At 12 noon on Saturday, February 20, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a gold telegraph key in Washington, D.C., sending a signal pulsing 3,000 miles across the country to an antenna on top of the Tower of Jewels in San Francisco. This was the 435-foot-tall centerpiece of the soon-to-open Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
The National Park Service describes what happened next: “The great doors to the exhibition palaces swung open and water flowed from the Fountain of Energy. Cannons boomed and the crowd cheered. The city’s return from the devastation of 1906 was complete and her grandest celebration had begun!”
President Wilson’s signal officially started the Exposition, a grand affair that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and the 400th anniversary of Vasco Núñez de Balboa first laying eyes on the Pacific Ocean. For San Francisco, it was an opportunity to show off the city’s rebirth since the destructive earthquake and fires of 1906.
The site of the Exposition was 635 acres facing the Golden Gate strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific. A magnificent Palace of Fine Arts was built as a permanent structure, along with many other temporary buildings and attractions. Stretching 2-1/2 miles along the waterfront, a “City of Domes” was made up of nearly a dozen exhibition palaces and 240 other buildings surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds and a series of colorful architectural courts. More than 80,000 exhibits delighted visitors, with 43 nations participating.
It took a lot of money to pay for this gigantic international affair. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition Co. was chartered in 1910 with the public subscribing to $7.5 million of company stock. The City of San Francisco issued $5 million in bonds, as did California’s Legislature, and the counties of the state raised another $3 million. The U.S. Congress endorsed the exposition with a grant of $5 million, which also paid for federal exhibits.
Kentucky was one of the 44 states and U.S. territories that showed up. In March 1912, the Bluegrass State’s General Assembly formed the Kentucky Panama-Pacific Exposition Commission. Its three members visited San Francisco to scout locations for a building to represent Kentucky at the Expo. The state legislature didn’t appropriate any money to construct the building or to finance Kentucky’s exhibits, so that obligation was met by private donations.
In October 1914, just a few months before the Expo opened, Governor James B. McCreary urged Kentuckians to donate to this cause. The president of the Kentucky Panama-Pacific Exposition Commission had telegrammed the governor to remind him that, including Kentucky, every state in the South except for Louisiana would be represented at the Expo. Governor McCreary made a public appeal. He observed that “This stupendous enterprise, one of the greatest events ever conceived by man, is about completed” (the opening ceremony was only four months away!) and “it is fitting that Kentucky, which is one of the greatest States in the Union and which should be as progressive as any sister State, should have a proper display of her agricultural products, mineral resources, manufactures, livestock, poultry, and all attractions.”
The governor laid it on thick: “It will be an unfortunate and injurious advertisement for Kentucky to be the only Southern State to fail to have exhibits at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition!”
While appealing to every citizen, in particular, he exhorted “farmers and business men, commercial clubs, and boards of trade” to buy the official Kentucky souvenir medals and other fundraisers. He also appealed to the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, and other civic organizations.
“Devote to this important and meritorious cause a few days of earnest and patriotic service in obtaining contributions of money and in selling to individual citizens of every legitimate trade and profession souvenir medals and watch fobs.” With this patriotic effort, Governor McCreary said, the money raised could rightly claim to be Kentucky’s volunteer contribution to the Exposition.
Leading up to the Expo, about a dozen other states, mostly in the South, sold official medals to raise money to sponsor cultural and industrial exhibits. Kentucky’s fundraising medal was minted in bronze and priced at $1.00 each. The state organized a competition for Kentucky girls to sell the “pocket pieces,” keeping 10 percent for themselves, with the highest seller in each of 11 districts earning a trip to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. The 10 percent commission was available for churches, lodges, and any other organization making sales. Wealthy Kentuckians showed their support by buying quantities of the medals and distributing them to employees and friends. Railroad man H. Green Garrett purchased 50 medals for just such purposes.
The medal shows a sailing ship with the legend “The Land Divided / The World United,” and a version of the Kentucky coat of arms, with two men shaking hands and the inscription “United We Stand Divided We Fall.” The wording at the top identifies the medal’s purpose: “For Kentucky Exposition Fund.”
Kentucky’s Expo commission planned a colonial-façade building with a view of San Francisco Bay. “Most of the first floor will be devoted to a large and beautifully designed interior suggesting the chivalry and refinement of the State,” the Ohio County News reported on September 23, 1914. “It will be a place of exhibit for old documents, pictures, and historical records and objects. It may also be used as an assembly room and ball-room. Ample porticos will be provided overlooking the Exposition on one side and the bay on the other.”
The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition was hugely popular, logging more than 18 million attendees from February 20 to December 4 of 1915. (The population of the United States at the time was 100 million.)
Today Kentucky’s fundraiser medals are not common, but they can still be found in numismatic collections and family estates, more than 100 years later. Check Grandpa’s cigar box!
If you’re interested in So-Called Dollars—the classification of medals that includes Kentucky’s Pan-Pac Expo fundraiser—professional numismatist Jeff Shevlin maintains a comprehensive website. They’re also illustrated and studied in the annual Mega Red (the deluxe edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins). These medals make a fine collection with many historical subjects, themes, and motifs to choose from.
Dennis Tucker is a Fellow of the Academy of Political Science, a Life Member of the Filipino American National Historical Society, and the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of books, storage and display supplies, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Commonwealth’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Bluegrass State’s rich connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts. To read more, visit the “From the Colonel’s Desk” archives. Other columns by Col. Tucker include “Notes Published” (about books and publishing in general, with a special emphasis on antiques and collectibles) and “Behind the Scenes: First Spouse Gold Coins” (about the United States Mint’s gold coin program).