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At the World's Fair of 1904, St. Louis showed off the best and worst of America

 Ice tea, cotton candy, ice cream and hamburgers were all popularized at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
Crysta Henthorne
Ice tea, cotton candy, ice cream and hamburgers were all popularized at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

When the St. Louis World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1904, it kicked off a seven-month extravaganza drawing almost 20 million people from around the world to Forest Park.

Formally known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the event covered over 1,000 acres and more than 1,500 buildings — at the time, the largest fair of its kind in history.

Fairgoers could explore exhibits from over 60 countries and 43 states in the U.S. Among the many attractions: grand lagoons, a giant Ferris wheel, ornate sculptures and art displays, and fairy floss machines, or what’s known today as cotton candy.

“This was in an era before television. This was in an era before magazines with color photographs, it’s before many of the museums,” says Washington University history professor Peter Kastor.

Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
The Ferris Wheel at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

Kastor teaches a class about the fair at Washington University, which sits where the fairgrounds were located. “One of the reasons so many people would go to a World's Fair was to see the world," he says.

The World's Fair of 1904 represented a changing modern world at a pivotal and contentious moment in American history — when the United States celebrated itself as a growing imperial force, at the center of a new industrial era.

All of these elements came together at the fair, showing off not just the country's political influence but also its impact on the economy, popular cultural, science, art, and, of course, food.

For many attendees, the World's Fair offered their first experiences with the latest and greatest technological innovations: outdoor electric lighting, an X-ray machine, a wireless telephone, the private automobile.

The World's Fair was also the first time that people encountered many now-classic foods like Dr Pepper, ice cream cones, hamburgers and ice tea. Just as exciting, all of those foods could be picked up and consumed while walking around, a relatively recent trend.

But not everything that people remember about the event has turned out to be true.

“St. Louisans weren’t really happy when I challenged the question of the ice cream cone,” says Pam Vaccaro, author of the book "Beyond The Ice Cream Cone: The Whole Scoop On Food At The 1904 World’s Fair."

Carlos Moreno
The story that the ice cream cone was 'invented' at World's Fair of 1904 is popular lore people love to attach onto. But the dessert's true origin story is far more complicated and vague.

One popular tale of the ice cream cone's invention gives credit to Syrian concessionaire Ernest Hamwi. As the story goes, during a particularly hot day at the St. Louis fair, Hamwi ran out of dishes so he wrapped up a waffle into a cone, put a scoop of ice cream on top — and became a dessert legend.

Except the U.S. granted the first patent for the ice cream cone to an Italian immigrant in 1903, one year before the fair. According to Vaccaro, St. Louis fair enthusiasts contend this 1903 design proposed more of a waffle cup with a flat bottom.

The origins of the ice cream cone, with the point, remain kind of vague. A handful of families all claim that their relative was responsible for the pointy waffle cone at the fair; a few later went on to invent equipment that made ice cream cones.

Even though it's hard to say who truly created and served the first ice cream cone, the treat took off in a big way at the St. Louis World's Fair.

“The ice cream cone, since it cannot be proven to have been invented there, we do say popularized,” Vaccaro says.

Dr Pepper boasts a similar story. Although people credit the St. Louis fair for the soda's invention, Dr Pepper got its start in Waco, Texas, before the event took place. But like the ice cream cone, it became a fan favorite during the fair.

Popular myth also claims that the hamburger and iced tea were invented at the 1904 Fair — both of which are false. Vaccaro says each item can be traced decades before.

Carlos Moreno
The hamburger was invented decades before the World's Fair of 1904, but many still love to claim that it made it's debut during the fair.

So why do these food invention myths persist?

Vaccaro credits their exposure to the sheer volume of attendees at the World's Fair — millions of people from across the world trying these clever and delicious portable foods, then traveling back home and telling friends and family about all the new things they just discovered.

Vaccaro says the fair actually did revolutionize American cuisine — just maybe not in the ways we might think.

