St. Louis World's Fair

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The St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, technically the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, was held to celebrate the centenary of the purchase of a huge tract of land from the French. Despite being originally scheduled to be held in 1903, planning and scale meant that the fair didn't open until 30 April 1904. The gates of the fairground in Forest Park, St. Louis, stayed open until 1 December 1904, and an average of 100,000 people attended each day. In total over twenty million people saw the exhibition. Many innovations in the fields of science and technology were debuted in St. Louis, including the X-ray machine, the electric typewriter, the coffeemaker, the dishwasher, and a prototype of the telephone answering machine called the Paulson Telegraphone.

The fair was the brainchild of the former Missouri governor David R. Francis, who headed the planning committee. Forest Park was chosen as the site for the exhibition, and the city of St. Louis raised $5 million, which was matched by the U.S. government and by public subscription. One of the conditions of using the site was that it would be relandscaped as a park at the end of the fair. The site covered a huge area, larger than any other world's fair before or since: 1,272 acres, including 615 acres of private property and all of the land owned by Washington University (founded by William Greenleaf Eliot, the grandfather of the poet T. S. Eliot, in 1853). Francis Field, on the campus of Washington University, was used to host the 1904 Olympic Games, the first to be held on U.S. soil and the only Olympics to take place during a world's fair.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition seems to have taken its model from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, for many of the buildings echoed the architecture seen in Illinois eleven years earlier, with enormous white palaces surrounded by specially constructed waterways and lakes and spectacular landscaping. Another echo of the Chicago fair was the presence of George Ferris's big wheel, which gave aerial views of the fair to visitors as it had in Chicago on the Midway Plaisance in 1893. The central building in St. Louis was the Festival Hall, and in front of it the Cascades—a massively tiered set of waterfalls—led down Art Hill to the Grand Lagoon. Fifteen exhibit palaces outlined with electric lights (which were used liberally throughout the site) covered 128 acres (about 10 percent) of the fairgrounds. Each hall had a theme, such as education, mines and metallurgy, electricity, liberal arts, and manufacture. A visitor could visit a sunken Japanese garden, a re-creation of the walled city of Jerusalem, or the actual log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born. All told the site contained nine hundred separate buildings spread around the custom-built rolling landscape that raised the land from forty to sixty-five feet above base level. For visitors, it required a month to do any real justice to the exhibits because the fair spread over seventy-five miles of paths and roadways.

St. Louis's equivalent of the Chicago Plaisance was the street known as the Pike. Running for a mile, the Pike was lined with amusements that were run by an army of attendants. At night, when the exhibition halls closed down, the crowds funneled into the Pike to promenade and to be serenaded by brass bands and vocal groups vying with each other with megaphones. The expression "coming down the Pike" originated here, because visitors never knew what they would encounter next along the pathway. The entertainment included a replica of the Blarney Castle, a Parisian fashion show, an interactive deep-sea diving exhibit, and the sea battle of Santiago, staged with model ships in a miniature lake. Rides were available on camels, turtles, and elephants. Food was of course in plentiful supply, and the fair of 1904 is credited with introducing the world's first ice cream cone and iced tea.

Twenty-two countries were represented in pavilions, including the Philippines, Ceylon, and China. The United States was of course well represented. Forty-four cities, states, and territories built their own display buildings. One of the chief draws was a huge aviary, funded by the federal government, which was big enough for birds to fly freely within it. A working replica of a coal mine was set up to highlight U.S. industry and resources, and much to the surprise of the construction crew, real coal was found underneath the model when the shaft was sunk.

Literary figures were witnesses and participants. A young T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) visited the fair in his native city and spent many hours in the Igorot Village, one part of the exhibition from the Philippines. A couple of months later he wrote a number of pieces concerning primitive life, including a short story called "The Man Who Was King" for the Smith Academy Record. Set in Polynesia, the description of the village in the story is close to contemporary reports of the Filipino exhibit. Eliot pursued his anthropological interests during his study at Harvard, and his interests in native and primitive cultures inform much of his best-known poetry. The novelist and short story writer Kate Chopin (1851–1904) visited the fair on 20 August 1904 and spent a long day touring the exhibits. Returning home in the evening, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died two days later. While the majority of acclaim and appreciation for Chopin's work was still some decades away, Mark Twain (1835–1910) was already established as a literary giant. Although hailing from Missouri, Twain did not manage to attend the fair itself, but he had been involved from afar. In 1902, when he was granted an honorary degree from the University of Missouri, Twain embarked on a journey down the Mississippi to receive it. Beginning his journey in Hannibal, his childhood home, Twain was received warmly at every stop on his way to Columbia, where he received his degree on 4 June. A riverboat was renamed in Twain's honor to mark the occasion. In St. Louis the next day he participated in groundbreaking ceremonies to mark the inauguration of construction for the World's Fair. Although Twain did not travel to St. Louis when the fair opened two years later, he did (unsuccessfully) suggest holding a steamboat race down the Mississippi in commemoration of the event. Two requests were made to the writer asking for his blessing for a Mark Twain Day at the fair, and twice Twain refused. In his second letter to decline the honor he wrote that "such compliments are not proper for the living; they are proper and safe for the dead only. . . . So long as we remain alive we are not safe from doing things which, however righteously and honorably intended, can wreck our repute and extinguish our friendships" (Letter to T. F. Gatts, 1903).


The St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 had an official song written for it. This song was also heavily featured in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis and gave the movie its name. (Note: In this song "Louis" is pronounced "Louie.")

When Louis came home to the flat,
He hung up his coat and his hat,
He gazed all around, but no wifey he found,
So he said "where can Flossie be at?"
A note on the table he spied,
He read it just once, then he cried.
It ran, "Louis dear, it's too slow for me here,
So I think I will go for a ride."
"Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair,
Don't tell me the lights are shining
any place but there;
We will dance the Hoochee Koochee,
I will be your tootsie wootsie,
If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair."
The dresses that hung in the hall,
Were gone, she had taken them all;
She took all his rings and the rest of his things;
The picture he missed from the wall.
"What! moving!" the janitor said,
"Your rent is paid three months ahead."
"What good is the flat?" said poor Louis, "Read that."
And the janitor smiled as he read.
"Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair,
Don't tell me the lights are shining
any place but there;
We will dance the Hoochee Koochee,
I will be your tootsie wootsie,
If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair."

Lyrics by Andrew B. Sterling, music by Frederick Allen "Kerry" Mills. Published 1904 by F. A. Mills, 48 West Twenty-ninth Street, New York.

The St. Louis World's Fair also had its own song, written by Andrew B. Sterling and Frederick Allen "Kerry" Mills. It was this song that gave the name to the movie Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), directed by Vincente Minnelli. The song's refrain is sung frequently throughout the movie, and it becomes a point of reference and contact for the characters. It encapsulates their excitement about the fair, and the movie ends with the whole family at the showgrounds, thrilled by the display of electric light.

See alsoWorld's Columbian Exposition


Primary Work

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Letters. Vol. 5, 1901–1905. 2004. Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine. Project Gutenberg EBook of The Letters of Mark Twain. Available at

Secondary Works

Breitbart, Eric. A World on Display: Photographs from the St. Louis World's Fair, 1904. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Minkin, Bert. Legacies of the St. Louis World's Fair. Lynchburg: Virginia Publishing, 1998.

Primm, James Neal. Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764–1980. 3rd ed. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998.

Rydell, Robert W. All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Keith Gumery

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