DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The 1904 St. Louis Exposition

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Today we're gonna' look at another really influential American World's Fair: The 1904 St. Louis Exposition, celebrating progress (As did all of them), but also celebrating the hundredth anniversiary of the Louisiana Purchase, and westward expansion.

I've said before, and I'll say again: The Future and the Frontier are intrinsicly linked in the American Mindset in a way that it isn't for most other nationalities. We tend to think "What comes next?" and "What's over that hill?" whereas the English tend ot merely think, "I wonder where England will be in the grand scheme of things a hundred years hence." They're related, but very funamentally different because one merely hopes to survive history while another aggressively wants to seduce the future, take it out for dinner, impregnate it, and have lots of little future-babies that'll then go on and seduce a future of their own. This is perhaps not unique to Americans - Canada and Australia have similar experiences, as do Siberians and some Africans of colonial descent - but I think the myth of the old west gives it a much firmer grip on ourselves than others. And of course the whole "Westward expansion" really began with the (completely illegal but damn beneficial) Louisiana purchase.

The St. Louis exposition is unique in the annals of Worlds Fairs because it was the ONLY time the Olympics were held at a fair. The Olympics themselves were only brought back in 1896, and the '04 games were only the third outing since their revival. As such they weren't really clear on how it was all supposed to work, and Worlds Fairs were definitely the A-list semi-annual attraction in those days. The Olympics were still fairly low-priority, so they thought "Why not?" In fact, it worked out so unpleasantly that neither side ever wanted to do it again, and there's a really solid documentary called "The World's Greatest Fair" that goes in to detail about it. It's well worth watching, and here's a clip:

As with the Columbian exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Fair was designed all at once with a comprehensive visual style. The buildings were massive and opulent, and gave a classical utopian view of the future. And yet, the world of the past was never like this.
Take a look at the grand basin: or look at this image: (Sorry for the really long URL, I don't quite know how to fix that), or this shot here

They built a massive artificial lake, and then had channels running off of it interconnecting a bunch of the pavilions. to get to most locations, you could walk, or you could take a gondola for the convenience of the handicapped an the lazy. You can get a sense of the sprawling layout of it on this map it was something like a storybook version of Venice on steroids and mescaline. And without any Italians, because everybody back in those days just knew there wouldn't be any catholics or negroes in the future. More on this in a moment.

It's impossible to overstate the SIZE of this fair, in which the olympics themselves were just a sideshow, but it's also impossible to understate the apalling racism of the festivities. There were countless fundamentally wrong-headed displays 'proving' that Africans were less evolved than Europeans, that Southern Europeans were less evolved than Northern ones, that Asians were less evolved than American Indians, but that American Indians were still less evolved than honkies. Amazingly depressing. Today it's hard to look at World War II and fully understand how a person or group of people could be so fundamentally evil and wrong headed as to attempt genocide. It is unthinkable by our standards, but any kind of casual observation of the '04 fair shows the truth: that nearly everybody in the pre-World-War II world was racist as hell, and attempted to justify their prejudices with half-assed, badly-understood science. I do not intend to diminish the horrors of the Apocalypse, but when we look at those horrible days from a vantage point where they were still in the future, we get a distinctly different perspective than when we look at them from the past, and coming from Jewish ancestry as some of my family does, I think it's really important to remember that.

Put it another way: We look back on Nazi eugenics with horror, a lot of the people in the 1904 fair were looking forward to that kind of thing as part of the inevitable march of progress. Oh, sure, they were more humane in their horrorshow. They wouldn't have talked about killing entire races, but they *would* and did talk about selectively sterilizing groups who served no useful purpose, about reducing the numbers of undesirables, and so forth. They wouldn't have killed the Africans, or the Jews, but they would have made it impossible to breed, and despite their 'enlightened' humanity, the end result is the same: extinction of undesirables.

I tend to rave quite about about the glories of the future in this column, but I think it's important to remember the dark side of some of these future prognostications. It's not all 3-pound pagers and colonies on Mars, there's also some fundamentally bad stuff that gets misrepresented as fundamentally good stuff. This was the era in which Jack London was writing SF stories that continually depicted the Chinese as non-human.

The saddest of these stories is probably Ota Benga, an african pygmie who was shipped to the fair to live in one of the displays as part of a show on evolution. After the fair, he ended up living in the Bronx Zoo - as an exhibit! Liberated from the zoo, he spent ten years in Virginia attempting to fit in to normal American life before giving up and killing himself. Details of his sad story can be found here: But seriously, With this kind of attitude found in such venerated fashion in 1904, I find it remarkable that something like the Holocast didn't happen sooner, and more often. Thank God it didn't.

Irrespective of that, the fair left a lot of very strong impacts in American life. Peanut butter, Hot dogs, Hamburgers, ice cream cones, Iced tea, cotton candy, and Dr. Pepper all made their major debuts at the fair. True, most of these existed before it, but were only known regionally until this time, and most of them were unknown outside of the united states. The fact that we regard these things as staples of theme parks and outdoor attractions today is entirely due to this particular fair. It was also the place the expression "Up the pike" came from - the "Pike" being the gaming section.

This was also the Worlds Fair that a young Walter Elias Disney visited as a boy. It made an indellible impression on him, and was fundamentally responsible for his vision of what a theme park should be, as well as his life long work as a futurian. It was that which in turn shaped Epcot and the various disney parks, which, in turn, shaped much of our own vision of tomorrow.

Some other excellent pictures of the fair can be found here