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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

St. Louis World's Fair in 1904


Sometimes by accident – or with help – I stumble across something that fascinates me. When I made plans to visit Jefferson City, MO, this week, Kyle Stewart of The Beender-Walker Group suggested I might enjoy the “Museum after Hours” program at the Missouri State Museum.

Robert Herman
I attended the lecture by Robert Herman, a Jefferson City resident and St. Louis World’s Fair expert.  In 1986, Robert and his wife found a World’s Fair artifact in their new home. Fascinated by the history of the piece, they began researching the fair and developed a decades-long love affair with the event and its memorabilia.

The fair, called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. With nearly 20,000 visitors, the St. Louis Fair covered nearly two square miles and became a temporary home to the 20,000 exhibitionists and vendors. The fair opened on April 30, 1904, and closed on December 1.

Billed as the “University of Man,” the fair brought together 50 countries, 44 states and the first Olympics ever held outside Europe. For most Americans, it was the first experience of world cultures. People came from around the world, brought their homes with them, and set up their country’s exhibits.  At the time the fair was planned, St. Louis boasted 600,000 residents and was the sixth largest city in the country.

Robert shared the stories of the edible ice cream cone and iced tea – both popularized at the fair.  His slide show and presentation covered the history and organization of the fair, pictures and descriptions of many of the International exhibits and personalized stories from people he interviewed. One man told him that he attended the fair as a child and remembered his first ice cream cone. He described it as “the ice cream was a little bit soft, the waffle a little warm, and half of the whole thing ended up down the front of my shirt.”

At the time, people were fortunate to have homes with one single light bulb in each room. For the first time, they saw thousands of lights on the buildings at night. The Palace of Electricity showcased such inventions as the x-ray machine, tape recorder and electric stove. Innovations viewed at the fair became the topic at family meals and social events for years to come.

The observation wheel (what we know as the Ferris wheel) was transported down from the site of the Chicago World’s Fair. It took thirty railroad cars to carry it. The axle alone weighed seventy tons. It was destroyed at the end of the fair because of the prohibitive cost to move it.

This is just a sampling of the information that Robert presented in one short evening. He and his wife have donated their World’s Fair collection to the museum which plans to open the complete exhibit in 1914.

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