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A Look Back: Pan Am Expo in Buffalo Showcased World’s Technology and Culture

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For the past few weeks, the focus of this column has been on fairs. One of the largest fairs — which I am going to write about this week — was the Pan American Exposition that took place from May 1 through Nov. 2, 1901 on 350 acres in Buffalo. This fair highlighted many cultures and new achievements of the time and showcased new technology.

In 1901, Buffalo was one of the most populated cities in North America. There was a variety of transportation such as ships, rails and roadways. Nearby was one of the natural wonders of the world, Niagara Falls, and you could also enter into Canada.

Dozens of temporary buildings made of wood and plaster were constructed in 18 months before the Expo was open. They were painted according to an intricate color schedule, all being brightly colored and thus inspired the nickname “Rainbow City.”

One of the “new” technologies was electricity! It wasn’t just that the Expo had electricity, but it had hundreds of thousands of 8-watt light bulbs that illuminated and outlined buildings, reflecting pools, fountains and sculptures that occupied the grounds. Thomas Edison even recorded it with one of his early moving pictures.

Once visitors entered the grand gates for the Expo, they had to stay inside. Why? Well, if you left, you had to pay to come back in.

What was the cost to get in? Adults were 50 cents if they came in before 7 p.m. and 25 cents after 7 p.m. Children were 25 cents before before 7 p.m. and 15 cents after 7 p.m. Visitors could get a guide for 25 cents and a daily program for 5 cents.

I was wondering — so I could give a perspective, what did other things cost back then? In 1901, ground beef was 7 cents a pound; sugar was 4 cents a pound; a dozen eggs were 14 cents; and butter was 25 cents a pound. A 9-room house could be purchased for $1,850 and a graphophone — that’s an early record player — was anywhere from $5 to $150. Kodak cameras ran from $1 to $17.50.

There were 36 restaurants — with one being in the Electric Tower — on the Expo grounds, with 15 kitchens in concessions and 57 soft drink stands. Visitors could try food from Mexico or India, walk through a Philippine village and try their food, and you can’t forget the German food. There was a large variety to eat everywhere visitors looked and walked.

A lot of folks brought their own food to avoid paying the prices of food concessionaires on the grounds and there was a respective state building on the grounds where visitors could store their lunch baskets until they were ready to eat. Visitors could find free samples of food and drinks along with free samples of soap bars from the Larkin Building. Free machine-woven ribbons, bookmarks, calling cards and flyers that carried different advertisements were handed out.

Visitors from out of town who wanted to stay somewhere besides a hotel could get a list of people who were renting out rooms in their homes for $1 to $1.50 a night. Some families without a spare bedroom set up a bed in their front parlor.

The railroad had rates set just for people who wanted to go to the Expo. This was the first exposition that had ever been held when the trains could take people there.

The railroad folks were not sure what to expect and set up several rates. A round-trip fare for five days was $9; a sleeping car going both ways was $4; six regular meals ran commuters $3, thus setting up the opportunity for people who lived far away to attend this great event.

The Pan American Expo will be remembered for a lot of different things— one of the saddest is the assassination of President William McKinley. The day before he was shot, he gave a speech which included the following:

“Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancements. They stimulate the energy, enterprise and intellect of the people; and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of people. They open mighty storehouses of information to the students.”

Within a year, most of the evidence of the grand Pan American Exposition had disappeared. The land was soon occupied by residential and commercial property. The New York State building, one of the few permanent structures built for the Expo, is now the Buffalo History Museum. There are a few other buildings and parts that are scattered throughout the area even today.

This is only a small history of the Great Expo that happened in 1901. I hope that all of you get a chance to visit a fair this year and enjoy it. You can also come down to the Lucy Bensley Center and find out more about this great area.

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