of Them All
The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair remains a spectacle
unmatched before or since
The beauty of this
place was such as to fix the beholder to the spot. It was truly wonderful.”
So wrote St. Louis attorney Edward Schneiderhahn as he attempted to convey
what the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis looked like. “It is
a pity that it is impossible for language to ever adequately describe
largest building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, better
known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, was the Palace of Agriculture,
which covered 18 acres. Visitors to the building passed a giant,
working floral clock. Everything about the world’s fair in
St. Louis was meant to impress and amaze.
witnessed the fair’s opening day on April 30, 1904, feared his words
fell well short, as did most of those who experienced the Louisiana Purchase
Exposition, as the St. Louis World’s Fair was officially called.
Held to commemorate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803,
which more than doubled the size of the United States, the St. Louis World’s
Fair became the nation’s largest and most successful international
More than twice the
physical size of the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, the St. Louis
fair attracted more than 25 million visitors who traveled from all over
the nation and the world to visit Missouri. The fair did more than look
back at history. It more importantly looked ahead at the dawn of a new
century full of the promise that technology and peace offered the world.
No one at the fair in 1904 could imagine how that promise would be shattered
by world war only a decade later.
“It was constructed
to be sort of an ideal of what humanity was moving toward. It was the
era of progress before World War I,” says Karl Kindt, who teaches
a class on the history of the St. Louis World’s Fair at Webster
“There was a
great sense of trust in human nature and that we were progressing toward
a time where we would bring the peoples of the earth together.”
Observation Wheel was the largest Ferris wheel in the world.
Everything about the
St. Louis World’s Fair was huge and “indescribably grand,”
wrote Schneiderhahn, whose memoir of the fair was included in a book of
fair letters and diaries by that title published in 1996 by the Missouri
Historical Society Press. The scale of the fair absolutely boggled the
mind, says Southwest Missouri State University agriculture professor Lyndon
Irwin, who has researched the farming
and livestock exhibits there.
“It was absolutely
huge in comparison to anything anyone at the time had probably ever seen
in their lives,” says Irwin.
The fair grounds covered
more than 1,200 acres of Forest Park in St. Louis and included more than
1,500 buildings and 5 million square feet of exhibition space. The architectural
focus of the fair was several grand palaces which celebrated advances
in the world’s technology and cultural development. The largest
was the Palace of Agriculture, a building nearly a third of a mile long
covering more than 18 acres and featuring 10,000 exhibitors.
“To put that
into perspective,” says Irwin, “the Edward Jones Dome (home
of the St. Louis Rams football team) covers about 12 acres.”
fair was a gigantic display case for companies, states and nations to
show off their technological achievements as well as artistic and cultural
refinements. It would be similar to an industrial trade show today but
on a massive scale.
button from Missouri Day at the St. Louis World's Fair
Someone once figured
if they walked down every aisle of every building on the fair grounds,
they would cover 142 miles, says Irwin. The fair was a showcase where
fair officials encouraged demonstrations rather than static displays.
A working mine extracted
coal from beneath Forest Park, which fueled a steam-turbine power plant
on site, all open to the public. The Palace of Education demonstrated
progressive educational ideas with students, kindergarten through college,
attending classes while onlookers watched. The Palace of Transportation
was so large a steam locomotive and coal car sat on a working turntable
that slowly spun inside the building.
Fair visitors could
watch everything from shoes to light bulbs being manufactured. And in
one of the more infamous parts of the fair, “natives” from
all over the world, including American Indians, African Pygmies and Igorot
tribesmen from the Philippines were brought to St. Louis and placed in
recreated villages for onlookers to gawk at. Apache Chief Geronimo was
brought to the fair from prison at Fort Sill, in the Oklahoma territory,
where he signed autographs for a dime.
“The idea behind
bringing these people to the fair was to show that in this progressive
era technology brought about the advancement of civilization,” says
Kindt. “From ‘savages’ to modern man — it was
all on display.”
For many rural visitors
to the fair, the sights and sounds would have been beyond belief, says
Irwin. Of special interest was the relatively recent invention of the
electric light bulb. Thomas Edison was brought in as a consultant to help
design the fair’s electrical system. Most of the fair’s palaces
were outlined in more than 120,000 lights. One of the most spectacular
sights at night was the Cascades, a series of lighted waterfalls and fountains.
woman dressed in her Victorian finest studies the fair grounds from
the Wireless Telegraph Tower observation deck. The fair was a showcase
for many new technological innovations at the turn of the century.
“Can you imagine
100 years ago when you had hardly ever seen an electric light and then
to see the twinkling lights outlining these palaces? It must have been
unbelievable,” says Irwin.
Many buildings at
the fair were air conditioned while in the Agriculture Palace many states
displayed butter sculptures in refrigerated glass cases. Missouri’s
28-foot-long butter sculpture of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and
a pair of dairy cows weighed 3,000 pounds.
A walk through the
Agriculture Palace offered a glimpse of the latest advances in farm machinery
and practices. For companies it offered a chance to show off products
to hundreds of thousands of potential customers even if that meant building
impractical machines to attract visitors to their exhibit. J.I. Case &
Co. built a stream thresher made of mahogany while another manufacturer
built a farm wagon with $3,000 worth of gold trim.
“In the Agriculture
Bld’g. there was a plow that I wish you had . . . then you wouldn’t
have to walk too much and get so tired,” wrote Florence McCallion
to her husband, a farmer from Cadet, Mo., in a letter included in the
book, “Indescribably Grand.”
McCallion was on hand
for the end of the fair in December 1904 and witnessed an incredibly sad
sight. “This afternoon Edmund and I went out to the fair grounds.
When we entered it made me heart sick to see the ruin and desolation,”
By prior agreement
with city officials, Forest Park was selected for the site of the fair
only if it was returned to its previous state once the fair ended. With
that in mind the huge, ornate palaces and other buildings, and the hundreds
of statues and monuments, were constructed of a material called staff,
a mixture of plaster of Paris and burlap. Staff looked like marble and
could easily and affordably be shaped and sculpted, and then destroyed.
The entire fair was designed to last only a few months.
remains of the original buildings of the 1904 St. Louis World’s
Fair. The only structure permanently built was the Palace of Arts,
which became the Saint Louis Art Museum (above). A statue of Saint
Louis on horseback, originally built of plaster of Paris and burlap,
was recast in bronze and graces the entrance to the art museum.
Of the 1,500 structures
built for the fair the only building permanently constructed was the Palace
of Art, which after the fair became the Saint Louis Art Museum. Of the
hundreds of statues made for the fair the only one to remain in Forest
Park is the statue of Saint Louis on horseback now in front of the art
museum. It, too, was built of staff but later recast in bronze and moved
to its present spot overlooking the site of the fair’s Grand Basin.
Even the giant Observation Wheel, the largest Ferris wheel ever built,
was dynamited and buried in the park.
admission to see the fair torn down and many wept the day they started,”
At an astronomical
price of $15 million to stage, the St. Louis World’s Fair is believed
to be the only world’s fair to make a profit. And though many of
the hopes for a progressive world proved to be as elusive in 1904 as they
do today, the St. Louis World’s Fair offered a bright look at the
start of a new century.
“There was an
awful lot of optimism about where we were going as a human community,”
courtesy of Lyndon Irwin. For more information about agricultural exhibits
at the St. Louis World's Fair log onto Irwin's Web site at www.lyndonirwin.com/1904fair.htm.
For more history of the fair, including information about events to commemorate
the fair’s centennial, visit www.worldsfairstlouis.org.