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  • Heather McDorman & Jodi Blake

Stepping Back in Time: Highlights of the 1904 World’s Fair Exhibit

black and white photo of grounds at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Mo.
1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo: Explore St. Louis website)

Taking time to learn about one’s city can be interesting and enlightening. Such was the case when your friends at Friendsville Square recently walked through the “1904 St. Louis World’s Fair” exhibit at the Missouri History Museum.  


While most St. Louis natives and transplants know that St. Louis hosted the 1904 World’s Fair in our famed Forest Park, the museum’s exhibit educated us about many fascinating facts and figures, but it also opened our eyes to some troubling truths that are a part of the history of the complex and unique event that put St. Louis at the center of the world’s attention. 


Many books have been written that detail a more comprehensive review of the World’s Fair, but we’ll share several highlights from the museum’s intriguing exhibit. 


Celebrating the Louisiana Purchase 

As the official name of the fair – the Louisiana Purchases Exposition – connotes, the 1904 World’s Fair was the centennial celebration of the 1803 land purchase from France that expanded U.S. territory by 828,000 square miles – almost doubling the size of the country. This new territory stretched west of the Mississippi River from the southern border near New Orleans to the northern border and even into a portion of Canada.

But why did the World’s Fair take place in 1904 instead of 1903? The simple answer is that there was a delay of several months to complete preparations of what would be the largest World’s Fair to date.

Overall, the goal of the World’s Fair was to present a celebration of American progress along with a hopeful look forward into the new century.

$15 million in total funds raised for the fair. 197,000 people who attended opening day on April 30, 1904. 19,694,855 people attended the fair in total. $5,589,715.50 sum of 50 cents admissions sold.


Walking Through the World’s Fair

Scale model of the grounds of the 1904 World's Fair
Scale model of the grounds of the 1904 World's Fair

Building out the grounds and structures of the 1904 World’s Fair took nearly two and a half years, and the fairgrounds encompassed some 1,200 acres of the city’s Forest Park. The effort took thousands of workers including artists, architects, sculptors, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other laborers to make the event a reality. It was the largest World’s Fair constructed to date. 

200 acres cleared in Forest Park. 1.5 million cubic yards of earth removed from Forest Park. 1 river (River Des Peres) moved underground. 1,679,000 trees, shrubs, and vines planted throughout the fairgrounds. 10,000-15,000 workers who helped prepare the site. 8.5 miles of rail laid for the fair. 75 miles of walkways and roads built for the fair.
Bronze model of the Palace of Fine Arts building (now the St. Louis Art Museum)
Bronze model of the Palace of Fine Arts building, one of the permanent structures built for the World's Fair (now the St. Louis Art Museum).

The “temporary city” included 1,500 structures constructed mostly from staff, an impermanent material made from plaster and fiber. Only two buildings were built as permanent structures meant to outlast the fair: the Flight Cage (now part of the St. Louis Zoo) and the Palace of Fine Arts (now the Saint Louis Art Museum).  

Photo 1: Cream-colored lawn dress worn by Elizabeth Barrow Huntington. Many fairgoers wore fashionable clothes to be seen and to have their pictures taken. / Photo 2: Roller chair used to transport visitors around the fairgrounds. The chair could be rented for 60 cents an hour and included a guide to push the chair and indicate points of interest. A self-guided tour required a security deposit for the roller chair.

While strolling through the World’s Fair, visitors could learn about technology and innovations, science, U.S. and world history, and U.S. states, as well as other countries and their cultures. Grounds were also dedicated to food booths, finer dining, lodging, shops of all kinds, sporting events and exhibitions, amusement games and rides, and speeches and concerts – many found along the Pike, the mile-long stretch near the fair’s main gates. 


1,272 acres of fairgrounds. 1,576 buildings throughout the fairgrounds. 14 exhibit palaces. 1 palace still standing today. 36,650 diners the fair's restaurants could serve at one time. 2,259 hotel rooms at the fair. 6,000 performers on the Pike (plus 1,500 animals).

