To Preserve & Extend
The Pan-American Exposition Lives on Through its Collectors
By Darwin McPherson

Charles Rand Penney
Photo: Jim Bush.
Throughout the summer of 2001, Western New Yorkers will celebrate and remember the majesty of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. It was, some might justifiably say, Buffalo’s finest hour, as millions traveled over land and sea to witness the wonder of emerging technology at the dawning of a new century.

And the Pan-Am Expo still manages to capture the imaginations of historians and local citizens today.

In particular, three individuals in Western New York have been inspired to devote their time and resources to acquiring items related to the Pan-American Exposition.

Charles Penney, Fred Lavin, and Kerry Grant are Pan-Am collectors. This is their story.

Charles Rand Penney
Charles Penney is known internationally for his awe-inspiring art collection—he’s the Penney in the Burchfield-Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College. In Pan-Am collector circles, he’s known for having one of the most extensive collections of Pan-Am memorabilia. His interest in the topic has two origins.

One is personal. Penney’s grandfather, Thomas Penney, was the District Attorney at the time of McKinley’s shooting. He tried the case against assassin Leon Czolgosz. Along with his grandfather’s papers, Penney has scrapbooks from that era that someone associated with Thomas Penney (probably an aide or secretary) must have put together.

The second motivator is a childhood visit to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Souvenirs he bought there inspired him to collect souvenirs from all of America’s World’s Fairs. Because the Pan-Am had a local connection, the Buffalo-born-and-raised Penney took a special interest.

Over the years, with considerable good fortune, Penney has acquired an impressive amount of material related to the Pan-Am and/or World’s Fairs. Most of his collection was purchased at collectibles shows with dealers who specialize in World’s Fairs or at antique shows. In recent times, he has added eBay, the Internet auction service, to his list of resources.

A section of Penney’s
Pan-Am collection.
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis.
In comparing the Pan-American Exposition to other World’s Fairs, Penney says the biggest difference was the use of electricity. “They did have electricity in 1893 in Chicago, but not in the way that we had it here. They were able to get the electricity from Niagara Falls to light up the Pan-Am, so electricity was big.”

He also credits some fascination with Niagara Falls. “The whole world knows about Niagara Falls. They didn’t know that much about Buffalo, but that was the big attraction,” he notes. In his collection, he has photographic evidence in albums of people who visited the Pan-Am at one point, and then visited the Falls.

Penney’s Pan-Am collection falls into different categories. First, he notes “the metal part.” Because aluminum was just coming into prominence then, he has many aluminum items—napkin rings, salt and pepper items, aluminum cups, etc.

The paper collection includes invitations to openings, some of the original bonds used to finance the Expo, books and magazines, and photographs. Recently, Penney acquired the scrapbook of a newspaper reporter who was at the Pan-Am when McKinley was shot.

He also has the famous Spirit of Niagara poster by Evelyn Rumsey Cary, which, in good condition, has a value of at least $2,500. Over 120,000 lithographs were originally printed. Posters of the Expo’s popular Midway are a rarity, yet also a part of Penney’s possessions.

Then there’s glass, which was a popular material at that time for making souvenirs. Many Pan-Am souvenirs were made with ruby colored glass poured over white glass. These items were usually personalized and dated right on the spot.

Penney’s collection also includes textiles like the coincidentally named “penny squares.” The cloth squares were about twelve inches on each side and could be stitched together to make a quilt. The squares, originally sold in fifty-packs for fifty cents, would have different designs on them. Pan-Am penny squares would represent President McKinley and his wife or noted structures like the Temple of Music or the Electricity Building.

The span of possible categories in Penney’s Pan-Am collection seems almost endless. He doesn’t have an exact count of the number of pieces, but Penney estimates it could be anywhere between three to five hundred items.

When asked whether he had a favorite piece, Penney laughed and said, “If you had six children and someone said, ‘Which is your favorite child...’ what would you say?” They’re all my favorites for different reasons. They all have an interest.”

Penney’s interest in the Pan-Am and the history of this area is still ongoing. Whenever he gives a lecture—or attends one—he says he learns something he didn’t know. He actively encourages the sharing of information, and opens his collection for study and analysis by scholars and students, frequently cooperating with the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and students.

“I call this area a research facility because I welcome qualified people like Kerry Grant or Fred Lavin,” Penney said.

Frederick Lavin
Fred Lavin.
Photo: Jim Bush.
Buffalo attorney Fred Lavin started collecting in 1969. Today, he is acknowledged by all as being one of the foremost experts on Pan-Am related material and the possessor of an extraordinary collection. In November 1994, Lavin started the Pan-American Expo Collector’s Society, where he can share his passion with other like-minded individuals.

