Miss Columbia is declared Queen of the Carnival at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle on August 19, 1909.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/03/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8881
On August 19, 1909, Nancy Columbia (1893-1959), also known as Miss Columbia and Columbia Eneutseak, is declared Queen of the Carnival at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle after a heated popularity contest.  The announcement is made at contest headquarters at Ye College Inn near the Exposition grounds. Born in Chicago where her mother was appearing in the Eskimo Village exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition, 16-year-old Miss Columbia is a veteran exposition performer who has captured the attention of the public with her beauty, exoticism, and captivating public persona.

Professional Performers

Miss Columbia and her mother and siblings were part of a well-established troupe of Labradorean Inuit and Inuit-descent performers appearing as part of the Eskimo Village concession on the Pay Streak at the A-Y-P under the direction of Columbia's mother and possibly her stepfather.  A larger group of Inuit from Siberia and another group from Alaska, both under the direction of the concession's manager, Captain A. M. Baber, were also featured.  The three groups appear not to have intermingled, maintaining distinct "villages" within the Eskimo Village concession. 

In the months prior to the A-Y-P's opening, Baber's group had undertaken a publicity tour through Walla Walla, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, Topeka, and points in between.  The Siberian natives participated in numerous parades and appeared twice a day to sold-out vaudeville houses, demonstrating what one newspaper called "the pursuits, athletic feats, and pleasures of the Eskimos supplemented with slides and moving pictures of scenes in the arctic regions" ("Building Eskimo Village Is Begun").  Captain Baber accompanied their vaudeville performances with a short lecture about the A-Y-P Exposition.

The Eskimo Village was billed as an authentic depiction of life in what weekly newspaper display advertisements trumpeted as "The Frozen North -- Entertaining -- Amusing -- Instructive -- Aboriginals of Siberia and Labrador living as they do on their native snow barrens" (The Seattle Daily Times, August 15, 1909).  The exterior facade, a giant log cabin almost completely covered by craggy ersatz ice and snow, held a prime location at the right-angle where the North Pay Streak intersected with the South Pay Streak.  The word "ESKIMOS" was spelled out high above the main entrance in electric light bulbs.  Photographs of the A-Y-P Eskimo Village interior do not appear to have survived, but such images taken at other expositions of the era show performers posing with dogs and dog sleds against faux ice and snow crafted from plaster, canvas, and white paint.  During the A-Y-P Columbia and her fellow performers posed in an outdoor portion of the Eskimo Village with an "igloo."  Performers demonstrated native crafts and games, usually wearing full sealskin garments.

World's Fair Baby

The Eskimo Village at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the first such paid ethnographic exhibition featuring so-called Eskimos. Lyle Vincent and Ralph G. Taber of Spokane traveled up the coast of Labrador recruiting Inuit to populate the Chicago Eskimo Village.  Most of those who agreed to travel to Chicago lived near Moravian missionary settlements and spoke English. Twelve Inuit families, including the pregnant Esther Eneutsiak (then age 15) and her parents, Helene and Abile, arrived in Chicago in October 1892 and were housed on the fairgrounds as the fair buildings were being constructed.  During this construction period, three of the Inuit women, including Esther, gave birth on the fairgrounds.

Perhaps because Esther was so young and was not married, or perhaps for publicity reasons, wealthy socialite Berthe Honore Palmer, president of the World's Columbian Exposition Board of Lady Managers, stood as godmother to Esther's baby and chose her name: Nancy Helene Columbia Palmer. During Columbia's babyhood and youth, this fleeting contact with Palmer was routinely used to market her -- display advertisements reminded the public that she was "named in compliment to the first lady of Chicago, Mrs. Potter Palmer ... this mite in seal skins ... the cutest baby ever seen ... every man, woman, and child must see this baby!" Another advertisement of the era called Columbia "the only Yankee Esquimaux on earth" (both reprinted in Zwick, p. 34).

An ongoing dispute over living conditions resulted in most of the Inuit families including Columbia's quitting the fairground village just before the World's Columbian Exposition opened.  With local backing they eventually established their own Eskimo Village outside the fairgrounds. 

From babyhood, Columbia's visage became famous to schoolchildren across America, whether they knew it or not.  Alex Everett Frye's series of elementary geography primers, revised and re-issued every year or so and widely used in American classrooms, featured a line drawing clearly taken from a photograph of baby Columbia made during the World's Columbian Exposition over the caption "Eskimo Baby."  Other geography textbooks, such as Frye's 1912 Elements of Geography, explicitly mention Columbia and the story of her birth.

