathing and conscious. He reported that Parnell attacked first and that the two other lions – Romeo and Commodore – then followed. Unfortunately, Thieman’s injuries were too massive and he died on 14 February 1894, just like Massarti the lion tamer who died in 1872 after his lions attacked him.

During the Midwinter Fair, perhaps the most unique and most interesting of the exhibits at the Midwinter Fair was the Mining Camp.

“The ‘49 Mining Camp was an inspiration conceived in the brains of three newspaper men of San Francisco … who thought they saw an element of novelty in the proposition … To carry out their purpose, and with the aid of a California of wealth as their backer, they ransacked the State for interesting relics of the days of ‘49, the result being a collection which would make a historical society turn green with envy. For example, there are on the grounds of this camp two old-time mining cabins, one of which occupied forty-two years ago in Sierra County by John W. Mackay, the Bonanza King [of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City where Mark Twain also resided for a time] … and the other occupied by the United States Senator George C. Perkins nearly forty years ago, he like Mackay, being his own architect and builder. The original James W. Marshall cabin at Colma … is the property of the State, and could not be obtained … but it has been repeated in facsimile, and contains many original relics of the man who found the first California nugget. Among these are his level, surveying tripod, bedstead, chair, bootjack, and other household furniture and implements – all of the crudest sort – and his pan, bucket, and rocker, which he used in his search for gold. The original nugget is also on exhibition in the Marshall cabin.”[14]

The Mining Camp was on the northern slope of Strawberry Hill, located in the center of Golden Gate Park. Visitors were supposed to be able to reminisce about the “good old days” and observe life before immigrants or industrialization happened. Therefore, the slogan of the mining camp was “The days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49,” which was based on a popular song of the times, “The Days of ’49.” Some people have claimed that the exhibit whitewashed history by excluding minorities, such as the Chinese and African Americans.

To make the mining camp as realistic as possible, the San Francisco Examiner reported:

“[T]he ground is ‘salted’ every day with a metal which resembles gold … Then the bronzed and bearded miners turn out, with pan and rocker, and wash out the gold, exactly as they did in the days of primitive mining … Water for mining operations is supplied from a flume some three hundred feet in length, and the whole process of placer mining is carried on exactly and literally as it was forty odd years ago, except that the digging and washing do not process the element of uncertainty which discouraged so many pioneer miners. The gold mined in the ‘49 camp is put into buckskin bags, and distributed among visitors as souvenirs of their visit. Of course the rude cooking operations of the early miners are illustrated thoroughly, and the Mining Camp store, with its scanty stock of necessaries and few luxuries, is open for business every day.”[15]

Midwinter Fair scene

Midwinter Fair scene. Author’s collection.

One of the most unique sellers at the Midwinter Fair were gum girls, young women who walked around the fair selling chewing gum. They received a percentage of all their sales. In addition, every time they made a sale, they whistled “Two Little Girls in Blue,” a music hall waltz song, and because they sold gum so frequently, visitors also whistled the song all over the park. To ensure the girls were safe from unwanted attention, they also traveled in pairs. The San Francisco Examiner provided a description of the unique gum girls:

“These girls made their appearance on the opening day, but nobody thought they had come to stay. People imagined that the gum girls were special features to make the opening unique and auspicious, but this was too good to be true. … The prevailing type of gum girl ranges in age from 25 to 40. Most of them are stout, with faces creased from experience. None of them are refined … They wear navy-blue skirts which come just below the knee and display rounded calves encased in black stockings. Low tan shoes complete their foot gear. This interesting costume is rounded out by a starched linen shirt with a dark blue blazer and blue cravat. All of them wear short curled hair and blue yachting caps. The never wear gloves, but their hands are protected from the wind by quantities of rings. From their necks boxes of gum are strung by means of a strap. The boxes are always open and the gum girl is always patronizing her own wares. With wagging jaws and a stereotyped smile she gazes at each passer-by and invites almost every man to purchase.”[16]

Gum girls also created a lot of controversy. Women were particularly upset that these girls flirted with their men. Nonetheless that did not stop the San Francisco Examiner from advising men to do just that when they encountered them at the fair. There was also the question of the gum girls’ dresses revealing their ankles because their dresses were so short.

Besides the amusement rides, Boone’s show, the Mining Camp, and gum girls there were numerous ethnological exhibits at the Midwinter Fair. These included the Dahomeyan Village from the French Congo, a Hawaiian Village, an Eskimo Village, an Arizona Indian Village, the Sioux Indian Village, a German Village, a Samoan Village, and an Oriental Village that featured Turkish, Greek, Algerian, and Egyptian cultures.

