U.S. Intellectual History Blog

California’s Golden Jubilee

Today’s guest blogger, Mark Robertson, received a MA in American History from San Jose State University in 2012. Currently he is working with Dr. Margo McBane and Dr. Anne Fountain (both of SJSU) on a project entitled, “From Cherries to Chips,” investigating early 20th century agricultural workers of Santa Clara County — now the hub of Silicon Valley’s tech industry. He also blogs and tweets at Gilded Empire and @Calhistorian, respectively.

California’s Golden Jubilee
by Mark Robertson

About a year ago, I was working my way through some historical literature in order to gain a better understanding of the emergence of California’s sense of itself as a political community – a uniquely Californian identity if you will. Upon stumbling upon a reference to California’s “Semi-Centennial” discovery of gold, I was intrigued by the lack of historiographic coverage of the event. Little has been written beyond a few passing references, yet as I read through the newspapers it became quite apparent that this was not small event, but a very large civic celebration. Can this event offer a similar window into a San Franciscan identity similar to the Mid-Winter Fair (1894)? What do mass public commemorations teach us about how citizens think of themselves and their city? What differences and similarities exist in interpreting this event and the Mid-Winter Fair? As Barbara Berglund has suggested, do massive civic events organized by the few structure the reality of the many? What does the celebration say about the regional competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles for supremacy in California? These were only some of the questions which first came to mind.

California’s Golden Jubilee and Mining Fair (CGJ) was held in San Francisco from January 24 to March 5, 1898. In the midst of the accelerating Yukon gold rush, a rebounding regional economy, and San Francisco’s growing preeminence on the Pacific, a disparate coalition of associations representing San Francisco’s “commercial-civic elite” transformed a private legacy of commemoration into a mass civic celebration.[1] The legacy of remembering James W. Marshall in San Francisco reveals that as the anniversary approached, conflicting imaginings of the city’s past and future were made to be reconciled for the sake of shared civic gain. By looking at the ways in which the ideas of profit and promotion prompted the coalition of commercial-civic elite in 1897-98 (led by Mayor and politician James D. Phelan and flanked by the San Francisco Miners’ Association, the Society of California Pioneers, and the San Francisco Merchants’ Association) to transform this small, parochial private commemoration of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold into a mass civic celebration of San Francisco’s economic growth, social development, and the city’s position in an expanding American empire, we can better understand how massive celebrations like the CGJ reinforced and reoriented California’s Pioneer Myth within the context of a new international mining frontier and the city’s progressive insurgent leadership of the late 1890s.

Every January the Society of California Pioneers had privately observed the anniversary of that golden event which inspired the California gold rush. However in 1897, as San Francisco’s elite were preparing for a new era in the city’s future, three of the most prestigious associations began planning a cooperative commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold on the American River. The resulting celebration opened to a grand cavalcade of fraternal, civil and military strength, a procession of historical pageantry demonstrating San Francisco’s progressive growth from its sleepy Latin past, and finally closed with an extravagant five week long exhibition of the natural, manufacturing, and industrial advantages of San Francisco. The grandest spectacle was the opening of the Golden Jubilee Mining Fair, Saturday, January 31.[2] With a procession gathering around San Francisco’s famed Mechanics’ Pavilion, the turning of a golden key in Washington D.C. by President William McKinley ignited the electric lights and drew the giant curtain aside revealing the entrance the Golden Jubilee Mining Fair where dozens of exhibits, demonstrations, and spectacles vied for the public’s attention.[3]

