Songwriter Andrew Sterling immortalized the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair in his song
"Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis." It became the theme of the fair as well as a popular hit.
As the 20th century dawned, people longed to experience the exciting improvements that new
inventions and discoveries would bring. A major focus of the fair was demonstrating the use
of electricity. Indeed, electric lights shone throughout the fair, especially in the Palace
of Electricity. The fair's Festival Hall was illuminated by half a million lights. Before the
lights went out in the fall, some 20 million visitors had witnessed the fair's glittering attractions.
What did visitors experience at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair?
The St. Louis World's Fair had been a dream of civic leaders in St. Louis since 1889. The fair's planners traveled
to Asia, Latin America, and North Africa seeking exhibitors to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase.
Construction of the fairgrounds in the city's Forest Park required cutting down trees, draining a lake, rerouting
a river, removing a hill, enlarging roads, and erecting walkways. In addition to cultural exhibits from around the
world, the St. Louis World's Fair boasted dazzling displays of technology and hosted the first Olympics Games in
the Western Hemisphere. Visitors walking throughout the 1,200-acre site also enjoyed a tasty new treat-the ice cream cone.
Fair planners intended to promote world peace by bringing together diverse peoples. Many countries
constructed native village settings in the amusement area. During the seven months of the fair, between
15,000 and 20,000 people from other countries lived on the fairgrounds. "Mysterious Asia" featured dancing girls on
camels. China's exhibit displayed theater acts. Sioux Indians demonstrated their bow and arrow shooting techniques.
The former Apache chief Geronimo even made an appearance at the fair.
The fair also celebrated American imperialism in the Philippines, just a short time after the U.S. victory
in the Spanish-American War. In an effort to counter criticism of U.S. control over the Philippines, the federal
government paid for more than 1,000 Filipinos to live at the fairgrounds. Dressed in their traditional, and sometimes
scant, clothing, the Filipinos became a major tourist attraction.
However, technology was the true star of the fair. The fair featured the first successful demonstration of
a wireless ground-to-air telegraph in the United States, as well as balloon flights, weather balloon
experiments, many of Thomas Edison's greatest inventions, and more than 100 automobiles. One car on exhibit
at the fair arrived at the fairgrounds after reportedly traveling from New York, a distance of almost 1,000
miles, in less than 82 hours.
Athletes from twelve countries competed in the 1904 Olympic games as individuals or as members of athletic
clubs. Thirty-one runners participated in the marathon. The Olympics featured the first African-American athlete
to compete in the modern games. George Poage won a medal for the 400-meter hurdles.
Unfortunately, scandal surrounded the 1904 Olympics. The first runner to cross the finish line in the marathon
was disqualified only after it was learned that he had covered part of the distance by car. Because of the distance
from Europe, few European athletes competed in the games. Of the non-U.S. competitors, some were Africans, Filipinos,
and Patagonians recruited to compete alongside Native Americans in events such as mud fighting and greased pole climbing.
Nevertheless, the St. Louis World's Fair entertained millions of people while embodying the popular notion that
the United States was a superior nation capable of spreading civilization and technological progress throughout the world.
Credits: Cy Young © Bettmann/Corbis; Roller Coaster © Culver Pictures;
Meet Me in St. Louis cover © Culver Pictures; Waterway © Bettmann/Corbis;
People with camels, Chinese Theatre © Getty Images; Sioux Indians © UPI/Bettmann/Corbis; T. J.
Hicks United States Olympic Committee.
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