Abigail M. Markwyn is an associate professor of history at Carroll University. She is the coeditor of Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World’s Fairs and the author of Empress San Francisco (Nebraska, 2014).
I teach history at a small, regional university where most of my students take my classes to meet general education requirements. Although they are often enthusiastic and appear interested, and I greatly enjoy my job, most aren’t as passionate about history as I might hope. Given the choice, were it a lovely spring day in Wisconsin, they’d probably choose to spend it outside, not debating the finer points of US History (of course, given winter in Wisconsin, I might, too!)
Because of the mild enthusiasm, getting the opportunity to speak to audiences already interested in my subject is a rare treat. That is why I so enjoyed my recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I presented my research and talked about my new book, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, to a variety of audiences. There’s nothing like talking to folks who have chosen to attend my talk, listen attentively, and then ask interesting and provocative questions. I am lucky enough to have published this book to coincide with the centennial of the PPIE (as the fair is affectionately abbreviated), so there’s quite a bit of media attention on the fair in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area. The California Historical Society has done amazing work to coordinate a calendar of information about events commemorating the fair, including its own exhibit. I was able to piggy-backed on this interest and gave four talks about my book over the span of three days.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Santa Rosa, about fifty miles north of San Francisco, where I was able to draw on old connections to arrange two talks in Sonoma County. You can imagine my excitement when organizers at the Sonoma County Museum informed me that my talk was sold out. Apparently my parents’ connections in the local history community worked and I spoke to a full house (some of whom apparently came of their own free will!), on the topic of ethnic and racial community participation in the PPIE. Despite it being my second talk of the day (after an earlier presentation at Sonoma State University), I loved having the chance to tell others about “my” fair. The audience asked great questions; one of my father’s former colleagues stumped me with a question that I should have known the answer to… and a good time was had by all.
The next day I headed down to “the city” (there really is only one–San Francisco) to participate in a panel discussion on, “Women, the City, and the Fair” at the California Historical Society. There, I met other experts on the PPIE and we spoke to another standing-room only crowd of close to one hundred people. One other panelist and I had worked together in the past, but the others I knew only from their work, so it was a pleasure to meet them and present on the role of women in the city and the fair.
My final appearance in San Francisco has been commemorated on the San Francisco Public Library YouTube channel, where I hope a few folks will watch and ignore the coughing fit that overcame me in the midst of explaining the role of Chinese Americans in supporting the PPIE. The videographer assured me that he edited out eighty percent of the coughing, so it may be a more pleasant viewing experience than my audience experienced. Despite my cold, the audience asked terrific questions and seemed genuinely interested in my book. In one of those odd quirks of fate, I met a woman whose book had been given to me just two hours before, and helped another young history buff connect with her to learn more about the city’s history of civil rights activism.
Since I live in Wisconsin, I don’t meet many people who know anything about the PPIE, so one of my favorite things about this trip was meeting the many people who had family memories to share about the event. One friend of my parents had a commemorative penny his mother proudly saved from the fair; another had a photograph of his father on a Model-T fresh off the fair’s assembly line. Those concrete connections to the past are not only fun, but they help to remind me that these issues I study affected real people, who lived real lives, and whose memories of this fair continue to be cherished by their children and grand-children. Before this centennial year is over, I hope I will learn many more wonderful stories.
-Abigail M. Markwyn