I hand the attendant a fifty-cent piece and watch him drop it into the automatic turnstile, itself a marvel. Behind me, the murmur of moneychangers, the swish of gored skirts tapering to white shirtwaists. Beyond that, the din of St. Louis. My sack suit rustles as I stride ahead. I’m crossing the threshold of an impossible city: a manicured wonderland of symmetrical lagoons winding through sculpted gardens studded with allegorical statues. In the distance loom the massive palaces of learning, their Beaux-Arts façades harkening back to Ancient Rome and heralding a future brighter than the hundred thousand incandescent lights that line them against the night. The words of Exposition President David R. Francis ring in my ears—Open ye gates! Swing wide ye portals! Enter herein ye sons of man, and behold the achievements of your race! Learn the lesson here taught and gather from it inspiration for still greater accomplishments!—and I step into the Fair.
* * *
St. Louis is a city of gates that do not normally swing wide. The urban private street, or “private place,” is believed to be a local invention, dating to the 1850s. Private places are owned by their residents, who typically build and maintain the road, median, sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, and—most crucially—gates. Some gates were utilitarian, imposing, and plain; others were small castles, complete with clock towers, fountains, statues, gaslights, and gatehouse apartments that caretakers (and, later, college students) lived in until the 1980s. Private places offered a refuge from the ever-booming city, a world apart. Some have been razed, their gates uprooted, the neighborhoods now troubled by crime; many still stand, pockets of wealth and privilege, with boards of trustees that oversee matters of law (historic preservation, landscaping) and etiquette (street parking, book clubs, Easter egg hunts).
Nearly two years ago, when my wife and I were moving to town and looking for an apartment, we were taken aback: everywhere, gates, gates, gates. Gates that lock and unlock according to byzantine schedules publicized only to residents (thus thwarting commuters and anyone else who might try to cut through the neighborhood). Gates that open by remote control. Rolling metal gates with yellow hazard signs. Gates built for carriages that now barely fit a car. Even in less-rarified neighborhoods—with weeds in the lawns and unwashed economy sedans on the street—at the end of the block might stand a pitiful sawhorse made of white PVC pipe. A symbol that speaks to the natives. Private Street: Not Thru. Private Street: No Public Parking. No thru traffic. Private neighborhood. No smoking beyond this gate. Private. No trespassing. Keep Out.
* * *
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, popularly known as the 1904 World’s Fair, opened in St. Louis on April 30, one hundred and one years to the day after the signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. Before a crowd of 187,793 people, John Philip Sousa’s band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” five hundred choristers sang the “Hymn of the West,” the fair’s official song, and—from the East Room of the White House—President Theodore Roosevelt touched the gold telegraph key that sent the signal to unfurl ten-thousand flags and begin pumping ninety-thousand gallons of water a minute down the three terraced “cascades” that flowed into the Grand Basin, where four fountains threw water seventy-five feet into the air at the foot of Festival Hall. It was the centerpiece of the fair, a building that boasted—in addition to the world’s biggest organ—a gold-leafed dome larger than St. Peter’s.
At first glance, the Fair offered a spectacle of size, a vision of man’s enlightened expansion into—and conquest of—untrammeled space (recalling contemporary notions of the Louisiana Purchase itself). The fairgrounds occupied 1,272 acres—double the size of the famed 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—spilling out of the city’s giant Forest Park onto the campus of Washington University and neighborhoods to the south. Twenty thousand people would live and work on the grounds. In preparation, crews straightened and buried a river in sixty-five days. They built 1,576 buildings, plus a garbage plant, sewer, post office, press pavilion, telegraph stations, pay telephones, and 125 eateries that could feed 36,650 people at one time. Five of the restaurants could seat more than two-thousand people. Visitors ate everything from filet mignon to frankfurters, fried frog legs to caviar, plus international delights such as Japanese sukiyaki, Mexican guacamole, Indian curry, and Egyptian molokheya soup. To drink: 1893 Louis Roederer Brut Champagne (six dollars a quart), mineral water (sixty-five cents), or Jameson’s Whiskey (fifteen cents a shot), not to mention—this being St. Louis—plenty of beer. There were five fire engine houses and thirty-six miles of pipe serving a network of sprinklers and hydrants, some of which to this day still dot Forest Park, popping up incongruously on the golf course.
