The Glorious Road to the Memorable 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

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Panem et Circenses. It’s a philosophy that goes back to ancient Rome. Literally translates from the original Latin as “Breads and Circuses,” it defines a strategy to mollify a potentially unruly populace by distracting them with basic needs and entertainment. It’s what you do if you’re not sure the sudden surge in pitchfork sales are destined for farms across your nation or a dense mob about to knock on your front door.

Such was the condition of France throughout the period of the French Revolution. The new government, recognizing its tenuous position, organized a series of festivities beginning with the Festival of the Federation held on July 14, 1790, a year to the day about that aforementioned mob stormed the Bastille. During the final stages of Révolution française, well after the Reign of Terror, the Directory ruled France. In 1798, a little more than a year before the coup d’état that ushered in a new triumvirate that included Napoleon Bonaparte, the Directory decided to sponsor an industrial exposition.

The French First Republic’s exposition ran from September 19, 1798 through October 1, 1798. Though modest, the country continued to host these expositions through the Napoleonic Era, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, until the Second Republic sponsored the eleventh and final exposition in 1849. By that time, other major European cities offered similar fairs. It was decided, rather than hold competing events, a singular show composed of all the European nations should be held.

Many consider the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (“The Great Exhibition”) to be the very first world’s fair. Held in London from May 1, 1851 through October 15, 1851, it was co-hosted by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. It also featured a huge building built especially for the exposition. Called The Crystal Palace, this huge (1,848 feet by 454 feet) structure was composed of glass and iron. Still, it managed to burn to the ground in 1936.

The Great Exhibition inspired a series of World Fairs across the globe. Not to be outdone, America entered itself onto this list with New York’s Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. By coincidence, it opened on Bastille Day (July 14th) in 1853. By further coincidence, it erected a similar glass and iron structure called the New York Crystal Palace. Naturally, it also burned to the ground (in 1858).

Philadelphia hosted the first official World’s Fair held in the United States. In perhaps a nod to marketing thematic tie-ins, the “Centennial International Exhibition” of 1876 marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the city of the original scene. It opened on May 10th and closed on November 10th. During those six months, approximately 10 million people visited the exposition. America’s next World’s Fair would be even bigger.

The year 1892 would mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Here was a milestone that marked the merger of two worlds. It was a marketer’s dream. And the United States was selected as the venue to celebrate. Four American cities vied to host: Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. In the end, it was decided to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in the city of Chicago.

The Chicago World’s Fair occurred from May 1, 1893 through October 30, 1893. Its array of exhibits (including the first Ferris Wheel) defined American Exceptionalism. With more than 27 million visitors, it became the new standard for World’s Fairs. Among the food popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair were Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit Gum, Shredded Wheat, and, thanks to former slave turned spokeswoman Nancy Green, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour.

Although not on the official “World’s Fair” list, it’s worth mentioning the Pan-American Exposition. Though billed as a “World’s Fair,” it focused on the Americas – north and south. With a narrower definition of “world” and no real anniversary tie-in, the 1901 Pan-Am Exposition held in Buffalo, N.Y., (at the time America’s 8th largest city), still managed to attract more than 8 million attendees. Featuring the benefits of cheap hydro-electric power, its display also attracted the Lackawanna Steel Company to move from Scranton, Pennsylvania to the shores of Lake Erie south of Buffalo.

Without the marketing advantages of the Chicago World’s Fair, it would have been difficult for Buffalo’s Pan-Am Exposition to meet, let alone exceed, the success of the Windy City’s event. Unfortunately, what many remember about the 1901 Pan-Am Expo is the September 6th assassination of President William McKinley. It forever mars the event and, to this day, hangs on every Buffalonian’s wall of dishonor in the same way “wide right” rings infamously for every Buffalo Bills fan.

