Welte-Mignon at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition
The most visually striking part of a Welte-Mignon purple seal roll is its colorful leader. Seen below, it proudly displays the various awards that the company received from fairs and exhibitions around the world.
This includes the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), held in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and demonstrate San Francisco’s recovery from its 1906 earthquake. Held from February 20 - December 4, 1915, the fair welcomed over 18 million visitors in the current Marina District of San Francisco. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the PPIE, which the Bay Area celebrated with events and exhibits throughout 2015.
What was the role of Welte-Mignon at the PPIE? Did the company have its own exhibit? Could visitors watch the perforation of new rolls, learn about the recording process, or just enjoy a musical demonstration?
The official PPIE Catalogue lists: “Welts & Sons, M. New York, N.Y. Welte cabinet player. Min. Pal, Ave. D & 7th Street”.
This exhibitor is the New York branch of Welte-Mignon, whose factory had just opened in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1913, rather than the original German company. Even though Germany did not have an official presence at the PPIE, due to World War I, the Department of Liberal Arts did host a number of exhibitors from Germany.
More importantly, note the location: the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy. In the catalogue, Welte & Sons is part of the Department of Liberal Arts, Group 37 (Musical Instruments). Meanwhile other piano manufacturers were located in the Musical Instruments section of the Palace of Liberal Arts, or as part of displays in official state buildings. Musical performances happened throughout the fairgrounds. What was a Welte cabinet player doing in the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy?
According to the Final Report of the Chief of the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy: “The Palace of Mines and Metallurgy has a floor space of 240,000 sq ft laid out in blocks ranging from 1,000 sq ft to 7500 sq ft. giving a net exhibit area of 175,000 sq ft.” Exhibits in the building included a demonstration mine, radioactive ores, free bathrooms and drinking fountains for visitors, and the products created from raw materials.
Using the catalog’s location for M. Welte & Sons, at Avenue D and 7th Street, in conjunction with the official guidebook to the Palace of Mines & Metallurgy, it’s clear that their exhibit was at the edge of the 44,000 sq. ft. U.S. Steel exhibit. More specifically, those coordinates are in the subsidiary American Steel and Wire Company section. The guidebook to this Palace lists the different parts of the American Steel and Wire Company, including Musical wire located at Avenue D and 7th Street. The Music Trade Review covered the PPIE throughout the year, with a focus on the success of piano vendors and manufacturers at the exhibition. Its extensive review of the Musical Wire section of the American Steel and Wire Company's part of the U.S. Steel exhibit shows a section of the Steinway piano in which the Welte-Mignon mechanism had been installed. Another issue explains that "A Welte-Mignon in connection with a Steinway grand and harps and other instruments are also featured [in the musical wire section]."
Welte-Mignon received the Medal of Honor. Judges at the PPIE awarded six levels of awards: Grand Prize (Best of Class) ; Medal of Honor (95-100 points) ; Gold Medal (85-94 points) ; Silver Medal (75-84 points) ; Bronze Medal (60-74 points) ; Honorable Mention (without medal). Visitors could probably hear the Welte-Mignon playing during one of the four musical demonstration times each day that happened at the musical wire exhibit, inside soundproof rooms.
Meanwhile in the Liberal Arts Palace, Eilers Music House’s exhibit included a wide range of award-winning offerings, like a harpsichord that had supposedly once been played by Liszt. It even had a "music roll cutting machines...in actual operation, some of the pianos being connected with the perforating mechanism, and artists may make actual and correct music roll records of their playing 'while they wait.'" Beyond the Music Trade Review, the Final report of Theodore Hardee, Chief of the Department of Liberal Arts to the Director of Exhibits has an excellent post-exhibition review of the Department of Liberal Arts exhibitors. Reviewing the Welte contribution to the PPIE, Hardee writes: "This company had a very fine exhibit of Welte cabinet piano-players, in Mines Palace. This was a very interesting instrument and of its kind perhaps one of the best on the market."
Ackley, Laura A. San Francisco's Jewel City: The Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. , 2015. Print. Find it at a library near you
Fairs and festivals, Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). San Francisco Ephemera Collection. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco. Archive finding aid