The great distances between attractions made the Fair taxing to navigate. Visitors traveled by intramural railroad, a trolley that trundled twelve miles per hour through seventeen stops; they boated along the mile-and-a-half system of lagoons in gondolas or swan and serpent boats. They rented a rickshaw or wheelchair, with or without a guide to push; drove a car; or, if the mood struck, rode a camel, burro, or giant turtle. The official guide claimed a “brief survey” of the wonders would require a minimum of ten days and fifty bucks.
The colossal exhibit palaces were built of yellow pine and ivory-colored “staff,” a mixture of plaster and hemp that could be easily molded, sliced, sanded, and sawed. On average, eighteen trains of forty cars each were needed to haul the materials for a single palace. There were some seventy-thousand exhibits from fifty-three foreign countries and forty-three states (plus more than a few territories and businesses). The Fair offered a taxonomy of knowledge: exhibits were sorted into departments that were divided into groups that were subdivided into 807 classes, an encyclopedic education open to all and structured to create, in the words of the director of exhibits, “a properly balanced citizen capable of progress.” The goal: to show civilization marching proudly in a direction. The faith: that from the artifacts of the past one could draw a line to the future. In practice, the Fair fostered fierce national competition under the banner of international exchange. Proudly on display: progressivism, nationalism, exoticism, racism, hucksterism, humiliation.
The Fair’s president, David R. Francis—local businessman, Democrat, former St. Louis mayor, the state governor who failed to win the bid to host the 1893 Exposition, and now, eleven years later, one of the most-photographed men in the country—would proclaim of his fair: “So thoroughly did it represent the world’s civilizations, that if all man’s other works were by some unspeakable catastrophe blotted out, the records established at this Exposition by the assembled nations would afford the necessary standards for the rebuilding of our entire civilization.” A time of optimism, these years between the Gilded Age and the First World War.
* * *
I wander the palaces, open from nine until dusk. Afterward, I walk the grounds until half an hour before midnight, when the Fair lights are gradually, almost imperceptibly dimmed to dark.
The Palace of Electricity is a cathedral of dynamos, motors, rheostats, transformers, and vacuum tubes. I touch the wall. The building hums. Meanwhile, I am speechless before the radiophone—sound transmitted over a beam of light! They are perfecting wireless telegraphy. I fling a message to Kansas City: “Wish you were here.” A man offers to show me the power of lightning. His companion says he can record and replay voices on a steel wire. Lights are everywhere—big, small, colorful, and bright. Inventors claim soon our homes will have wall outlets. I ponder the mysteries of electromagnetism, electrochemistry, electro-therapeutics, and electric cooking. A hefty gent clutches his wife: “Steak done in six minutes—lobster broiled in twelve!”
The central court bustles with crowds that circle aimlessly, heads bent. The yard is silent save for small, exultant sighs. A man bumps into me and, with a nod, moves on. He is wearing earpieces that sprout from a curious wheel he holds in one hand. A dusty farmer takes off his hat, then puts it on again—over and over, an incredulous, unconscious salute. An old woman stands on her toes, as if straining to the heavens. A little girl holds her skirt, her mouth hanging open.
* * *
In the 1944 MGM musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland plays a young spitfire trying to snare the boy next door in the months leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. The Exposition’s unofficial anthem—“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” a ditty about a man who returns home to find his sweetheart has fled their humdrum life for the bright lights of the Fair—can be heard at least six times in the film’s first five minutes. (To this day, the song turns up all over town; at my first hometown baseball game, I was not surprised to be led, on the jumbo screen, in a sing-along by the St. Louis Symphony clad in Cardinal red.)
