An Exibition of Art, Culture and Technology
Many of us know the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair as the exhibition that brought the ice cream cone and iced tea to the world; it gave those who attended so much more. The purpose of fairs was to bring art and technology to the people, in an age before widespread global travel, television and the internet laid it all at our feet.
The Fair, also known as, “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” was originally scheduled to open in 1903. Delays occurred, including making sure the electrification of the event—an astounding feat at the time of the infancy of this technology—would be successful.
For a fifty-cent admission, people could come to see what new technology lay ahead, explore cultures they would likely never experience by travel and see famous works of art firsthand. Ponder for a moment the fact that most residents of small farming communities—and indeed those of larger cities–may have never seen some of the world’s great works of art in living, breathing color. Most media was printed in black and white, with color inserts in newspapers being non-existent and those in books and magazines, which were rare, were not identical replicas of great works, but rather reproduced by a colorist for printing.
Architecture for the Fair was an art in its own right. Elaborate buildings began to dot the landscape of what was once “Skinker Swap” (now Forest Park). Different architecture firms and construction companies designed and built separate buildings for every theme of the Fair, including Transportation, Agriculture, Education, Mines and Metallurgy and Fine Arts. Each state choosing to participate also had their own building for displays on what made that state unique at the time.
Interestingly, it was only the Fine Arts building that was designed from inception to remain after the Fair closed. The other buildings were made with “staff,” a gypsum-based plaster reinforced with straw or horse hair to give it stability and were demolished shortly after the Fair’s closing at the end of the summer. Although not buildings per se, the Zoo’s birdcage, donated by the Smithsonian Institution, also remains. Many off-site buildings, used for Fair administration, security, hotels and housing, etc. also still stand on the outskirts of the park, as well as on the campus of Washington University.
Electricity played a major role in the Fair, as it was the first fair to be electrified, and was a new concept for the masses. Imagine knowing the nighttime world around you illuminated only by candlelight, gas lamps or perhaps small-scale electric light. You then attend the 1904 World’s Fair and are blinded by 1,200 acres of buildings, exhibitions and water features lit by 120,000 incandescent lamps. It must have been a breathtaking sight! St. Louisan, Edmund Philibert, who attended the Fair 28 times, recounted in his diary, “As the lights were turned on for the first time the people raised a hearty cheer, for it was a grand sigh indeed.” The Electricity Building, with the aid of Thomas Edison, demonstrated how many steps were involved in producing a lightbulb.
Music permeated the entire fairgrounds. The Fair had its own choral groups and bands and even its own Exhibition Symphony Orchestra! Scott Joplin, famous at the time for his ragtime music, was not only a featured performer at the Fair, but also composed a piece specifically for the event entitled “Cascades,” inspired by the famous waterfalls in front of Festival Hall.
The material culture of the Fair left behind many artifacts. Souvenirs were as prominent and popular at the Fair as they would be today. Clocks, plates, pocket knives, postcards and more were all available for purchase. The Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion museum in the Lemp District of St. Louis, owned at the time by Alexander DeMenil, who sat on the Fair’s Board of Directors, currently houses one of the world’s largest private collections of Fair memorabilia, boasting over 1,200 items. To visit this collection, please see Demenil.org for details.
The Fair consumed the efforts of the entire St. Louis metropolis at the time. So busy were the citizens of St. Louis in readying their city for the Fair, many private projects were put on hold. My family’s Queen Anne Victorian home on Olive Blvd, in Chesterfield, was under construction in 1904. It was difficult to hire construction workers during that time because most companies were focusing their efforts on the buildings for the Fair. Were it not for a cousin who owned a lumber mill in South St. Louis and provided all of the woodwork, the home’s construction would have had to wait until after the Fair’s busy construction period was finished.
The next time you google the latest fad or a work of art appears on your screen, take a moment to consider the wait it must have been for the next fair to come to your city. What we will look back on as the great works of art and astounding changes in our lives?