“What is profoundly impacted is how we distributed food, how we marketed food, how we produced food and even how we became aware of the purities, or lack of them in our food,” Vaccaro says.

At the fair's Palace of Agriculture, over 20 acres of displays and exhibits served as the hub for all things food. Visitors were greeted with over-the-top displays intended to captivate and engage all the senses: an elephant made of almonds, a butter sculpture of President Theodore Roosevelt, a 10-foot-tall bear made out of prunes.

Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
An elephant made from almonds on display at the California exhibit of the Palace of Horticulture at the 1904 World's Fair.

Ushering in an era of industrialization, the palace showcased mass-produced food products and displayed the importance of food purity. At the time, food regulation was scarce and many items were fraudulent or outright unsafe to eat.

The Pure Food Exhibit exposed these types of corruptions, including companies who misrepresented the amounts inside their packaging or mislabeled ingredients. And a Pure Food Congress, held inside the palace, because the precursor for the 1906 "Pure Food and Drug Act,"which banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.”

Emerging food manufacturers also took advantage. Inside the Palace of Agriculture, two acres were devoted to foods like tubers, coffee, tea, meat, eggs, spices, beer and whiskey. Puffed wheat, just invented and premiering at the fair, got shot out of a canon.

Big-name companies like Kellogg's, Quaker Oats, and Heinz set up their own exhibits, and Pillsbury even operated daily flour mill demonstration and gave away free bread.

U.S. Library of Congress
Apples stacked in shallow bowls at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. This slide is titled "Help yourself to an apple," and is labeled to be part of Missouri's Horticultural Exhibit.

Meanwhile, states like Florida and California brought produce displays, encouraging fairgoers to try fruits like pomelos and kumquats for the first time.

“So when you have a World’s Fair, you think about if you’re a company, how can I let my product be known in a place where, you know, 20 million are going to show up,” Vaccaro says.

More than any food or phenomenon, Kastor argues that the 1904 World's Fair put American imperialism front and center.

“The World’s Fair was also supposed to announce and to celebrate the arrival of the United States as a world power, and all this was on display," Kastor says.

The World's Fair opened in the middle of the Jim Crow era of discrimination, and at the height of the country's removal and forced assimilation of Native Americans. And it was just a few years after the end of the Spanish-American War, during which the United States took control over Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Kastor says the country celebrated these "bloody military crackdowns" at the fair with "living anthropology" exhibits, putting indigenous peoples from around the world on display.

"What I want to emphasize is that all of these are deeply racist representations of peoples from around the world, but each one does it in a slightly different way," Kastor says.

U.S. Library of Congress
The great Pike at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

Kastor says this racism also extended to how St. Louis citizens could participate in the fair. The city was a major port of entry and a community of immigrants — many of whom built the grand fair structures — but both the city and its fair were segregated.

The World's Fair denied entry to African Americans, who couldn't get as much of a drink of water at the fairgrounds and were only permitted there to work menial jobs or be exploited in the anthropology exhibits.

“What’s important to see in the World’s Fair is that it was a moment that was partly designed to celebrate American glory, American democracy, American economy,” Kastor says. “But it’s also something that displayed in the most obvious terms imaginable the ways the United States was a space of inequality. Fair attendance was segregated by race. The living exhibitions were really celebrations of white supremacy.”

Kastor argues this duality sits at the very core of the World's Fair — a celebration of multiculturalism and modernity, racism and injustice, all at once.

“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 co-exist in the same space that freedom and opportunity and racism and segregation exist."

For more stories like this one, subscribe to Hungry For MO on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Support for Hungry For MOcomes from the Missouri Humanities Council.

Suzanne Hogan
Suzanne Hogan graduated from the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, with a degrees in Political Science and Documentary Studies. Her interests include Latin American politics, immigration and storytelling in a variety of mediums including photography, film/video and writing.