The exposition saw almost twenty million visitors during its seven-month run—about 100,000 a day. (On weekends, trains to the fairground left downtown’s Union Station on the minute.) The Fair offered an unparalleled economic boon to the city that had lost the chance to host the 1893 Columbian Exposition to its great Midwestern rival, Chicago. In 1904, St. Louis was the nation’s fourth largest city, centrally located on America’s two largest rivers, a rail and river hub that—according to the official Fair guide—claimed the biggest brewery, tobacco factory, cracker factory, and chemical manufacturing plant in the country; the largest brickworks and electric plant on the continent; and one of the grandest shoe operations in the world. The city also churned out hardware, drugs, saddles, white lead, jute bagging, hats, gloves, caskets, and streetcars. Its Union Station was the terminus of twenty-seven rail lines; its citizens read nine daily papers. That said, St. Louis had suffered an economic depression from 1893 to 1897 and weathered a bloody strike of streetcar workers in 1900; the local government was plagued by corruption and graft, the city interests run by a cabal of businessmen called “the Big Cinch.” In 1902, McClure’s Magazine dubbed the city one of America’s “worst governed.” For St. Louis’s new Progressive Reform mayor—busy cleaning up the water, air, streets, and government in time for the grand opening—the Fair was a chance at redemption through political force.
Initial funding was raised through federal appropriation, local municipal bonds, and sale of ten-dollar shares of Fair stock to the good people of St. Louis. The Exposition was meant to honor the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, itself a shrewd deal, the U.S. government shelling out fifteen million to France for what would become thirteen states west of the Mississippi. Due to delays, the Fair missed the anniversary, which gave St. Louis the chance to steal—after threatening to hold its own rival athletic games—the previously scheduled 1904 Olympics from Chicago. The Fair would have it all, including sweet revenge.
* * *
I stroll the “Model Street,” block after perfect block courtesy of the Municipal Improvement Section of the Department of Social Economy. A man loafs on the wide lawn, his collar open, before a guardsman tells him to keep moving. I pass a town hall, a hospital, a civic pride monument, and a playground, where lost children are gathered. By the end of the Fair, all 1,166 of them will have found their way home. For a small fee, a woman checks her two-week-old infant with a nurse. She waves: “Mother will be back soon!”
* * *
The Fair’s fanned grounds—laid out by George Kessler, the architect of Kansas City’s parks and boulevards—offered a mix of the urban and pastoral. The landscape was strewn with 1,200 staff statues that, according to the Chief of Sculpture, aimed “to create a picture of surpassing beauty and to express in the most noble form which human mind and skill can devise, the joy of the American people at the triumphant progress of the principles of liberty westward across the continent of America”—though at least one fairgoer sniffed, “It is a pity that there are so many statues exhibited even on the grounds absolutely naked.”
Only twenty-five years old when Fair construction began, Forest Park was a wilderness still in the process of being uplifted. The fairgrounds began as more forest than park. In September 1901, President Francis and his party of VIPs were an hour late to ceremonially drive the first stake because they were lost in the wilds of the park’s northwest corner. Then steam shovels moved earth and hills, lakes were drained and century-old trees felled. Despite the exposition company’s contractual obligation—spelled out in 1901 St. Louis Ordinance 20412—to restore the park to its original form within a year of the Fair, there was no going back. Forest Park had become a groomed urban oasis, and wrangling between the city and the company lasted for years.
