The birth of modern Seattle

How the 1909 World's Fair, and the 100th anniversary of that fair, have led to a greater understanding of the best and worst of our city. Seattle was built on a foundation of progress, racism, and a carnival of wonders.
Crosscut archive image.

Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, on the UW campus

How the 1909 World's Fair, and the 100th anniversary of that fair, have led to a greater understanding of the best and worst of our city. Seattle was built on a foundation of progress, racism, and a carnival of wonders.

Seattle has wound up a nearly year-long celebration of its first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. Already being planned: the 50th anniversary of the city's second: 1962's Century 21 Exposition in 2012. If expos themselves, at least in America, are considered virtually extinct (the last USA fair was in 1984), is it really worth the time and public funds to maunder over expos past?

The AYP centennial produced books, Web articles, a TV documentary, and shows at various museums (the Burke, MOHAI). It helped to surface artifacts and even old film footage in collections and closets around the state. There were re-enactments of AYP events, including a transcontinental car race and the re-construction of an AYP Viking ship.

Highlighted in stories, pamphlets, and lectures were ways in which the exposition ushered in modern Seattle. AYP came the end of the growth surge — between 1880 and 1910 — that transformed Seattle from a frontier village of a few thousand people to a city of a quarter million, and the fastest growing burg in the country, fully connected by telegraph, railroad, and steamships. It left us the layout of University of Washington campus, expanded the Olmsted legacy of boulevards and parks, and served as a catalyst for upgrading urban infrastructure with more trolley lines.

The fair expanded and refined the commercial memes of Cascadian and Pacific Rim connections that have only gained momentum in the century since. It was, it can be argued, the birth of modern Seattle.

But, AYP shows us that we're also the children of the boomtown of our Gold Rush forefathers, a city still obsessed with growth, hype, real estate, and the expansion of commercial empires. Railroad robber baron James J. Hill, the Moses-headed mascot of AYP (his impressive bust still keeps vigil outside More Hall, the UW's engineering school) was the Bill Gates of his day, the entrepreneur whose coattails we would ride to prosperity in a global economy.

Scholarship has changed the pictures of the exposition, however. Today's expo academics see world's fairs of the AYP era as cheerleaders for racism and class visions. The "White City" of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition was more than glittering architecture (emulated at AYP); it was also the embodiment of the "white man's burden," a call to save the world by colonizing it.

AYP celebrated the exploitation of natural resources and stretched Manifest Destiny across the Pacific. As the U.S. was still in the process of subjugating the Philippines, the fair featured an Igorot village of "wild" Filipino "dog-eaters" who danced for the crowds and were cited as evidence for the necessity of white civilization's ambitious terraforming. Other exhibits displayed stolen Indian relics, Eskimos from the Arctic, and Nez Perce fresh from their own trail of tears.

AYP was not alone in, let's call it the expo-tation of race and ethnic groups, from the Hottentots who had their buttocks probed and prodded in Paris to Ota Benga the Pygmy who was exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and later in a cage at the Bronx zoo. People flock to fairs not despite such outrages, but because of them.

A world's fair's lure is the exotic, the curious, the incredible: playing up ethnic and racial differences, claiming the nearest brown man is a cannibal. Presenting the violent Wild West of Wounded Knee as a circus of wonders, as Buffalo Bill Cody did, makes for great box office. As with most expos, even the mundane are tarted up to get attention. In AYP's California Building, visitors saw a life-size elephant made of walnuts, and a cow made of almonds. One other legacy of AYP: it popularized Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe as a source of Northwest relics, from fossils to Indian art to tourist junk.

A global bazaar tends to encourage exhibitors to ham it up, and provides an educational gloss for the wicked. Victorians who covered their bodies in garments could see nearly nude dancers in public if they were loin-clothed Igorot tribesmen or "Egyptian" belly dancers." The dirty secret of most expos is that the most popular features are the carnival midways, like AYP's "Paystreak" zone. Where scholars see imperialism, the average citizen remembers the fun. When Bill Gates' biographers asked him about his memories of Century 21, where the Microsoft founder was likely exposed to his first computer, what he really remembered was riding a roller coaster.