In this way, the Golden Jubilee projected what Robert Rydell referred to as a symbolic universe – a symbolic representation of San Francisco’s dominant culture’s collective sense of itself. Fairs like the Golden Jubilee, “make the social world comprehensible[, where] the directors of the fairs attempted to organize the direction of society from a particular…perspective.” But as Rydell reminds us, exhibitions like the Golden Jubilee also “perform a hegemonic function precisely because they propagated the ideas and values” of the “political, financial, corporate, and intellectual leaders” offering their ideas as the “proper interpretation of the social…reality.” In so doing, the Golden Jubilee coalition structured a version of the present by providing visitors with a “galaxy of symbols that cohered as symbolic universes.”[4] In San Francisco, once a small merchant community along Yerba Buena cove, the California Gold Rush seeded a new American city, and also “a new urban society” on the edge of an expanding national empire. The rapid influx of a diverse population, the overwhelmingly male society, and the prospects of economic opportunity created a seemingly “disorderly city.”[5] But by the 1890s many Californians looked at San Francisco as the natural urban metropolis of the Pacific coast that had triumphed in a struggle for order in a land so long ignored by the competing empires. No one communicated this better in the Golden Jubilee coalition more directly than James D. Phelan, Mayor of San Francisco from 1897-1902.[6]  In his efforts to lead and fund the celebration and exhibition, Phelan did more than anyone else to structure the celebration’s symbolic vision of the city’s history, present, and future. In essence, California’s Golden Jubilee presented a reflection of the dominant Pioneer Myth of late 19th century California, while orienting San Francisco’s collective identity forward into futurity.[7]

However the celebration did not succeed without conflicts and compromises. The organizers of the Golden Jubilee each envisioned a different reading of San Francisco’s past and present greatness, and thereby its future. The most significant conflict between the competing visions of the Golden Jubilee coalition, was in the overall structure of the commemoration. The Society of California Pioneers demonstrated a desire to extol the advantages left by the earliest pioneers, extend praise to those still living who had witnessed the discovery, and also to give respect to what they saw as a city built by California pioneers. The California State Miners’ Association on the other hand saw little reverence or even respect of the earliest pioneers. Mainly farmers and merchants, the legacies of California’s earliest pioneers were particularly troublesome to the mining men centered in San Francisco. The 1880s debris controversy demonstrated that little reverence was given to non-industrial processes and those whom disdained progress. To the mining men, San Francisco was a product of gold, labor, and capital, not community, art, or culture. In slight contrast but still in line with the CSMA, Mayor James D. Phelan saw the city as the agglomeration of all that had come before, pastoral and industrial. To Phelan, and as exhibited in hist leadership of the Golden Jubilee, San Francisco was the Pacific Metropolis of the American Empire, the apex of urbanity and civilization in the American West. In deciding to cooperatively celebrate their community’s shared history however, organizers were confronted with reconciling these differing views on how best to commemorate the anniversary.

Significantly, the Golden Jubilee coalition reoriented the interpretation of the city’s past, by presenting and displaying San Francisco’s wealth as an entirely “new urban society” distinct from not only the region’s Latin past, but also its more recent domestic struggles between labor and capital.[8] Through two months of political competition and compromise, the Golden Jubilee coalition cobbled together an entirely voluntary contingent of some 17-20,000 official participants, at the cost of some $40,000 (including floats, music, and entertainment) that declared their “Sunset City,” as the Pacific metropolis.[9] In celebrating California’s shared past, the Golden Jubilee coalition saw it as another opportunity to distinguish the present from the city’s mythic and fabled past and its often tumultuous struggle for order.[10] In so doing, the resulting celebration demonstrated the ways in which civic celebrations project a “distinctive collective identity for people of different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and lengths of residence who happen to live in the same locale.”[11]

Civic commemorative activity like California’s Golden Jubilee, presents a rich lens to discern the character of a dominant urban identity. By investigating how the Golden Jubilee displayed the city’s past, we can get a sense of how the Golden Jubilee coalition of commercial-civic elite reconciled their own views in 1898. It is in this temporal orientation of the past, the collective memorial path linking the past with the present, that also outlines the perceived path to the future. It was in this vein that Barbara Berglund characterized the California Mid-Winter International Exposition (1894) as “imagining the city.”[12] The Mid-Winter Fair in aggregate, with its orientalist symbolism and Roman imagery, displayed a symbolic universe communicating the city’s orientation towards its future in linking the West with the East; slighting the past for an emphasis on what was perceived as the probable future. The same theme of progress presented in the Golden Jubilee paralleled that of the Mid-Winter Fair, but emphasized a longer view which stretched much farther into the past into a progressive future. What would become California’s Golden Jubilee and Mining Fair provided yet another opportunity for San Francisco’s elite to present and project an image of the city drawn from what they saw as its honorable beginnings, traced into the future. But as the Mid-Winter Fair was national and international in scope, California’s Golden Jubilee was local and regional, enveloping the domain dominated by San Francisco’s economic tentacles.[13] Can we not look at this as a reflection of a regional California identity, a sort of broad, macro-collective understanding of the past and the present?

