The Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) exhibit of photos from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition will feature the work of famed fair photographer Frank Nowell. MOHAI is also encouraging citizens to do research projects on the fair for AYPE.org.
It was a time for the unimaginable: a telephone without wires; a machine that could butcher salmon as humans had done for centuries; premature babies in incubators; an entire village from the Philippines. All were on display at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.
“For four and a half months the University of Washington campus was turned into a world of wonder,” said Museum of History & Industry historian Lorraine McConaghy.
This year marks the centennial of the event that for the first time gave Seattle prominence across the nation and linked it to the Pacific Rim.
And while there are many commemorative events planned, among the first is the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) exhibit of photos from the fair. Taken from glass plates and made into prints, many are the work of famed photographer Frank Nowell, who was the official fair photographer.
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The exhibit, which opens March 7, also is a visual time machine back to an era when what is now the UW campus was filled with ornate buildings, elaborate fountains and long lines of spectators who came to gawk at exhibits that today might seem as shocking as they were to the more than 3 million fairgoers in 1909 — but for different reasons.
Along the gaudy, wooden boardwalk of the Pay Streak, there were human exhibits. On one day, there was a raffle for a number of prizes, including a month-old orphaned boy, “the property of the Washington Children’s Home Society,” according to a story that September in The Seattle Times.
Just what happened to the baby, called Ernest, is what Seattle attorney Susan Ferguson is researching as part of MOHAI’s Discovering the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition program, which encourages citizens to take on research projects and write articles for publication on the AYPE Web site.
When she first read about Ernest, “I was flabbergasted,” Ferguson said. “My first thought was, ‘How could they give away a baby as a prize?’ “
Others in the MOHAI program are researching Norway Day, Chicago Day and the gardens of the exposition.
McConaghy hopes more people will take on topics such as President William Howard Taft’s visit to the fair, the Hoo-Hoo House (a log house used by timber barons when they wanted to be rowdy) or the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which was charged with guarding the purity and chastity of female fairgoers.
One of the controversial exhibits, even then, was 50 Igorot people from the Philippines who had a mock village of grass huts set up on the Pay Streak, a boardwalk of special attractions. As fairgoers gawked, they hammered out links of chain. Down from them were the “Alaskan Siberians — Eskimos.”
Fairgoers paid an extra 50 cents to see them — and any other human exhibit on the Pay Streak.
The Pay Streak included exhibits such as premature babies in incubators and a machine that could automatically butcher salmon.
The fair moved Seattle into the international spotlight. The city became recognized as the gateway to the north and a port of trade with the east.
And the celebration brought streetcars not only to the fair, but beyond to the Ravenna neighborhood. Electric lighting flourished and the Olmsted Brothers’ landscape design became the design for the University of Washington, McConaghy said.
The latest in technology was showcased on the grounds, including the first wireless telephone, which could transmit a signal for 200 feet.
At the time, Nowell was best known for his Alaska-Yukon photos. But today, his photos of the Igorots, the California Building with the bull made of almonds and the countless photos of ornate plaster-covered-wood buildings give us a glimpse of the spectacle the AYPE was, said Carolyn Marr, the curator putting together the exhibit.
There are scenes of long lines of fairgoers, hostesses in waist-cinching Gibson girl dresses and all sorts of exhibits, from an eagle-topped tower of apples to a replica of Spokane’s Davenport Hotel.
It was an entire world of commerce. But almost five months later it was over. Nearly all the buildings were made to be only temporary and were torn down.
What remains — one or two buildings, souvenirs and lots of photos — are the tickets back in time.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or email@example.com