“I was getting to know a lot of collectors,” Lavin said, “I thought it would be a good idea to meet to exchange items and ideas.” The group started with fifteen charter members, and now has up to sixty-five people.

Though most of them are from around the region, some are from all over the United States with one European member.

As long as he pays dues, Lavin says, anyone can be a member, regardless of whether they collect or not. The Collector’s Society meets six times a year at a member’s house or “an appropriate public venue” like the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. At the meetings, members share their acquisition adventures and show-n-tell their latest finds. Sometimes, special guests address the group about the Pan-Am or something tangentially related (such as President McKinley or collectibles).

Lavin was always interested in Buffalo history, but he started collecting when his wife, Mary, got him involved in antique shopping. Pan-Am collecting was easy at the time because there was very little competition.

In the early days, Lavin was able to build an impressive collection by placing ads in the newspaper, attending antiques and collectibles shows and trading with other collectors.

Of course, things are somewhat different now.

At present, interest in the Pan-Am has grown considerably simply because of the centennial anniversary. Lavin is certain that many of these collectors are in it for the short term, hoping to profit from the hype.

Unfortunately, eBay, the Internet auction service, has been a dual-edged sword for serious collectors. On one side, it has opened international pathways for the discovery of Pan-Am pieces, but on the other, it has created a volatile market with often unreasonably expensive prices.

Lavin points to an example of a deck of Pan-Am playing cards. They’re proven to be an attractive collective because each card has a different Pan-Am image on it; however, the decks are notoriously common. Not long ago, they sold for about five or six dollars per deck. With the centennial currently enhancing interest, it seems that sixty dollars is the going rate.

Yet Lavin has seen the deck sell for $160.00 on eBay, because unsavvy collectors with deep pockets drove up the price. Now, many opportunistic dealers are trying to get over $100.00 for the decks because it’s been done, but that isn’t an accurate reflection of their market value.

To remedy this problem, Lavin is writing and publishing a price guide for items connected with the Pan-American Exposition. To be as comprehensive as possible, he’s doing it in two volumes. The first will cover paper items, like postcards and magazines, and should be out in time for the centennial. The second will deal with more concrete matters like mugs and buttons.

“Most World’s Fairs have a price guide,” Lavin said, “We should have one for the Pan-Am. Given my interest and my studying, I’m the logical person to do it.”

Indeed, he is. Lavin’s collection encompasses every possible angle of the Pan-Am, from “official” souvenirs to personal scrapbooks from the era. Again, an exact count hasn’t been determined and Lavin was hard-pressed to name a favorite.

Yet upon further consideration, he mentioned being fond of something that he found through a newspaper ad he placed. A woman called him about the penny square quilt that her grandmother made. “It’s nice to have something with a family history to it. Most things you get in shops or just buy from someone who got it from someone else,” Lavin said.

Another favored piece is a watch fob that is decorated on one side with the distinctive logo/emblem of the Pan-Am Expo designed by Raphael Beck that features two women, representing North and South America, and their friendship. The other side features the logo of Simon Pure Beer.

Often souvenirs are “crossover collectibles” because someone could be interested in something despite its Pan-Am context. Items made by or featuring certain companies, like Simon Pure, Welch’s or White’s Pottery are fascinating by themselves. McKinley and Native American memorabilia also have that dual appeal.

“The more you collect, the more you find what’s out there that you don’t have,” Lavin observed. Yet he doesn’t intend to collect forever. His son has no interest in maintaining the collection, so Lavin said that sometime in the future, he’ll limit what he keeps and eventually sell the rest.

Kerry Grant.
Photo: Jim Bush.
Kerry S. Grant
Currently the vice-provost of Academic Affairs and dean of the Graduate School at the University at Buffalo, Kerry Grant entered the collecting field considerably later than Penney and Lavin. In 1998, as the then-dean of Arts and Sciences, Grant started researching the Pan-Am because UB was intent on participating in the upcoming centennial celebration. This research developed into a specialized interest in the Pan-Am. Grant now has one of the leading collections of paper-based products related to the Pan-Am. Guide books, periodicals, journals, maps, promotional advertisements, photobooks and numerous other printed materials form the basis of his collection. By traveling to paper shows, buying online and trading with other collectors like Fred Lavin, Grant created a treasure trove of information for a grander purpose.

