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

Postcard advertising the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. In the foreground, an iconic California Grizzly bear looks down on San Fransisco, where earthquake-wrecked ruins give way to new buildings in the city’s center. At the bottom corners of the card, viewers can see small sketches of the PPIE at night. Image reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress

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 cover of this 1915 postcard showcases the Palace of Fine Arts, a building constructed for the exposition.The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the few remnants of the PPIE that can still be found in modern day San Fransisco.


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.

An aerial view of the world’s fair that highlights some of the PPIE’s signature attractions, such as the Palace of Fine Arts, the Tower of Jewels, and the Court of the Universe. Image reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress.


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.

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    About the Author


    Jonathan YangJonathan Yang joined the American Enterprise team for Fall 2011 – Spring 2012. A second year Masters student in American University’s public history program, he has worked with The Smithsonian Gardens in creating a self-guided audio tour for the American History Museum’s Heirloom Garden and with the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives and Records Administration. Jonathan helps maintain the exhibit’s database and improve the website interactions with the public.View all posts by Jonathan Yang