Soybeans and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition
“China sends tea and preserved ginger and funny nuts . . . [the Panama Pacific International Exposition] lets us know to whom we are indebted for the things we eat.”
~ Jane and Ellen Gordon, What We Saw at Madame World’s Fair: Letters from Twins at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915
Words may be insufficient to describe the wonder and amazement visitors felt when they came to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) held in San Francisco in 1915. Featuring the Tower of Jewels decorated with thousands of glass jewels that shone with an array colors, an unprecedented lighting system (the first to use “shadow” lighting), as well as sculptures and other works of art from twenty-nine foreign nations, the exposition was one of the last great world’s fairs before world war disrupted future events. But among the colorful spectacles of the exposition, it was the small things on display turned out to have the most lasting changes upon America.
The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was organized to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal; at the same time, the host city of San Francisco was also celebrating its recovery from a devastating earthquake in 1906. Although World War I began a year before, the PPIE was able to have many foreign nations participate, each of which brought with them a cultural showcase of objects and artifacts. One of the objects that China’s representatives brought over in their display was a small case of soybeans. Although the PPIE was a dazzling showcase of artistic achievement, it would be much smaller items – such as this small case of soybeans – that indicated more subtle changes in domestic and international economic relationships.
World’s fairs were not just events where nations presented their cultural heritage and newest advancements in technology; they were places to scope out and establish an economic relationship with potential trade partners. As countries began to industrialize, it became easier for products to be created and transported farther distances without damage or spoiling, allowing more nations to be part of the globalized trade network. The PPIE was no exception. For both the US and China, it was an audition of sorts. For San Francisco, it was an opportunity to prove itself fully recovered from the earthquake and, as a port city, a suitable trade destination for the global economy. For China, it was an opportunity to show that it had developed enough for other industrialized powers to consider them a potential partner in future economic relationships.
The soybeans themselves meant different things to the US and China. Americans saw the soybeans as agricultural innovation, a new addition that would allow them to compete against foreign exports and increase their control of the market with their own domestic soybean crop. For the Chinese, providing the soybeans was their way to establish themselves as equals within the global community and help further economic globalization.
Although the breakout of World War I temporarily halted the further spread of globalization, soybeans themselves continued to become a part of US agriculture. Within a decade, the amount of acreage used for soybeans nearly tripled, and today, soybeans are the second-largest export for the US. This development shows how opportunities for new business can sprout from unlikely displays and exhibitions, and how new innovations in agricultural technology can allow countries to take advantage of such opportunities to compete in an expanding globalizing market.