Columbia's biographer, Jim Zwick, found that Columbia and her immediate family did not go to Labrador after their appearance in Chicago, but instead worked steadily in expositions in the United States and abroad.  They also appeared at city, county, and state fairs, in dime museums, and with Barnum & Bailey's Circus. Columbia apparently lived in Labrador with her grandparents from 1896 to 1899.  From 1903 to 1907 the troupe was a popular feature at the Luna Park amusement park in New York's Coney Island, using it as a home base while still appearing at major expositions elsewhere.   

First famous for her novel birthplace and for her mother's provenance, photogenic Columbia was marketed throughout her performing career as both highly exotic and approachably friendly.  She evidently attended various North American public schools and, according to Zwick, had a New York accent. 

Picture Perfect

By the time she and her fellow Labradorean Inuit performers began their stint at the A-Y-P Exposition, Columbia was an exposition veteran, the World's Fair equivalent of the old theatrical descriptor "born in a trunk."  A pre-fair article in The Seattle Star states that Captain A. M. Baber called her "Columbia, Gem of the Arctic."  The article heavily stressed that (as the headline read) "pretty little Columbia" refreshingly shared what were at the time accepted and expected stereotypical female characteristics: "Columbia isn't anything if she isn't attractive, and she knows she is as she flashes her sunny smile at you ... . It takes only one glance from those dark eyes and you will call her pretty names.  She will enjoy them, too, for she is wholly feminine and her Eskimo trappings but add novelty to her other charms" ("Pretty Little Columbia..."). 

During the fair Columbia was frequently photographed on the Pay Streak and elsewhere on the fairgrounds, often attired in seal skin pants, mukluk boots, and a caribou parka.  When celebrities visited the fairgrounds, local newspaper coverage frequently mentioned a meeting with Columbia.  For an exposition primarily focused on the resources, history, and mystique of Alaska, friendly photogenic Miss Columbia was public relations perfection.

The Eskimo Village was the third-most profitable Pay Streak concession, generating more revenue than any other anthropological concession, almost certainly owing to Columbia's high profile during the fair. 

A Heated Race

The Seattle Daily Times announced the Carnival Queen contest on August 3, 1909, printing a coupon ballot that readers could fill in and submit.  Readers could vote as many times as they wanted as long as they did so using the official ballot -- presumably this sold at least some extra copies.  The article went on to state that the Carnival Queen would reign over Concessionaires' Day on August 20, promising "During her royal career at the Exposition, all Seattle and indeed all the Northwest will combine to do her honor" ("Plans Made...").  Concessionaires' Day quickly became known as Pay Streak Day, probably because so many of the fair's concessions were located on the Pay Streak midway area, and by the time the Carnival Queen ballots were tallied her title had evolved into Pay Streak Queen. 

Although newspaper coverage does not expressly state that the contestants were to be drawn from the ranks of women working in A-Y-P concessions, most of those mentioned in the local newspapers' running daily tallies were in fact employed on the Pay Streak.  As the contest progressed, the newspaper coverage stressed the wide range of ethnicities represented among the contestants.  "Great rivalry between girls of various nationalities has been aroused by the contest for the honor of being queen of the Pay Streak Carnival next Friday. The contest is more than ordinarily exciting from the fact that American-born girls living outside the Exposition grounds are up against various candidates representative of Hawaii, the Frozen North, Egypt, Japan, Mexico, Syria, Spain, and Italy" ("Maids of Many Nations...").

Miss Columbia's total vote was 58,410.  Miss Maud Thomas, a Seattle girl with Gibson-girl good looks, finished second with 50,968.  Thomas, described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as "a young woman who helps support her widowed mother and her brothers and sisters," was a such a strong local favorite that her supporters claimed the ballots might have been tampered with (August 19, 1909).  The other runners-up included Miss Fay Masqueria, Nila Rimbold, La Belle Baya, Irma Davis, Mazie Lupton, Madame Zenobia, Jessie de White, and Pearl Bull.

The Seattle Daily Times stated that along with the title, Miss Columbia won a $300 lot (Lot 5, Block 3, Third Addition to Summit Place) in the Clyde Hill area of Bellevue.  The property was said to have been donated by Seattle real-estate broker (and later Mayor) Ole Hanson (1874-1940).  However, King County property records show no indication that Ole Hanson ever transferred this (or any) property to Columbia or other members of her family.

Pay Streak Royalty

Miss Columbia and her court arrived by boat, alighting on the esplanade at the foot of the Pay Streak. After salutes and pageantry, performers from the Pay Streak, representing more than 20 nationalities, escorted Miss Columbia on a parade through the grounds. The Seattle Daily Times stated, "Everywhere the pretty daughter of the Far North was greeted with cheers and applause as she rode through the exposition streets, clad in her royal robes" ("Concessionaires Strive For Record").

