“The Great Balancing Act at Buffalo”

June 8, 1901

Albert Levering

“The Great Balancing Act at Buffalo”

Celebrations, Pan-American Exposition; New York State, Celebrations/Honors; Symbols, Uncle Sam; U.S. Foreign Policy;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Germany; Latin America;

It takes the Yankee nation

To make equilibration.

But every time you turn around

Pop! goes the Kaiser!

(With apologies to the Weasel.)

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Albert Levering presents the Pan-American Exhibition of 1901 as a cooking pan collectively held aloft by happy personifications of Latin American nations.  Symbolically atop the pan is a gigantic Uncle Sam who uses the Monroe Doctrine for stability in his delicate balancing act.  The lighthearted verse (to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel") describes the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II as an unpredictable threat of European intervention in the Western Hemisphere.

Coming in the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898), the Pan-American Exposition occurred at a time when the United States was expanding commercially, politically, and even militarily in Latin America.  Its expressed purpose was to promote the economic interests and purported solidarity of the Western Hemisphere.  The festival was similar to World's Fairs in emphasizing technology, but differed from them in not celebrating a historical event and in the more limited regional origins of the participating countries.  (For comparison of the Pan-American Exhibition with a World's Fair, read about the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.)

Planning for the event began in 1897 with the formation of the Pan-American Exposition Company, but was delayed by the Spanish-American War.  Buffalo, New York, was chosen as the host city, and in July 1898, Congress allocated $500,000 for the project.  In close proximity to the popular tourist attraction of Niagara Falls, Buffalo was easily accessible by railroad and boasted more paved streets (all with electric streetlights) than any other city in the world.  In 1899, Exposition organizers leased 350 acres of farmland a half-hour drive from downtown and began construction of the buildings and landscaping of the grounds.  Opening ceremonies were held on May 1, 1901, and 8 million visitors over six months paid the 50¢ entrance fee (half-price on Sundays).  Daily attendance averaged over 40,000 between August and closing day on November 1, 1901.

The grounds of the Pan-American Exposition were laid out in an inverted T, and were nicknamed "Rainbow City" because of the brightly colored buildings painted by John Ross Key.  A 375-foot-tall electrical tower, topped by a Goddess of Light statue, was powered by Niagara Falls and illuminated the entire area.  Intending the wood-framed buildings to be temporary structures, designers fashioned plaster on chicken wire to resemble stone facades (creating a gooey problem during the rainy summer).  The only exception was the New York State Building, which was built to last in white marble and today houses the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

The United States government erected three buildings housing exhibits from federal departments and agencies, as well as from the new American dependencies of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.  The most popular of the U.S. government exhibits was the Patent Office section, where visitors could see x-rays revealing their skeletons, a telephone switchboard in operation, various types of motion-picture machines, pictures sent by telegraph, electric typewriters, and numerous other contraptions, some of which never gained a mass or niche market.  

The Machinery and Transportation Building housed agricultural machinery, automobiles, bicycles, boats, horse carriages, railroads, and steam engines.  The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building showcased manufactured products from the member nations.  Among the interesting gadgets on display were cash registers, automatic addressing machines, shoe-making machines, gas stoves, decorative fixtures for the formerly austere bathroom, and food-processing and -packaging apparatuses.  The building also contained exhibits on jewelry, glassware, silverware, and textiles.  The Liberal Arts department featured mechanical musical instruments, such as electric organs and player pianos.  Music concerts on holidays of the participating nations were held in the 2200-seat auditorium of the ornate Temple of Music, as were daily recitals of one of the largest pipe organs in the United States.

The Agriculture Building addressed the advances and challenges of scientific and mechanized farming, while the Horticulture Building sheltered an array of flowers and plants from the different nations.  A nearby conservatory housed food-plants, including teas, spices, fruit trees, and a miniature coffee plantation.  The Mines Buildings presented extraction machinery, mineral ores, and metallurgy.  The Ethnology Building concentrated on American Indians artifacts, while paintings and sculptures were found in the Art Building.  Athletic competitions, livestock and automobile exhibitions, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show took place in the Stadium.  Nations and states also had their own buildings.  There were over 40 exhibits in the Midway section, including replicas of an Eskimo village, African village, Japanese village, German city (Nuremberg), Italian city (Venice), Southern (U.S.) plantation, Cleopatra's Temple, and Heaven and Hell, along with a mirror maze, upside-down house, airship to the "moon," and other displays meant to entertain and educate.

The Pan-American Exhibition is best remembered today as the site of the assassination of President William McKinley in September 1901.  For more information on that important event, check back at this site in September 2003.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Great Balancing Act at Buffalo”
December 3, 2023

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