Even as the nation coped with the sad incident in Buffalo, planners were working on the United States’ next official World’s Fair. The process actually began five years earlier on June 7, 1896 at the monthly meeting of the St. Louis Business Men’s League. On that day, during lunch, member David R. Francis, offered the following proposal: “There is one event in the history of this city second in importance to the Declaration of Independence… and that is the Louisiana Purchase.”1

Francis’ proclamation set in motion what eventually became the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, (a.k.a. “The St. Louis World’s Fair”). The St. Louis World’s Fair from April 30, 1904 through December 1, 1904, ran a month longer than the other expositions. It attracted just under 20 million visitors. St. Louis hosted the 1904 Summer Olympics during the Fair. It was the first time the international games were held in the United States. Not many people remember those games, but they remember the World’s Fair.

Despite showing less attendance than the Chicago World’s Fair a decade earlier, the St. Louis World’s Fair seems to have retained a luster unparalleled in American World’s Fairs (although the art deco “world of tomorrow displayed at the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair offers stiff competition). So much of today’s culture – especially our food culture – seems to trace itself back to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It’s attained almost mythical proportions.

For instance, in terms of well-known foods and beverages, the following are all associated with the St. Louis World’s Fair: the ice cream cone, Iced Tea, hot dogs, Dr. Pepper, peanut butter, the club sandwich, the pickle, the kumquat, the grapefruit, the scone, ginseng, the black olive, the fruit icicle (known now by the brand name “Popsicle”), flavored coffees, an early predecessor of the fruit smoothie, “Fairy Floss” (what today we call “cotton candy”), puffed rice, Campbell Soup, and even sliced bread.2 Oh, yeah, let’s not forget the hamburger.

Pamela Vaccaro’s comprehensive book Beyond the Ice Cream Cone – The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World’s Fair (Enid Press, 2004) tackles the truths of these food claims on at least the surface level (and more for certain foods). For example, Vaccaro points out the Pullman Dining Car Service listed “Iced Tea” on its menu. In fact, the folks assigned to prepare the St. Louis World’s Fair likely saw this menu as they rode the train on the way to visit the 1901 Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo.3

The mistruth is more blatant with the hot dog. Vacarro states the typical story says that concessionaire Anton Feuchtwanger sold the first hot dog on a bun at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. She says it’s true that Feuchtwanger is recognize as the first to marry the bun and the hot dog, but he did it in 1883, not 1904!4

In many cases, the St. Louis World’s Fair did play an important role in popularizing certain products. Dr. Pepper and the scone fall into this category. The Campbell Soup baby-faced kids premiered at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and have appeared on the company’s soup labels ever since.5

In addition, some local or regional foods gained national prominence. Florida’s “pommel” (what we now call a “grapefruit”), California’s flavored coffees, kumquat, and black (ripened) olives, as well as Texas’ ginseng can be counted among these.6

One item that definitely appears to have debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair is cotton candy. Marketed as “Fairy Floss,” the Electric Candy Machine Company of Nashville, Tennessee operated 200 machines of their “Electric Fair Floss Candy Spinner” at the Exposition.7 This new invention was made in late 1903 and had not yet received its trademark in June of 1904. In fact, the company made its filing on May 24th of that year as the St. Louis Fair was being held.8

It’s odd that, for all the evidence that cotton candy really was “invented” at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, it’s not even the second most recognized item associated with the Fair. The top honor goes to the ice cream cone (with the hamburger coming in second). There are just too many versions of the ice cream cone invention story to mention here. Suffice it to say, it’s unlikely the cone was actually invented at the fair. Still, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Alas, as John Ford most fabulously sculpted in the penultimate scene of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

1 Vaccaro, Pamela J., Beyond the Ice Cream Cone, (Enid Press, 2004) 12
2 Ibid. 108-125
3 Ibid. 110
4 Ibid. 112
5 Ibid. 120, 123
6 Ibid. 119-120
7 “News and Gossip,” The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), Sunday, November 22, 1903, 2
8 “Trademarks – Registered June 21, 1904,” Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office (Washington, District of Columbia), Tuesday, June 21, 1904, 2228

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