With a great deal of cooperation from the Historical Society, UB, Canisius College and private collectors, Grant has gathered a plethora of information for a book called The Rainbow City. Its purpose is to showcase the colorful world that the Pan-Am Expo displayed. Unfortunately, most people perceive the Pan-Am as “a study in gray,” as Historical Society’s William Siener said in his introduction for the book.

“I started collecting this material for its own sake, to learn about the Exposition,” Grant said. “The idea of the book came as I realized that everything I was reading about talked about the wonderful colors, but all I could see was black and white. Where’s the color?”

As the centennial displays and attractions developed, it became apparent that color imagery from the Expo existed. However, once the anniversary was over, those pictures would go back into storage. So Grant decided to bring together images from various collections—his own, Charles Penney’s, the Historical Society and other sources—to preserve public access to them.

Grant says The Rainbow City has 140 images. It takes readers through the grounds and talks about how they were perceived at the time. This was the first fair to utilize color the way it did. “It was an innovation,” Grant said.

“One of the concepts of the Pan-American was that the architect, the sculptor, and the person responsible for color, should all be working at the same time. You shouldn’t build a building then have somebody come to paint it. Then somebody comes along and sticks some sculpture in front of it. It should be a unified approach, all the arts at one time.”

Designers from Crowley-Webb worked very closely with Grant on The Rainbow City to determine the placement of images.

Grant had so much to work with because the Pan-Am was a well-documented and marketed event—both before and after it occurred. Much of the text in his book was derived from periodicals and journals of the day, like Cosmopolitan magazine and the American Review of Reviews, which devoted whole issues to the public response to the Expo.

A little pamphlet called The Pan-American Timesaver cost Grant about forty dollars, but proved to be invaluable. “It’s a nice, concise little guide on how to do the Fair in a hurry and see the most important things,” Grant said.

More comprehensive is a set of The Pan-American Herald, which Grant paid between five to ninety dollars per individual issue over the Internet. They were periodicals issued before and during the Exposition to how it was going to be designed. These pieces traced the evolution of the Fair and are now very expensive. Grant said Fred Lavin believes Grant’s Herald collection might be the “best single collection in anyone’s hands.”

Another section of Charles Penney’s
Pan-Am collection.
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis.
Today, these printed matters are of some interest because of their vivid representations of the event. However, most collectors prefer “knick-knacky” things, like spoons, mugs, pins, and other items bearing Beck’s familiar Pan-Am logo (or variations thereof).

Even though his University work prompted his interest in the Pan-Am, Grant’s involvement is very personal. He used his own money to finance his collection.

“It’s a miracle my children are still in college,” Grant said with a laugh, trying not to dwell on what he’s spent. Most of the items he has, he used strictly for their practical value. His first concern has been gathering information, not the sport of collecting.

But Grant confesses to a couple of favorite items. One is a piece of original Pan-American stock that gives him a sense of ownership. And even though it’s not paper, he also likes a clock that is decorated with all of the insignias of the Pan-American republics that were invited to the fair. It’s a genuine rarity that was a gift from a friend.

Now that The Rainbow City is done, Grant’s collecting has slowed. He says he probably won’t be able to resist “something in color,” but otherwise, he’s done. For the moment, he’s still enjoying it, but predicts that eventually he’ll donate his paper collection, in its totality, to the University.

The Pan-Am was one of the best marketed events in early American history. The journal Profitable Advertising in June 1901 said advertising was “the golden key that has opened the door of success to the Pan-American Exposition.” The Publicity Committee, which included E.H. Butler, William C. Cornwell, and Darwin Martin, appointed Frank R. Rosseel to spread the word. Rosseel’s successful merchandising created the legacy that Penney, Lavin, and Grant use to effectively continue his work.

While collecting is often a for-profit venture, these Western New York Pan-Am fans do it strictly for its fascinating historical and educational benefits. Their efforts to share those benefits will continue throughout the centennial celebration.

Pieces owned by Charles Penney and other members of the Collector’s Society will be shown in The Pan-American Exposition Centennial: Historic Collections from May 5-July 8 at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

Fred Lavin and the Pan-American Expo Collector’s Society will exhibit Tangible Memories: Souvenirs of Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition from August 1-September 30 at the University at Buffalo.

The Rainbow City, written by Kerry Grant, designed by Crowley-Webb, and published by Canisius College Press, was released on April 25. It is available in local bookstores and at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Special thanks to Michele Gallant of UB and Melissa Wertman-Brown of the Historical Society for their assistance in the production of this article.

Darwin McPherson, a Buffalo freelance writer, is a theater writer for
Artvoice and Publicity Coordinator for WNED-TV-AM-FM.


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