July 2024


All’s fair: Remembering the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

by Donald-Brian Johnson

“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis — Meet me at the Fair!” – Mills & Sterling, 1904

That turn-of-the-20th-century ditty is irresistible. As irresistible as the St. Louis World’s Fair itself was, for thousands of wide-eyed fairgoers in 1904. As irresistible as Judy Garland found the Fair in the 1944 movie classic, Meet Me In St. Louis. And, as irresistible as the appeal that fair memorabilia continues to hold, 120 years on.

Sure, there have been United States-based World’s Fairs both before and after. But the St. Louis World’s Fair displayed myriad modern wonders just as a new century began, offering up an unforgettable slice of Americana.

Officially known as the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” the fair was originally scheduled to open in 1903, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. acquisition (from France) of that vast expanse of land. However, funding, land acquisition, and disagreements delayed the fair’s actual opening until April 30, 1904.

When opening day finally arrived, the St. Louis World’s Fair proved worth the wait. From Washington, D.C., President Theodore Roosevelt telegraphed a signal that it was time for the fair. As the throngs poured in, flags waved, fountains cascaded, and John Philip Sousa’s band struck up a rousing musical welcome.

The fair dwarfed its predecessors, taking up 1,275 acres. The four expositions that came before it, even when combined, took up just over 1,300 acres. In the “Palace of Varied Industries,” attendees could view the works of every type of craftsman, from glassmakers to sculptors to silversmiths. The “Palace of Transportation” gave the crowd plenty to gawk at, including the latest mode of transportation—the automobile. For those wondering what the Liberty Bell really looked like, there it was, on view in the Pennsylvania State Building. Also at the Fair: the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln spent his childhood. . . the “Observation Wheel” (better known as the “Ferris Wheel”), which had taken its first spin at the Chicago Fair of 1893. . .and the 122-foot-wide “Great Floral Clock.”

The thrills continued unabated as fairgoers breathlessly strolled the “Pike” (1904’s equivalent of today’s “Midway”). Rides included “Shoot The Chutes” (for those who didn’t mind getting sopped in the pool at is base), but the Pike’s primary draws were its not-to-be-seen-anywhere-else attractions. Among them:
• “From New York to the North Pole,” a simulated sea voyage to the Arctic, complete with sub-zero temps and “warming beverages.”
• “Hale’s Great Fire Exhibition.” The destruction of a tall tenement house was re-enacted, complete with thrilling rescues.
• The “Baby Incubator,” occupied not by baby chickens but by human babies (attended, fortunately, by actual nurses).
• The “Hereafter,” a lurid tour through the afterlife, headlined by an encounter with “his Satanic Majesty,” followed by a welcome escape to “the Gates of Paradise.”
• The “Streets of Cairo,” where exotic dancer “Little Egypt” held sway (literally).

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Souvenir Postcard

Souvenir postcard from the “Corner Palace of Varied Industries” at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
$10-15. (Image courtesy of DBJ/HCK Pix)



Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Engraved cranberry and crystal “flash glass”

Engraved cranberry and crystal “flash glass” was a fair favorite. Pitcher, 5” h., $50-75. (Pitcher courtesy of Jan McKelvie. Photo by DBJ/HCK Pix)



For the by-now-famished, there were also plenty of new taste treats to experience: hot dogs, iced tea, peanut butter, cotton candy, Puffed Wheat, Dr. Pepper, and the ice cream cone.

For today’s collectors, souvenirs of the St. Louis World’s Fair are a never-ending treasure trove. There are paper goods, including postcards, sheet music and posters. Hard goods proliferated, too, such as china sets with illustrations of Fair landmarks. Inscribed ruby/crystal “flash glass” items were a signature Fair souvenir, offering the look of luxury at bargain prices. Among the multitude of other Fair memorabilia: clocks, spoons, pin boxes, steins, paperweights, dresser boxes, hand-painted shells, pipes, hand mirrors, trays, letter openers, and stereopticon viewers, complete with fair-themed photo cards.

Why does the St. Louis World’s Fair continue to intrigue us? Well, in the word of one dazzled fair visitor, as quoted in the event’s daily Bulletin, “a week at the Exposition is better than a year’s travel around the world!” Or, as that unforgettable Mills and Sterling song put it, “don’t tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there!”


Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com