Promoting Innovations 

Photo 1: New innovations showcased at the World's Fair included live demonstrations of a baby incubator. / Photo 2: Two industrial innovations: floor sweeper and large cut glass bowl.

A showcase for scientific advancements, the latest technologies, and new products filled the grounds, the World’s Fair introduced fairgoers to incredible innovations: 

  • The use of electricity inside and outside of all major buildings on the fairgrounds 

  • The baby incubator in which premature babies were kept as part of a demonstration. Unfortunately, it was run by a doctor with little experience, and the babies suffered from a poor diet and the sweltering heat inside the incubator. More tragically, 39 of the 43 babies used for the demonstrations died. 

  • Inventions including the X-ray machine, the electric typewriter, the telautograph (an early version of the fax machine), and the telephone answering machine (called the Poulson telegraphone) 

  • Home and hotel products like the tabletop stove, coffeemaker, automatic potato masher, bread machine, dishwasher, electric dumbwaiter, and floor sweeper 

  • The use of wireless telegrams to send daily news from the fairgrounds directly to the two local newspapers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Star 

  • Demonstrations of various industrial advancements, including the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs in the Palace of Electricity (where the use of electricity was also explained to fairgoers) 

In addition to foods from around the world, visitors also found other new food items to be a big hit, including the hot dog, iced tea, Dr. Pepper, and the ice cream cone.

1,000 light bulbs produced each day in the Palace of Electricity. 37 minutes the dirigible airship The California Arrow was airborne. 50,000 peaches given away to celebrate Missouri Peach Day on August 15, 1904. 70 degrees Fahrenheit temperature of the Missouri Building thanks to air conditioning. 7,000 grand prizes and medals awarded to exhibitors.


Unmasking Racial and Imperialism Undertones 

Although the World’s Fair is long remembered for the grand celebratory atmosphere, the contemporary views about race and imperialism cast an ugly shadow over the fair when viewed through today’s lens.

Three young men wearing Western clothing and carrying round pans perform in the Philippines exhibit at the 1904 World's Fair
Igorot men forced to wear Western clothing in the Philippines exhibit

“Human zoo” exhibits recreated native villages and were populated with people taken from their homelands. Perhaps the most well-known exhibit was the Philippines Reservation, which held more than 1,000 Filipinos from at least 10 ethnic groups. They were forced to eat dog meat, although it was not a common food for them; fairgoers were told otherwise. Photos in the museum exhibit also show the Igorot people wearing Western coats and pants rather than their traditional clothes after future US president William Howard Taft, who had been the governor of the Philippines, insisted on the clothing change.

Photo 1: Members of Native American tribes were on display in the Department of Anthropology building. / Photo 2: Apache Chief Geronimo was part of the anthropology display where he sat in his own booth making bows and arrows and selling signed photographs of himself.

In the Department of Anthropology building, members of several Native American tribes (Sioux, Apache, Kickapoo, Pueblo, Hopi, and Shawnee) – including Geronimo, the famous Apache chief – were part of the display that was meant to show the United States’ dominance over Native peoples in the latter half of the 19th century.

Black visitors to the fair found limited or no access to attractions and restaurants – despite the fair being open to all. They were often admitted only if they were working menial jobs there or were part of the “plantation” exhibits. Because of the overwhelming racism and segregation, most Black residents of St. Louis elected to stay home, including the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which chose to change the location of its annual conference away from the fairgrounds.

Remembering the World’s Fair Through Souvenirs 

Attending the World’s Fair was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most visitors, so it’s no wonder they wanted to remember their experience with the purchase of souvenirs. Some items were sold exclusively at an attraction while others promoted the overall World’s Fair.