Chariot races were featured in the stadium during the afternoon, along with what The Seattle Daily Times described as "the freak animal race ... camels, elephants, ostriches, monkeys, and in fact every kind of animal from the Pay Streak which can be induced to run over the course" ("Eskimo Maiden Pay Streak's Queen").  The crowd also enjoyed two public weddings, one in the Ferris Wheel and one in the Captive Balloon; a water carnival; and the destruction of a full-sized sailing vessel accompanied by the rescue of its crew by lifesaving demonstrators.  Following the evening's fireworks display, Miss Columbia distributed prizes to the day's many contest winners.

Two weeks later The Seattle Daily Times announced, "Columbia, the belle of the Eskimo Village on the Pay Streak at the exposition and voted in popular contest to be the prettiest woman on the great joy path, where on Concessionaire's Day recently she was the reigning monarch, will hold a series of public receptions in the Eskimo Village every afternoon and evening this week ... at which she will converse with her visitors, tell them of her early life, of her experiences in the North, and present each with an autographed postcard of herself" ("Columbia, Eskimo Belle...").  Whether Columbia's formative experiences as an ethnological theatrical performer at Coney Island were part of her conversation with her visitors is not known.

Life After A-Y-P

After the A-Y-P Exposition ended, Columbia, her mother Esther, stepfather John C. Smith, and siblings Norman (age 7) and Florence (age 3) continued living in Seattle at least through April 20, 1910, when the family was enumerated in the 1910 U.S. Census.  Their address was listed as 3725 12th Avenue NE, a short walk from the Pay Streak, on property that now (2009) belongs to the University of Washington.  Seattle Public Schools records show no indication that either Columbia or Norman Smith were enrolled during this period.

Shortly thereafter, the family established an independent Eskimo Village attraction at Ocean Park, California, developed a side business supplying the nascent Hollywood film industry with sleds, dog teams, furs, and other costumes, and appeared as extras in movies set in the frozen north.  In 1911 Columbia wrote and starred in The Way of the Eskimo, an early silent motion picture produced by the Selig Polyscope Company.  There appear to be no existing prints of the film. 

Sometime during the early 1920s, Columbia married motion picture operator Ray Melling.  In 1927 their daughter Esther Sue was born, and Columbia Melling apparently led a private life thereafter. She spent her later years living in Encino, California, managing an apartment/hotel.  Columbia died on August 16, 1959, almost exactly half a century after her dazzling success as Queen of the Pay Streak, and six months after Alaska achieved statehood.

Sources: "Eskimo Maiden Pay Streak's Queen," The Seattle Daily Times, August 19, 1909; "Plans Made For Naming Queen of the Big Carnival," Ibid., August 3, 1909; "Prize For Beauty on Pay Streak," Ibid., August 4, 1909; "A.-Y.-P. Pay Streak Amusements," Ibid., August 15, 1909; "Maids of Many Nations Are Rivals," Ibid., August 5, 1909; "Concessionaires Strive For Record," Ibid., August 20, 1909; "Free Show Day On Pay Streak," Ibid., August 20, 1909; "Columbia, Eskimo Belle, Will Hold Receptions," Ibid., August 29, 1909;  "John Mason Sees The Fair -- And Columbia," Ibid., August 14, 1909; "Miss Columbia Wins Contest," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 19, 1909; Secretary's Report of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (Seattle: Gateway Printing, 1911),  29-36; Jim Zwick, Inuit Entertainers In The United States: From the Chicago World's Fair Through The Birth Of Hollywood (West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Infinity Publishing Company, 2006); Seattle Public Schools archivist Eleanor H. Towes, email to Paula Becker, October 27, 2008, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington; "Building Eskimo Village Is Begun," unidentified undated newspaper clipping, National and Foreign Participation folder, Accession 979.743 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo, University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Bonnie Wheeler,  "Pretty Little Columbia Is One Of The A.-Y.-P. Winners," The Seattle Star, May 10, 1909; "The Way Of The Eskimo," The Moving Picture World, July 15, 1911, p. 54; "Go Back To Labrador," The Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1896, p. 5; "Columbia S. Melling," Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1959, Part 4, p. 12; King County Real Property Tax Assessments, Vol. 55, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch; 1910 U.S. Census Washington, KING, 10-WD SEATTLE Series:T624 Roll:1661, p. 3; Alex Everett Frye, First Book In Geography (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910), p. 50; Alex Everett Frye, Elements of Geography ( Boston: Ginn and Company, 1912), p. 42.

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