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Monday, November 9, 2015

The “Nibbling Arts” at San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair

Postcard, Panama Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915
California Historical Society, CHS2014.1791
The following account was written by fair historian Laura A. Ackley and is excerpted from her book San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley: Heyday/California Historical Society, 2014). San Francisco’s Jewel City is a companion publication to the California Historical Society’s exhibition City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair and winner of the California Book Award, Gold Medal for Californiana.


Described as the “temple of the tin can and the food package,” the Palace of Food Products truly could have been nicknamed the “Castle of Cuisine,” the “Stronghold of Sustenance,” or, as a local humorist dubbed it, the “Palace of Nibbling Arts.” Patrons crowded the booths where they could fill up on a variety of free samples, many produced on-site. One young lady wrote to her grandmother, “There are all sorts of demonstrations of jello, shredded wheat, canned fish, crackers, and so on, so that if you had patience enough to wait for the talk and then nibble a thimbleful of food, you really could get quite a meal in time.” (1)
Palace of Food Products, c. 1915
San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library
Mapping San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair / Historypin
Those in search of edible innovations were assailed by an international array of ambrosial aromas. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter claimed that by “picking and choosing, a sort of gastronomic Esperanto” might be achieved. One could make a meal of Alaskan salmon or Italian tagliarini, followed by a dessert of Lowney’s chocolates or a Scottish scone, washed down with Japanese tea, Portuguese Madeira, Guatemalan coffee, or California wine, and finished with a postprandial Cuban cigar rolled on the spot. (2)

The Tea Pickers: A Japanese Demonstration, Palace of Food Products, 1915
San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library
Mapping San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair / Historypin
Cuba Exhibit inside the Palace of Food Products, 1915
Mapping San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair / Historypin
San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library
In competition with the munching were serious demonstrations of the latest techniques in food production. For the first time, the previously secretive American Chicle Company allowed the public to view the mysteries of its chewing gum manufacturing operations. Another display featured an imposing conical tower of circular shelves packed with jars with lighted numbers that traveled upward in sequence, each highlighting one of the “57 Varieties” of the Heinz Pure Food Products Company. Alongside, a small auditorium screened moving pictures of Heinz items making their way from field to table.

Heinz Exhibit at the Palace of Food Products, 1915
Collection of Edward A. Rogers
Also ensconced within the lofty palace was a monumental four-story, colonnaded neoclassical structure disguising a $100,000 flour mill built by California’s Sperry Flour Company. Viewers could watch raw grain, untouched by human hands, being processed into fifty large bags of flour a day. An on-site quality control laboratory calculated exact percentages of fiber, protein, and carbohydrates.

Sperry Flour Mills inside the Palace of Food Products, 1915
Mapping San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair / Historypin
San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library
However, it was Sperry’s Booths of All Nations that most tempted the hungry crowds. The milled flour was delivered directly to tiny kitchens between the structure’s columns, each booth staffed by a costumed baker who transformed the flour into baked goods from his or her native region, including Chinese almond cakes, Russian piroshkis, Polish matzos, and Alaskan sourdough. The Pacific Rural Press enthused over a forty-niner cooking flapjacks over a campfire, a Southern cook baking johnnycakes and corn pone, a señorita assembling tamales, and “other chefs making their national wafers and cakes and giving samples!” (3)

Four large Kewpie dolls poured cream into bowls of porridge made by Albers Brothers Milling, signaling another recent development in food production. In the early twentieth century, the typical American breakfast was evolving away from heavy foods like pancakes, biscuits, sausage, and bacon toward lighter fare. A breakfast of fruit, eggs, and cereal was now popular, and cereal was front and center at the PPIE. Oatmeal and shredded wheat were proffered, and the Quaker Oats Company shot puffed rice out of “cannons,” then distributed morsels to peckish guests.

Borden’s Exhibit, 1915
Special Collections, University of California Library, Davis
Carnation Milk’s Exhibit, 1915
Special Collections, University of California Library, Davis
Many exhibits were concerned with the sanitary preparation of milk products and safe ways to transport them without spoilage. An array of “sterile” milk products was presented, including malted, evaporated, and condensed varieties from companies including Libby, Pacific Coast, and Borden, with its venerable Eagle Brand. The Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company kept a herd of 125 “contented” Holstein cows in the Fair’s livestock area. Milk from these cows was sent to a condensery near the Palace of Fine Arts, where Carnation produced 6,000 cans of evaporated milk daily.


  1. Ben Macomber, Jewel City, 153 (see ch. 2, n. 3); “Exposition Interests the Ladies,” Pacific Rural Press, May 15, 1915, 596.
  2. Ben Macomber, “Palace of Food Products Is a Temple of the Tin Can,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 1915, 26.
  3. “The Best Exhibit,” Pacific Rural Press, October 23, 1915, 411.

Laura A. Ackley holds graduate degrees from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and from the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. Her interest in the 1915 world’s fair began in an undergraduate “cultural landscapes” course at the University of California, Berkeley. Her Master of Science thesis at UC Berkeley was titled “Innovations in Illumination at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.” A recognized authority on the PPIE, she has developed a series of popular lectures on various aspects of the Fair, and frequently delivers her commentaries before historical, arts, and civic organizations.

Join CHS and the Culinary Historians of Northern California on Tuesday, November 10, 2015, at 6:00 pm for a panel discussion about the edible elements of the Exposition experience. Attendees will be offered light refreshments, including a sampling of relevant historic dishes.

Panelists: Jeannette Ferrary, author of M.F.K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship, Out of the Kitchen: Adventures of a Food Writer, and The California-American Cookbook: Innovations on American Regional Dishes; Julia Lavaroni (grandniece of Harold Paul, the long-time owner of Larraburu Brothers Bakery), who is currently producing a film on San Francisco's iconic Larraburu bread, which won first place at the Exposition; and Erica J. Peters, Director, Culinary Historians of Northern California, and author of San Francisco: A Food Biography.

Sponsored by the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation and Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.

CHS’s exhibition about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair—is open until January 3, 2016 at CHS headquarters, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, and until January 10, 2016, at the Palace of Fine Arts.

City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair is part of San Francisco's Centennial Celebration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE100), presented by AT&T; . CHS is an organizing partner of the PPIE100 along with Innovation Hangar, the Maybeck Foundation, and the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department.

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