Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

8. Edmond S. Meany, “What It All Means”

Between 1876 and 1916 more than a dozen cities around the United States sponsored world’s fairs as ways of attracting attention to themselves, developing specific urban neighborhoods, and participating in a ritual that suggested they had arrived on the global stage. Once Portland hosted the Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair in 1905, Seattle felt compelled to respond with an even bigger and better international exposition. It initially wanted to schedule its fair for 1907, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Klondike gold rush, but people in Virginia were already planning an exposition to mark the tricentennial of the founding of Jamestown for that year, so Seattle postponed its event until 1909. The grounds were laid out on the campus of the University of Washington—a part of the city, annexed only five years before, that still contained second-growth forest. Beginning on June 1, 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition brought the peoples and attentions of the world to Seattle. By the time the fair ended four and a half months later, it had attracted 3.7 million visitors (and 2.7 million paid admissions)—more than had attended Portland’s event (Rydell 1984:184-207; Frykman 1962).

Like all cities hosting international expositions, Seattle tried to explain why its event was different. In some respects, the city was not always persuasive at this, because certain content provided by the U.S. government, state governments, and corporate exhibitors varied little from one fair to another. In other regards, however, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was unique. For one thing, the fair was one of the few that did not look backward to some seminal historical event.  In contrast to 1905 Portland which honored the Lewis and Clark expedition a century earlier, or 1907 Virginia which honored the founding of Jamestown three centuries earlier, Seattle focused on the present and future (perhaps because it had precious little yet in the way of a respectable past). As one pamphlet explained, “The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition does not commemorate, or celebrate, any particular event. It does not depend upon historical sentiment for its success.  Aiming as it does to attain the ends in view, it will be simply a great international commercial exposition” (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition General History 1909). Not looking to the past suited Seattle’s interests just fine, because the city was eager to assert that it had left its frontier days behind and arrived as a mature metropolis.

Geography was the other feature that set the 1909 exposition apart—in two senses. First, Seattle made the most of the fact that it had become the entrepôt for Alaska and the Yukon, and was setting its sights as well on mastering trade around the Pacific Ocean. Thus the name of the fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, referred not to the host city but to the assorted hinterlands and trading zones in which the city expected to do a lot of business. And boosters explained that people ought to take an interest in the fair because these places were relatively new to Americans. “It is altogether a departure from the beaten path, into regions and among peoples little known. . . . Seattle has assumed the task of introducing the half of the world which is developed almost to the ultimate, to that other half which to all intents and purposes of trade, is developed not at all” (Exposition Beautiful 1909:1). Second, the backdrop of the exposition itself made it novel by combining natural splendor and urban sophistication. “No other fair has been builded in a virgin forest in the heart of a cosmopolitan city” (Exposition Beautiful 1909:7).

Edmond S. Meany played a pivotal role in the development of the 1909 fair. He had worked as a newspaperman in the 1880s and been elected to the state legislature in the early 1890s. When the state of Washington decided to sponsor an exhibit at the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893, Meany wrote up a good many promotional materials on behalf of Washington and attended the fair as an agent for the state. After returning from Chicago, Meany found employment at the University of Washington. As the first professor there to develop the field of Pacific Northwest history, he was himself something of an aggressive regionalist.  His landmark title on the region’s past, History of the State of Washington, first appeared in the same year as the fair. Meany also maintained strong ties to the Seattle business community. When civic leaders decided that the city ought to host its own world’s fair, he lobbied to make sure that the exposition grounds were located on the University campus—a decision that hastened the redesign of the campus and provided many new buildings at a time when the expanding institution really needed such additions (Findlay 1991).

Because of his intimate association with the Seattle fair of 1909 and his expertise on the Pacific Northwest, the national weekly magazine Collier’s asked him to explain “What It All Means” (Meany 1909:14-15). His write-up expressed Seattle’s and the Northwest’s sense that they were arriving and had important roles to play in commerce and culture around the Pacific Rim.  His comments about the importance of Alaska to the “Aryan race” foreshadowed Erwin Weber’s racialist thinking about “Nordic races” in “zones of filtered sunshine.”

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