* * *
I pay fifty cents and step into the sky, courtesy of the Giant Observation Wheel, the invention of Mr. George Washington Gale Ferris, who envisioned a perfect circle spinning above the plain. After sixty of us crowd inside the cabin, a giddy couple announces they will be married at the top. They’re both sitting on ponies. A piano stands in the corner. The guard tells me he’s seen it all. Yesterday, a female daredevil made an entire revolution standing atop a car. A few cabins below, fashionable ladies and gents are enjoying a private banquet. The wheel is so quiet we can hear the tinkling piano as we’re swung twenty-five stories into the air. I can see the whole world: the Grand Trianon of Versailles, Charlottenburg Castle, the Orangery at Kensington Palace, a Roman villa, a Chinese summer palace, Robert Burns’ Cottage, and the homes of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas Jefferson—all of them rebuilt at the Fair. A city of replicas, a cosmopolitan capital forged of iron will.
* * *
The lore of the Fair claims many firsts: the debut of Dr. Pepper, the ice cream cone (known as “World’s Fair Cornucopias”), iced tea, hotdogs, hamburgers, cotton candy (aka “Fairy Floss”)—but these items were merely popularized and not, as legend might have it, invented at the Fair. There were several true firsts: the first appearance of puffed rice cereal, which the Quaker Oats Company shot out of eight cannons every fifty minutes; the first large-scale cast of Rodin’s Thinker; the first participation from China in an exposition; the first Japanese garden in America; the first time British troops paraded on U.S. soil since the Revolution.
Perhaps foremost: the first Olympic Games played in the U.S., which also saw the first gold, silver, and bronze medals handed out and took place in the first concrete and steel stadium, Washington University’s Francis Field, which had room for fifteen thousand. Competitors from the U.S. and eleven foreign nations set thirteen Olympic records in twenty-two official events.
Notable performances included a gymnast, George Eyser, whose wooden leg didn’t prevent him from winning six medals, three of them gold, and an unsportsmanlike brawl after the fifty-yard swim. But the most memorable event was the marathon, which was run August 30 at three o’clock the afternoon in ninety-degree heat over tough terrain and dusty roads. There were only two chances for fresh water—at six and twelve miles—in deference to the head of the Department of Physical Culture’s amateur scientific interest in dehydration. Fewer than half of the thirty-two participants crossed the finish line. Runners were plagued by traffic, hills, and cheating. (The first man to return to the stadium received a wreath from Alice Roosevelt, daughter of the president, before it was revealed he had ridden eleven miles in a car.) The true victor, Thomas Hicks, pride of the Cambridge YMCA, ran a time of 3:28, though aided by brandy, raw eggs, and the stimulant/rat poison strychnine. After being sponged by his supporters with hot water from a car radiator, he had to be carried, hallucinating and shuffling his feet in the air, across the finish line. He had lost eight pounds.
* * *
Education was the theme of the Fair—which was meant to be “an international university” concerned not with commerce but knowledge—but not all exhibits were meant to uplift. More liberal entertainment could be found on the mile-and-a-half-long midway called the Pike, whose battle reenactments, hootchy-kootchy girls, ragtime rhythms, and flights of wild fancy were outside the purview of the Bureau of Music and the Department of Art. The Old Plantation featured log cabins and cakewalking “slaves.” The Jerusalem recreation was said to include 1,000 natives of the city, though one magazine reporter found a fellow from Hoboken. Battle Abbey included cycloramas of the battles of Gettysburg, New Orleans, and Manila, plus Custer’s Last Stand. Jim Key, the educated horse, could spell and sort mail. He was not the only equine wonder; in the Boer War reenactment, even the horses played dead.
On the Pike, one visitor observed, “No respect was shown to age or dignity, no mercy to starch and feathers.” Couples might be accosted by bands of dancing young men, and “every stiff hat was a target for the inflated bladder” (or water balloon). The same fairgoer wrote in his memoir, “I believe if the Pike had been a mile longer it would have led to hell.”
Later, he recanted: “And yet I had a desire to imbibe a little of the spirit of the Pike. I wanted to be a boy again. Be a little bit bad perhaps.”
Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, Salon, The American Scholar, The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, Esopus, and Talk, among others. He teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.