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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Immigrant Communities of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition

Nina Morgana Nina Morgana

The immigrant1 settlements of Buffalo must have felt a particular interest in the Pan-American Exposition, because they found both their countries of origin and the United States depicted in new and interesting ways. Because Buffalo was a major transportation hub in the 19th century and early 20th century, immigrants and their families made up a large and growing portion of the population.

The participation of Buffalo's ethnic populations in the Pan-American Exposition varied. There were prominent citizens like Mayor Conrad Diehl, and George Urban, Jr., both of whom were sons of German immigrants, serving on the Exposition's Board of Directors. The more infamous Leon Czolgosz, who was of Polish descent and whose actions as the assassin of President William McKinley, deeply shamed and angered Buffalo's Polish community. Czolgosz was not a resident of Buffalo, but has certainly become linked to the city and the Exposition. Less prominent but no less influential were the laborers who dug the canals and operated the railroads as well as those recruited to work in the concessions as waiters, entertainers, and other employees. One such employee, Nina Morgana, was the daughter of Italian immigrants to Buffalo, and as a child sang at the "Venice in America" exhibit. She would eventually go on to perform with the Metropolitan Opera.

Many immigrants traveled to Buffalo in 1901, expressly to work in the exhibits and concessions on the Midway. Examples are the Bavarian brass band members at "Alt Nürnberg," and the gondoliers at the "Venice in America" concession. Although Buffalo was a relatively progressive city at the turn of the century, there is little question that these exhibits promoted the ethnic stereotypes typical of 1901 America. Exposition planners and promoters had little use for cultural sensitivity, since their exhibits were designed to draw crowds and make money. Thus, the "exotic" nature of various ethnic cultures and the stereotypical behavior of their employees was emphasized and encouraged. For many fairgoers, these "exhibits" were their first exposure to foreign culture.2

This component of the online exhibit is limited to addressing four of the larger immigrant communities existing in Buffalo at the time of the Pan-American Exposition:

Admittedly, the exhibit is heavily weighted toward participation of the more prominent members of these ethnic communities. For instance, the German-American population of Buffalo had become quite prominent in business and politics by 1901, so of course, there is quite a bit of information available. Other ethnic groups, Buffalo's Italian, Polish and Irish populations, still dominated the skilled and unskilled labor fields of the working class at the turn of the century. Certainly these groups were represented in some capacity at the Exposition, as builders, concession workers, police and firemen, etc. However, evidence and artifacts related to those who actually "worked" to build and operate the fair have not been as forthcoming. Indeed, readers with any such information are encouraged to contact this exhibit's Web Development Team since our research in this area is ongoing.


  1. Buffalo as in many other cities, ethnic populations formed communities within communities, thus maintaining strong ties to many cultural and ethnic traditions. In this online exhibit, the term "immigrant" is not limited to those born in another country but includes multiple generations within a particular ethnic community.
  2. There were dozens of cultures represented at the Exposition. Some, like the "Esquimaux Village" and "Beautiful Orient" were isolated to the midway. Other countries, like Mexico, had midway attractions as well as more culturally accurate representation in the Ethnology exhibits and Mexico's own commissioned building. It is unfortunate that we do not have the resources or information available to comprehensively exhibit information on all of these areas. We will, however update our listing of related links as more resources on cultural representation at the Pan-American Exposition become available.

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