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When the St. Louis World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1904, it kicked off a seven-month extravaganza drawing nearly 20 million people from around the world to Forest Park.
Formerly known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the event spanned over 1,000 acres and over 1,500 buildings – at the time, the largest fair of its kind in history.
Fair enthusiasts could explore exhibits from over 60 countries and 43 states in the United States. Among the many attractions: large lagoons, a giant Ferris wheel, ornate sculptures and art exhibits, and cotton candy machines, or what today is called cotton candy.
“It was at a time before television. It was at a time before magazines with color photographs, it is before many museums, ”explains Peter Kastor, professor of history at the University of Washington.
Kastor teaches a course on the fair at the University of Washington, which is located at the site of the exhibition grounds. “One of the reasons so many people went to a World’s Fair was to see the world,” he says.
The 1904 World’s Fair represented a changing modern world at a pivotal and controversial moment in American history – when the United States celebrated itself as a growing imperial force, at the center of a new industrial age.
All of these came together at the fair, showing not only the country’s political influence, but also its impact on the economy, popular culture, science, art and, of course, food.
Truths, half-truths and lies
For many participants, the Universal Exhibition offered their first experiences with the latest and greatest technological innovations: outdoor electric lighting, an X-ray machine, a cordless telephone, the private automobile.
The World’s Fair was also the first time people encountered many now classic foods like Dr Pepper, ice cream cones, burgers, and iced tea. Equally exciting, all of these foods could be picked up and eaten while walking around, a relatively recent trend.
But not everything people remember about the event turned out to be true.
“St. Louisians weren’t really happy when I challenged the ice cream cone issue,” says Pam Vaccaro, author of “Beyond The Ice Cream Cone: The Whole Scoop On Food At The 1904 World’s Fair” .
A folk tale of the invention of the ice cream cone gives credit to Syrian dealer Ernest Hamwi. As the story goes, on a particularly hot day at the St. Louis Fair, Hamwi ran out of dishes so he wrapped a waffle in a cone, put a scoop of ice cream on top – and is became a dessert legend.
Except that the United States granted the first patent for the ice cream cone to an Italian immigrant in 1903, a year before the fair. According to Vaccaro, Saint-Louis Fair enthusiasts argue that this 1903 design featured more of a flat-bottomed waffle cup.
The origins of ice cream cone, with the point, remains a little vague. A handful of families all claim their relative was responsible for the sharp waffle cone at the fair; a few later invented equipment for making ice cream cones.
While it’s hard to say who really created and served the first ice cream cone, the treat took off at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
“The ice cream cone, since it cannot be proven that it was invented there, we say it was popularized,” says Vaccaro.
Dr Pepper boasts of a similar story. Although people credit the St. Louis Fair for inventing soda, Dr. Pepper made his debut in Waco, Texas, before the event took place. But like the ice cream cone, it became a fan favorite during the fair.
The popular myth also claims that the hamburger and iced tea were invented at the 1904 Fair, which is not true. Vaccaro says each item can be traced decades ago.
So why do these myths about food inventions persist?
Vaccaro credits their exposure to the sheer number of World Expo attendees – millions of people around the world trying these smart and delicious portable foods, then coming home and telling friends and family all the new things they’ve got. just found out.
An uncertain era for food
Vaccaro says the fair actually revolutionized American cuisine – but maybe not in the way we might think.
“What is deeply impacted is the way we distribute food, how we market food, how we produce food and even how we have become aware of the purity or lack thereof in our food, ”says Vaccaro.
At the Fair’s Palace of Agriculture, more than 20 acres of exhibits and exhibits served as a hub for all things food. Visitors were greeted with outsized exhibits meant to captivate and awaken all the senses: an elephant made of almonds, a butter sculpture of President Theodore Roosevelt, a 10ft tall bear made of prunes.
Ushering in an era of industrialization, the palace showcased mass-produced food products and demonstrated the importance of food purity. At the time, food regulations were scarce and many items were fraudulent or downright unsafe to eat.
The Pure Food exhibit exposed these types of corruption, including companies that misrepresented the amounts inside their packaging or mislabeled ingredients. And a Pure Food Congress, held inside the palace, because the precursor of the “Pure Food and Drug Act” of 1906, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale or transport of food, drugs or medicines falsified or mislabelled or poisonous or noxious, and liquors.
Emerging food manufacturers have also benefited. Inside the Palace of Agriculture, two hectares were devoted to foods like tubers, coffee, tea, meat, eggs, spices, beer and whiskey. Puffed wheat, just invented and presented for the first time at the fair, was shot down by a cannon.
Renowned companies such as Kellogg’s, Quaker Oats and Heinz have held their own exhibitions, and Pillsbury even held daily flourmill demonstrations and handed out free bread.
Meanwhile, states like Florida and California featured product displays, encouraging visitors to try fruits like pomelo and kumquats for the first time.
“So when you do a World’s Fair you ask yourself if you’re a business, how do I market my product in a place where, you know, 20 million people are going to show up,” says Vaccaro.
“A space of inequalities”
More than any food or phenomenon, Kastor argues that the 1904 World’s Fair brought US imperialism to the fore.
“The World’s Fair was also supposed to herald and celebrate the arrival of the United States as a world power, and it was all on display,” Kastor said.
The World’s Fair opened amid the Jim Crow era of discrimination and the height of the nation’s forced elimination and assimilation of Native Americans. And that was only a few years after the end of the Spanish-American War, in which the United States took control of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
Kastor says the country celebrated these “bloody military repressions” at the fair with “living anthropology” exhibits, featuring indigenous peoples from around the world.
“What I want to stress is that all of these portrayals are deeply racist of people around the world, but each does it in a slightly different way,” Kastor said.
Kastor says this racism also extended to how the citizens of St. Louis could participate in the fair. The city was a major port of entry and an immigrant community – many of whom built the structures of the great fair – but the city and its fair were separate.
The World’s Fair denied entry to African Americans, who could not drink as much water at the fairgrounds and were only allowed to do menial jobs or be exploited in anthropology exhibits. .
“What’s important to see in the World’s Fair is that it was a time that was in part designed to celebrate American glory, American democracy, the American economy,” Kastor said. “But it was also something that showed in the most obvious terms imaginable how the United States was a space of inequality. Equitable participation was separated by race. The live exhibits were truly celebrations of white supremacy.
Kastor argues that this duality is at the very heart of the World’s Fair – a celebration of multiculturalism and modernity, racism and injustice, all at the same time.
“One of the things we often learn when we look at the past is really how complicated and contingent these moments are,” Kastor says, “and that equality and inequality coexist in the same space as freedom and opportunities, racism and segregation exist. “
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