Photo 1: World’s Fair souvenirs on display include a Tyrolean Alps ceramic dish from the popular Bavaria-inspired attraction, a “Hike to the Pike” celluloid button, a sculptural inkwell of Festival Hall, a glass hatchet, and a wooden pop gun that is personalized to “Howard Holland.” / Photo 2: Ceramic souvenir pieces. / Photo 3: Ruby-stained glassware souvenirs. / Photo 4: Close-up of ruby-stained glassware with World's Fair etchings.

The museum exhibit features a collection of ceramic plates, other dishware, and decorative pieces as well as a display of ruby-stained glassware, created by dipping clear glass pieces into red glass to produce a thin layer of color that could be easily scratched off to personalize the items. Other souvenir items from various attractions and fair vendors are also featured.

Hosting the First U.S. Olympics 

As we anticipate the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris in July, it is interesting to note that the first Olympics held in the U.S. took place during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. 


The 1904 Summer Olympics took place July 1 to November 23 and featured 651 athletes from 12 nations competing in 95 events across 16 sports. Originally scheduled for Chicago, the location was changed to St. Louis so that the games could be part of the World's Fair.  


The Olympics included a two-day event called "Anthropology Days" that featured European track-and-field events and supposedly indigenous sports, such as mud fighting and pole climbing, that were presented as a scientific experiment but were seen by some in a racist light. 

Pierre de Coubertin, a French historian and the founder of the International Olympic Committee, stated: “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.” 


It has been said that the games suffered as a result of taking a backseat to the fair and that most foreign competitors were deterred from traveling to the city. 


Featuring the World’s Fair in Music, Film and Theater 

For many of us, we first learned about the World’s Fair from the movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which premiered in 1944 and starred Judy Garland. It tells the story of the Smith family living in St. Louis in 1903 as the city prepares for the much-anticipated Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The screenplay is based on a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes written by Sally Benson called 5135 Kensington, the address where Sally lived in St. Louis. The stories were published in The New Yorker magazine in 1941 and 1942 and later compiled into the book Meet Me in St. Louis, which took its title from the not-yet-released film.

Poster from the 1944 "Meet Me in St. Louis" film
Poster from the 1944 "Meet Me in St. Louis" film.

The title song “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” (Louis is pronounced LOO-ee) was a popular song in 1904 and was later used in the movie musical. No doubt many can remember its chorus:  

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 me in St. Louis, Louis 

Meet me at the fair. 

Then in 1960, the stage version of the musical debuted at The Muny outdoor theater in Forest Park (site of the World’s Fair) and later opened on Broadway in 1989. 

8 Muny productions of "Meet Me in St. Louis" between 1960 and 2024 


Visiting the Exhibit 

Oil painting of the Palace of Liberal Arts at the 1904 World's Fair
Oil painting titled "Looking West down Plaza of Orleans in front of Palace of Liberal Arts" by American painter John Ross Key, grandson of Francis Scott Key. These paintings were very popular and then reprinted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Sunday newspaper.

We’ve hit several highlights of the exhibit, but we agree, the “1904 St. Louis World’s Fair” display is worth visiting in person. The Missouri History Musuem is a St. Louis treasure. It is situated right in Forest Park, the many exhibits are easy to navigate, and admission is free! For more information about this exhibit, check out the museum’s site

62 nations represented. 43 of 45 U.S. states represented. 203,101 people who attended closing day on December 1, 1904. 100 million feet of repurposed lumber the Chicago House Wrecking Company sold after the fair closed.

Regardless of where you live, learning about the history of your hometown is a worthwhile pursuit and what better time to do that than in the summer? We’ll continue to look for local excursions and day trips to learn more about the cities and states nearby – and maybe not so near! 


How are your expanding your horizons this summer? Please share your ideas and experiences with us in the comments. Have a great summer! 


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~ Heather M. and Jodi B. 

1 Comment

Jun 20

What an interesting exhibit! Thank you for capturing it so vividly...both the good and not-so-good. Adding it to my list of things to do this summer! -- LB

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