History that “Fairs” Well


A Look at the Missouri History Museum’s New 1904 World’s Fair Exhibition

by Bill Clevlen

For 20 years, the Missouri History Museum has highlighted the 1904 World’s Fair in a permanent exhibition space on the building’s main level. This year, the museum completed a total makeover of the exhibit, giving a fresh and updated look at one of the most important time periods in Missouri’s history.

The first change certain to catch your eye is a massive 3D layout of the historic fairgrounds while a slideshow of archived photos from the World’s Fair plays on a large screen overhead. Visitors will be amazed at the number of buildings that are spread out across the map. Most of these grand structures were built as temporary spaces with a cheap material known as “staff”. (A mixture of plaster and fiber.) They were simply knocked down at the conclusion of the fair.

The St. Louis Art Museum, the “Bird Cage” or “Flight Cage” (now part of the St. Louis Zoo), and Brookings Hall (on Washington University’s campus) are the only structures seen on the map that still exist today. 53596474174 08d65ffc1e o

And while many locals believe that the beautiful World’s Fair Pavilion, now a notable fixture in Forest Park, was left over from the fair – it wasn’t. The pavilion was actually built in 1909 with proceeds made from the fair. (St. Louis would be one of the few places to actually turn a profit as a World’s Fair host city.)

I enjoyed a sneak peak of the updated History Museum exhibit prior to its public opening along with Sam Moore, the museum’s MD of Public History. One of the first questions I had for Moore: “Are people tired of hearing about the World’s Fair?” Moore chuckled and responded that, while some people may indeed be tired of hearing about it, that’s only because they’ve heard the same stories over and over. “The truth is, there are so many incredible stories about the 1904 World’s Fair that most people have never heard” said Moore. This latest exhibit now includes an additional space specifically to cycle through those untold stories and to share never-before-displayed artifacts from the museum’s enormous collection.

As expected, the updated space includes many hands-on video screens that allow you to dig deeper into multiple aspects of the 1904 World’s Fair. One notable image I discovered was of the iconic Ferris Wheel that had been blown up into a large lump of tangled metal. It seems that no one wanted the insanely giant (264 foot tall) attraction after it had served its purpose in St. Louis. Each of the wheel’s 36 observation cars held as many as 60 people! Over 2,000 people could ride at one time.

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Among the cool artifacts that visitors will be able to see is the master control that operated the fair’s iconic “floral clock”. The floral clock was one of the biggest attractions at the 1904 World’s Fair and was located near the entrance of the Palace of Agriculture. Its hands weighed 2,500 pounds each and spanned 112 feet. The master control still works! Another rare piece is the handcrafted desk used by former St. Louis Mayor David R. Francis. Francis was President of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and helped oversee the Olympic Games held that year as well. He was later sent around the world to thank world leaders, including kings and emperors, for their help in making the fair a huge success. Other items on display will include some of the many souvenirs that were sold or given away to visitors that came to St. Louis.

In addition to the fresh exhibit and new interactive displays now available to the public, the Missouri History Museum will also implement guided tours of the space and educational programs for children throughout the year.



Bill Clevlen is a contributing writer from St. Louis.




-At the time of the 1904 World’s Fair, Saint Louis was the 4th largest city in the U.S.

-The first Olympic Games were also held in St. Louis in 1904

-Notable things unveiled at the fair: the electric plug and outlet, X-Rays, automated gates, the electric typewriter, submarines, mail trucks, the coffee maker, and incubators for babies.

-Products like Jell-O, Dr Pepper, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone were introduced to fairgoers.

-20 million visitors from around the world came to visit the fair.

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