The 1904 World's Fair exhibit at the Missouri History Museum features a scale model of the fairgrounds.

Experience the St. Louis World’s Fair 120 Years Later

Monday April 29, 2024

By Rachel Huffman

For the first time in 20 years, the Missouri History Museum has opened a refreshed and revamped World’s Fair exhibit.

Held in 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, was downright impressive, boasting bold temporary palaces and a stunning Ferris wheel alongside fluffy cotton candy and ingenious waffle cones brimming with ice cream.

“If you were in attendance, the St. Louis World’s Fair would have been the most wonderful thing that you’d ever seen,” Sam Moore, managing director of the Missouri Historical Society, says. “It was also an incredibly complex moment in the history of the city as well as the country. Amongst the grandeur and innovation, soldiers returning from war played war; men, women and children were displayed in human zoos; and premature babies became spectacles in incubators. In 2024, it’s difficult to wrap our minds around some of the facts, but in order to fully understand this piece of St. Louis history, we have to take all aspects into account.

“The Missouri Historical Society preserves St. Louis history; it tells St. Louis stories,” he continues. “We have a role to play in building a stronger future for this place. By better understanding the 1904 World’s Fair, we’re taking another step towards a stronger future for St. Louis.”

In the new exhibit, which is free and open to the public, the Missouri Historical Society digs into the tension between the wonderful and the complex, giving visitors a more complete picture of the St. Louis World’s Fair thanks to some 200 artifacts.

“When you consider St. Louis now, 120 years later, a story of continuous progress, innovation and self-improvement unfolds.”

– Sam Moore

During the 1904 World’s Fair, the eyes – and feet – of the world were on St. Louis. More than 60 nations exhibited at the event and almost 20 million people attended over the course of seven months.

As the centerpiece of the new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, a 17-by-25-foot scale model covering the 1,272-acre fairgrounds allows visitors to immerse themselves in the setting. “With people in the streets, boats in the water and clouds overhead, you’ll feel like you’re standing in the middle of the fair,” Moore says. “We aim to give guests a sense of its vastness.”

Throughout the exhibit, you can embark on “walking tours,” which focus on art, architecture, food and the experiences of African Americans and Filipinos at the fair. “African Americans were admitted to the fair, but there was no guarantee that they would receive any kind of services,” Moore explains. “So, the Black experience looks much different than the white experience.

“Different parts of the exhibit also examine the Filipino experience,” he continues. “The hundreds of people who were on display in the Philippine Reservation were subjected to rough conditions; they were objectified. [The U.S. formally acquired the Philippines from Spain in 1898] and the Philippine Reservation served that narrative.”

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the 1944 musical comedy Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, is based on the 1904 World’s Fair. The exhibit features an original movie poster and a souvenir program for the world premiere of the stage musical at The Muny in 1960 – plus, Judy Garland’s iconic red dress from the film will be on display every year during the holidays.

Other significant artifacts include the desk of David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and the masterworks of the Great Floral Clock made of living flowers during the fair, which sat in front of the Palace of Agriculture and kept perfect time. Display cases also house ruby glass inscribed with names and messages, which would have been an affordable souvenir for visitors.

“The St. Louis World’s Fair was a high-water mark for the city,” Moore says. “It was a moment of real achievement, but we hope that the new exhibit gives context to the excitement and the challenges of the moment. When you consider St. Louis now, 120 years later, a story of continuous progress, innovation and self-improvement unfolds.”

After the St. Louis World’s Fair closed, it lingered in the memories of those who experienced it. Today, it remains a vital part of the region’s heritage, and the Missouri History Museum exhibit is a unique opportunity to explore its legacy.