San Francisco History

Belles and Beaux of the Mechanics' Fair

By Walter J. Thompson

“Where the lights are brightly gleaming
Where the tide of joy is streaming
And where Beauty’s smile is beaming—
At the gay Mechanic’s Fair."

Do you remember that once-popular rhymical effusion in praise of an institution which had then clamped itself close to the heart of the community? Did it not set forth the beauties of the Mechanics’ Fair in masterly fashion and with a sustained strain of effort worthy of the court of muses, and free from misapplied metaphor, and objectionable skyrocket hyperbole?

Wasn’t it spiced and seasoned with substantial sentiment, the kind that was the keynote of the whole business then and remains so in the light of retrospection?

The Mechanics’ Institute Fair—there was but one fair running through about three decades, with annual or biennial intermissions—was not founded on sentiment. The robustness of its title, the poise of that muscle-swollen arm with twenty-pound sledge upraised which served as trade mark, and the severely plain architectural lines of its several pavilions were not suggestive of sentiment, at least of the kind I am going to refer to. It was built on the rock of commercialism and the breeze of business was supposed to blow all around it.

But the show got away from its managers. Frankly, it was taken away from them. The appropriation was not the outcome of any uprising nor was it carried out on defined plans, violent or otherwise. Furthermore, the staid Messrs and Madames of the city must be absolved from participating in the affair. They accepted the fair in its early days very seriously, as the managers intended they should. They looked upon the assortment of exhibits, all labeled and piled up with mathematical precision in their respective stalls, as a liberal display of the city’s industrial progress—which it was; they bestowed admiring glances upon the arm and hammer as typical of the brawn that was building up the city of which they were so proud—as it certainly was.

But just then along came the young folk of the new metropolis and soon it was all different with the Mechanics’ Fair. The young folk had just grown up, the town’s first crop, and had reached that happy period in life when all the world goes a-Maying and Cupid and St. Valentine open up a department store just around the corner and all is as blithesome as when the morning stars lifted up their voices and sang in melodious chorus.

It was in the pavilion that stood in Union Square in the six'—but never mind the time—that the young people appeared on the scene and took over the fair management and syndicated it as a sentimental foundation. As the pioneer Romeos and Juliets of the city they presumed on the world’s kindly feeling toward lovers. Like turtle doves they sought a billing and cooing place. Parlor maneuvering may have been all sufficient for their parents, but it did not appeal to them. The freedom of the fresh western wind was tingling in their veins and they could not confine themselves with the restraint which marked the courtship days of the preceding generation. The fair looked good to them and they annexed it. No one was ousted nor was any radical change put over.

It was understood that the management should go on as usual on the surface; that the show should be open six or seven or eight weeks in August and September, that the arm and hammer boys should pay the bills and revel in their uneuphonious title—a “fair by any other name,” etc., being the idea conveyed in the privilege.

Exhibitors were given to understand that there would be no intrusion upon their prerogatives. They could pile up boxes of soap and codfish mountain high, construct barricades of yeast powder and canned fruit, place stoves and pianos on dress parade and start up any kind of an old foundry with buzzing belts and whirring wheels in some out-of-the-way corner of the place, in all of which Pa and Ma might find edification and delight.

But, mark you, now, sirrahs, such was the dictum, amid all this ostentatious display of industrial development there must be many wide aisles for promenading purposes, numerous intersecting lanes more or less narrow, say, where two persons could walk abreast; plenty of seats in secluded nooks and corners; no limit to the number and output of ice cream and soda water depots and liberal encouragement and generous franchise privileges extended to candy and popcorn magnates. All these things came to pass and the Mechanics’ Fair became a thing of beauty and a joy of the seasons under the joint management of Mr. Business and Miss Sentiment, with the latter secretly holding the whip hand.

The general effect of the new order of things was not confined strictly to the young people. A noticeable hold was taken upon the elders— family elders, I mean, for bachelors, old bachelors, especially, were not supposed to know anything about the fair—and often produced odd results.

There was a churl who lived out in the Western Addition—I’ll mention no names, but he was a curmudgeon all right—who was blessed with a wife and five charming daughtes, all of the sentimental age. Well, this fellow always chose fair time, when the girls were happiest, to betray his ugly disposition. Just as soon as fair season would open he might be seen dashing out of his home at 7 o’clock each evening, coat-awry and hat askew in his hurry, and followed by a chorus of voices saying good-by or something to that effect.