If scholarship is clucking its disapproval over the excesses of empires-at-play, neither have they ignored the sometimes complicated response of the people being exploited. The Burke Museum has an exhibit called "Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Indigenous Voices Reply," and it hosted a symposium on that topic. Expo historian Robert Rydell of Montana State University spoke about how expos often evoked a response from exploited or neglected peoples: Booker T. Washington made his famous Atlanta Compromise speech at the Cotton States Exposition of 1895.

Some exploited groups insist on their right to define their own fair experience. According to Michael Herschensohn, who ran the AYP Centennial effort for the city, the local Igorot community in Seattle has no shame about their role in AYP, though some have demanded an apology from the city. Many individuals have found that their expo-tation had upsides as well as down: some made good money, increased their status, and saw millions of people exposed to their cultures. A few, like the Tlingit shaman Skun-doo, were able to conduct rites and rituals that had previously been banned. Before being tapped as an expo performer, Skun-doo had done three years at McNeil Island for illegal shamanic activities.

The Burke exhibit also features contemporary Northwest Indian artists who are responding creatively to white society, whether critiquing the war in Iraq because it is reminiscent of the U.S. Navy's shelling of the village of Angoon, Alaska in 1882 (Tlingit artist Tanis Maria S'eiltin), or the mistreatment of native masks in museum collections (Yu'pik artist Phillip Charette) or photographing stereotyped "squaws" in front of local icons like the Pike Place Market (Matika Wilbur, a Swinomish/Tulalip photographer). It should be noted that Seattle, where Indians were once forbidden in the city limits, is a first-class appropriator of indigenous culture, from the iconic Pioneer Square totem pole (the original stolen by business local leaders) to the name of the city itself.

For better or worse, the appropriation and re-appropriation of artistic styles and techniques can be fascinating, as when the AYP builders created a south entrance that was a Japanese torii gate held up by fake Indian totem poles featuring carved figures with electric lights for eyes. Or then there's the popular AYP good luck charm, the Billiken, a fetish object popularly carved in ivory by Indians in Nome, Alaska, but based on the design of fat Buddhas from Asia as rendered by a designer in Chicago and which became particularly popular in Japan and was named for president William Howard Taft. When expos bring the world together, they can produce strange offspring and imperialism can seem to be devouring its own tail.

After listening at the symposium to many tales of the awful crimes of misrepresenting peoples and their histories, it might offer some solace to note that it's not just the history of misfortunate minorities that are misrepresented. Prof. Rydell showed an image of an 1893 Columbian Exposition "reenactment" of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on the deck of one of Christopher Columbus' caravels, as if two events 300 years apart happened simultaneously. No wonder, he says, kids are confused about American history.That confusion continues. At the expo in Aichi, Japan in 2005, the USA pavilion featured an actor as Benjamin Franklin doing hip hop moves. While indigenous cultures were cruelly treated, the colonizers don't always show themselves much respect either.

Dredging up the dirt on AYP is more interesting than its glories, but both tell us something about the formation of our city, and there are now more artifacts, more scholarly papers, more replicas, more photographs and films cataloged and identified and available for future study than before. The AYP centennial was a worthy exercise, and understanding it turns out to be somewhat key to understanding Century 21, which was originally conceived to commemorate the 50th anniversary of AYP. If one expo inspired the other, now one celebration can inform the next.

All of it helps reinforce the fact that Seattle has a rich, multi-ethnic multi-culti past that shares enormous threads with the present: war, peace, trade, racism, colonialism, utopianism, progress, history, art, nature, fun, adventure, tragedy, and the future. But such big topics are hard to contemplate too directly. At least not when there are other enticements, like near-naked "dog-eaters" or a cow made of almonds, to be seen.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.