Nearly 19 million people from all walks of life thronged through the turnstiles of San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair—young and old, men and women, ordinary and famous.
Among the celebrated fairgoers were the author Laura Ingalls Wilder, the horticulturist Luther Burbank, the inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, former president Theodore Roosevelt, the escape artist Harry Houdini, and the educator/activist Helen Keller.
“Helen Keller is the eighth wonder of the world,” wrote her friend and the literary giant Mark Twain in his January 1901 journal entry. The social reformer Upton Sinclair called Keller “America’s most famous blind girl . . . who has come to see more than most people with normal eyes.” The planners of the fair surely agreed, for they designated November 6, 1915, Helen Keller Day.
As fair historian Laura A. Ackley has written, “Of all the speakers at the more than one hundred educational conferences held on the [fair] grounds, the most memorable were an Italian doctor and a blind and deaf activist and her teacher.”
Ackley is referring to the innovative Italian educator Maria Montessori, creator of the Montessori Method of education; Helen Keller; and her teacher Anne Mansfield Sullivan (Mrs. John A. Macy). Sullivan’s techniques for taking Keller from illiteracy to a college education—she was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree—brought them both an astonishing degree of fame.
Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen Keller (1880–1968) contracted a fever that left her deaf and blind at the age of about 18 months. With the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, she learned to use sign language, read braille, and acquire speech. Her story was widely popularized through a series of dramatic works, most notably under the title The Miracle Worker, the name Mark Twain coined for Sullivan.
Helen Keller Day at the Fair
On Helen Keller Day, Keller, Sullivan, and Montessori each received a Teacher’s Award for their contributions to education. In her address before more than 3,000 members of the California Teachers’ Association at the fair’s Festival Hall, Keller noted: “How wonderful it all seems, as I think of the day when she [Sullivan] came to me in a small out-of-the-way town in Alabama to open the doors of the world and let me come in out of the silence and the night.”
Montessori shared a free-form educational philosophy with Sullivan and commented about her, “I have been called a pioneer . . . but there is your pioneer.” She called Keller “the first pupil of the School of Freedom.”
Montessori had opened a demonstration school inside the Palace of Education and Social Economy. From a balcony, fairgoers could observe children ranging in age from 3 to 6 who were encouraged to learn at their own speed. The glass-enclosed Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) opened on August 6, 1915—which was declared Montessori Day at the fair—and operated for six weeks. By 1915, there were over 150 Montessori schools in the United States.
On Helen Keller Day, Sullivan accepted her Teacher’s Medal with remarks that expressed her progressive views on educational theory—some of which are not unlike those we hear today:
Our schools give no encouragement to assimilation, reflection, observation. They kill imagination in the bud. . . . [T]he system causes the pupil to prize high grades above knowledge, and he goes from the schools into his life work believing always that the score is more important than the game, possession more praiseworthy than achievement. . . .
In honoring Helen Keller and her teacher you declare your faith that in every child born into the world there are latent capacities for the development of an individual that shall be an honor to the human race; you attest your belief that every teacher worthy [of] that exalted name is able and willing to help to build the school of the future, the school of freedom.
A social critic and suffragist, Keller also spoke that day in the Palace of Education at the Freedom Booth, sponsored by the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. The booth displayed flags, banners, and other suffrage exhibits about extending the vote to women. In the evening, the educators were honored at a dinner at the Massachusetts Building.
Keller had spoken at the Festival Hall six months earlier, on April 6, with her lecture “Happiness.” In a poster advertising the event, she shares the bill with Harry Houdini, the “Elusive American,” who promised to escape from being “manacled, nailed in a box, roped, and dropped into the Bay.” After her lecture Keller left a large, signed photograph of herself at the Freedom Booth, where it hung for the remainder of the fair.
Keller spoke about her experiences at the fair with a reporter of the Boston American in April 1915: “The exposition—what a wonderful thing to see. . . . The colors—I could not see them but do you know I believe since I was at the exposition I know how color feels. It cannot be any more beautiful to your eyes than it was to my mind.” She also described her enchantment with the Palace of Fine Arts and the exhibit of incubator babies in the Joy Zone.
The day the fair honored Helen Keller would foreshadow more recent tributes. In 1971 Helen Keller International (which Keller helped establish in 1915) declared June 1 as Helen Keller Day. On June 19, 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued Proclamation 4767. He proclaimed June 27, 1980—the 100th anniversary of Keller’s birth—Helen Keller Day, a day for “ceremonies, programs, and activities” as “a mark of respect for her achievements.”
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Featured Image: Helen Keller seated at right with mother, Kate Adams Keller, and Annie Sullivan (standing), 1914. Library of Congress
Laura A. Ackley, San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley/San Francisco: Heyday/California Historical Society, 2014).
Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, After the Vote Was Won: The Later Achievements of Fifteen Suffragists (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.).
American Foundation for the Blind, “Anne Sullivan Macy: Miracle Worker,” www.afb.org.
American Montessori Society, “The Glass Classroom,” https://amshq.org.
The American Presidency Project, “Proclamation 3767—Helen Keller Day,” http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=44622.
Passport to Success: CHS’s Educational Initiative
Another woman active at the fair who was devoted to education was Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the University of California’s first female regent. The California Historical Society, as an organizing partner of the PPIE100—the organizing group of San Francisco’s citywide Centennial Celebration of the fair—has established the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Educational Fund to provide yearlong National History Day programs and, along with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, to support the educational initiative Passport to Success.
Passport to Success connects underserved middle and high school students with hands-on opportunities relating to California history. In its pilot phase, launched in summer 2015, students visited CHS and additional PPIE100 partners. They explored technological and social innovations of 1915 and engaged in activities encouraging them to think critically about innovations of 1915 and today and about what may develop in the future. The project has continued into the fall with Bay Area afterschool programs.