“Where am I going?” he would shout if asked, as he sailed away. “Why, I’m going to find a peaceful spot. D’ye know there are six women in that house all getting dressed at one time to go to the fair? D’ye know what that means? Six of ‘em and only one bottle of bandoline, whatever that is, for plastering down hair, among ‘em. D’ye hear ‘em?”

“Well, why don’t you tog up and go with them?”

“What? Me? Go to the fair with ‘em? Man, haven’t you a spark of human feeling about you? The first thing in the morning is a squabble over who is to have the season ticket for the day. Five big dollars I paid for that jaundiced pasteboard. As soon as I get home the dressing war begins, and this is to go on night and day for six weeks. Wow!” and away he would dash. What can you do with a grouch like that?

Contrast this churl with a neighbor in the next block who possessed a trio of girlish blessings.

Scenario in the family dining-room: Pa in big easy chair resting his slippered feet on a velvet cushion. Ma sewing at the table; son Jimmy all dressed up looking over a book in the corner.

“Where’s Minnie?” asks pa.

“Gone to the fair with Charley,” replies ma, “and Jennie’s gone, too, with George.”

“And Abbie?” queries pa, with a contented chuckle.

“She’s getting ready to go with Jimmy,” laughs ma. “Hasn’t any steady yet.”

“I’m glad the fair is open,” exclaims pa. “The girls enjoy it so, and we know where they are. Besides, it’s a big saving on parlor gas bills."

Then Abbie flutters in like a butterfly and she and Jimmy sally forth as ma is remarking something about it being Minnie’s last fair season.

Wasn’t that a happy way of looking at the right side of things?

One pleasing purpose served by the fair was the bringing together of the young people of the entire city. Once again classmates met and talked of the days, as if it was ages agone, when they had warbled about poor ill-fated “Lily Dale” or the charming “Billy Boy” in his search for a wife as melodiously set forth in the Golden Wreath; or had loved “Little Maggie May” in the Golden Robin or had throbbed with pity for the “Wandering Refugee” as scaled off in the Song Echo. What surprises these reunions were!

Imagine being confronted suddenly by a tall slyph-like form furbelowed and flounced, with laughing brown eyes and curl-frescoed brow, and in whom, only by a little upward tilt to her nose and the dimples that dodge around her cheeks, you recognize the little girl in blue dimity and long braid of hair that looked like a stick of freshly pulled molasses candy, who sat across the aisle from you in Miss Murphy’s class and did not scruple on examination day to accept your solution of one of Brother Robinson’s primest arithmetical puzzles as you held it up in the palm of your hand for her inspection. Is it any wonder you gasp and stammer: “Hello, Mattie,” and then flush up as you remember she is Miss Somebody now?

And say, Old Timer, do you recall that occasion when you rounded Cape Horn, a promontory composed of a display of sacks of salt at the upper right hand corner of the main promenade on the ground floor, and collided with a gorgeous creature upholstered in blue with trimmings to match in whom you recognized in the effulgence of her full-fledged charms the Denman School girl you used to meet on Bush street as you came down from the old ruined castle they called a high school on Powell street near Clay? She greeted you with the same bubbling effervescent candor of yore when lingering on the corner chewing gum, she declared she did not “care a snap” if Miss Baumgartner (I think such was the title of the directress of the school exclusively for girls) did see her loitering on her way home.

As a clearing-house for Cupid the fair reached the highest fulfillment of its mission. Checks of the varying valuations and doubtful negotiable worth were passed and O. K’d by the love god with a recklessness and abandon that made the casual observer stand aghast. But to the student of the situation, a case-hardened-cynic like the editor of the Mechanics’ Fair Daily, there was a system running through it all that for rings, orbits and milky ways had nature’s solar scheme driven into the last trench.

Much more might be written of daring little escapades upstairs and downstairs, of flirtations with the fans the candy man used to supply and—

But: ta-ta, we must be saying,
To’ard the doors the crowd is straying.
"Home, Sweet Home," the band is playing
So good night, Mechanics’ Fair.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 20 August 1916. 28.

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