The Golden Jubilee was more than the commemoration of a shared history found in the anniversary of John W. Marshall’s discovery of gold as the Society of California Pioneers had done since 1856, it was a structuring and declaration of a dominant culture’s vision of San Francisco’s pioneer identity, and its perceived progressive future.[14] Interestingly however, the closing of the Golden Jubilee Mining Fair on March 5 and any reporting of its impact were barely recorded in local newspapers. The local coverage was saturated with a topic of particular interest to San Francisco, but was quite another affair than celebration and civic pride. Some three weeks prior on February 16, 1898, as the Golden Jubilee entered its fourth week, San Franciscan’s awoke to the morning’s headlines, likely with some trepidation. “Maine Destroyed in Havana Harbor,” proclaimed the San Francisco Call. To many in the city, San Francisco represented the hub of American empire in the Pacific. With the escalating tensions within Cuba and the speculation over what actually happened to the USS Maine in Havana harbor, the Golden Jubilee’s presentation of the region’s military capabilities were quickly reified in that tragic event – as San Franciscan’s themselves seemed to be involved in their own island revolution in the Pacific where one of their own, the Spreckels family, vied for control of the Hawaiian paradise. Little reference would be reported of the celebration in the newspapers, popular culture, or historiography of San Francisco or California. Does this indicate, as Glen Gendzel has suggested that the central inspiration of a Californian identity shifted from San Francisco to Los Angeles at the turn of the century?[15]

[1]   Ethington, Philip, The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). The term “commercial-civic elite” refers to a common group of urban elite who are largely involved in commerce and politics, as opposed to cultural elite or business elite. This usage is borrowed from Patricia Hill, Dallas: The Making of a Modern City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).

[2]    Golden Jubilee Committee, Official Souvenir of California’s Golden Jubilee – Held at San Francisco, California – Beginning January 24, 1898 and Ending January 29, 1898. Containing the Programme of Each Day’s Events, With Much Reading Matter of Interest Pertaining to the Discovery of Gold, and Many Illustrations (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, Printers, 1898).

[3]  “The Call’s Golden Jubilee Edition,” The San Francisco Call, 29 January 1898, 6.

[ 4]    Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-3.

[ 5]    Barbara Berglund, Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press Of Kansas, 2010), 1.

[6]    Ethington, 288.

[ 7]    Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 49.

[8]    Berglund, 1.

[ 9]    The number of official participants was calculated by multiplying the reported twenty divisions, which reportedly ranged from as low as 700, but as high as 3,000 per division. The above estimate is rather conservative compared with many of the newspaper’s boastings. Additionally, the Golden Jubilee Week and the Golden Jubilee Fair reportedly cost $20,000 each with some odds and ends to be added up at a later date.

[10]    Gray A. Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (University of California Press, 2006).

[11]    David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 61.

[12]    Berglund, 171.

[13]    Here “tentacles” carries the connotation of the reach of the rail roads centered in the San Francisco Bay region,  critiqued in Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California (Doubleday Books, 1901).

[14]  David M. Wrobel and Michael C. Steiner, eds, “Forging a Cosmopolitan Civic Culture: The Regional identity of San Francisco and Northern California,” Many Wests: Place, Culture, and Regional Identity (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

[15] Glen Gendzel, “Pioneers and Padres: Competing Mythologies in Northern and Southern California,” Western Historical Quarterly 32 (April 2001), 55-79.