These ethnological exhibits sparked controversy, just like they had at the World’s Columbian Exposition. That was because the ethnic groups represented complained that the exhibits were stereotypical and racist. Frederick Douglass, an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, and Ida B. Wells, an American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement, were the African American spoke persons for World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. They were highly unhappy about what they saw:

“[They] were doubly incensed that while black Americans were deliberately denied any meaningful presence at the World’s Columbian Exposition, ‘African savages were brought … to act like the monkey … As if to shame the Negro,’ Douglass wrote, ‘the Dahomeyans are also here to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage.’”[17] 

Scene at the Midwinter Fair. Author’s collection.

Although Douglass and Wells complained perhaps the most racist of the ethnological exhibits was Marsh’s Japanese Village and Tea Garden. To make it authentic George Turner Marsh, an Australian businessman interested in Japanese culture, wanted Japanese men pulling rickshaws but Japanese-Americans were offended and so instead he darkened the faces of German men and dressed them in Oriental clothes.

The exhibit that Marsh produced became a combined effort in that the Japanese government transferred a large portion of the Chicago exhibit to San Francisco, although Marsh organized and funded it. As the village was being built the San Francisco Examiner reported:

“The gateway is to be called a Shuro-no-mon, or castle gateway, consisting of a pillard structure by a graceful characteristic Japanese roof of porcelain tiles. In the gateway will be hung the massive gates which Mr. Marsh has had for some time … in Mill Valley. These can be taken apart and joined again at will. … There is not a nail used. On either side of the higher part of the gateway will be two lower wings, so that the entrance, taken as a whole, will present quite a palatial appearance.

The gardens within these gates will be studded with small structures in strictly Japanese style. Here too will be lakes and fountains and pretty semi-circular bridges, pagodas and temples and summer houses. Amid all these … will move dainty Japanese girls serving tea and other delicacies. There will be Japanese lanterns in porcelain and metal and paper, a brilliant illumination every night, and in the midst of it all dancing by Japanese women and juggling and necromancy. It will be a scene of Japanese enjoyment in which the traveler can find now flaw.”[18]

All in all, the Midwinter Fair proved to be a success when it concluded. It was also somewhat of a success for McLaren in that he took revenge for what had been done to his park. Management had agreed to restore the park grounds but then did not follow through with their promises. He then had most of the structures torn down, and, in fact, he leveled Bonet Tower with explosives. A few buildings were spared like the Fine Arts Building, which is now the de Young Museum. Marsh’s Japanese Village and some of the statues and parts of the Court of Honor also still exist in the park. In addition, Mayor Adolph Sutro saved some attractions, including the Firth Wheel and Dante’s Inferno, which were then relocated to the Sutro Baths that opened in 1896.

John McLaren statue in Golden Gate Park. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] The San Francisco Examiner, “On the Benefits to the State from the Exposition,” January 29, 1894, p. 49.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Harper’s Weekly, Library of American civilization (1893), p. 1181.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] T. Evans, All About the Midwinter Fair: San Francisco, and Interesting Facts Concerning California (San Francisco: W.B. Bancroft & Company, 1894), p. 57.
  • [7] J. P. Dutton, Exploring America’s Gardens (New York: Secker & Warburg, 1959), p. 165.
  • [8] K. Wilson, Golden Gate: The Park of a Thousand Vistas (XX: Caxton Printers, 1947), p. 54.
  • [9] W. Lipsky, San Francisco’s Midwinter Exposition (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p. 8.
  • [10] San Francisco Chronicle, “The Tower of Light,” March 25, 1894, p. 5.
  • [11] Los Angeles Herald, “The Midwinter Fair Show,” December 12, 1893, p. 5.
  • [12] The Iola Register, “The Mid-Winter Fair,” July 27, 1894, p. 8.
  • [13] San Francisco Call, “Police On Guard,” April 30, 1894, p. 3.
  • [14] Harper’s Weekly (New York: Harper’s Magazine Company, 1894), p. 185.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 186.
  • [16] The San Francisco Examiner, “An Eastern Description of Our Gum Girls,” April 4, 1894, p. 6.
  • [17] C. M. Hinsley and D. R. Wilcox, Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), p. 63.
  • [18] The San Francisco Examiner, “Fair Pictures from Japan,” September 8, 1893, p. 5.

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