Southeast Sagas: Alaska goes to St. Louis - 1904

Louisiana Purchase Exposition had 62 exhibitor nations

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 was organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. By all contemporary accounts, it was the most beautiful, educational and thrilling of all the international exhibitions presented to that date. The world was at peace and developments in technology promised an easier future for mankind. Sixty-two nations and 43 states and territories displayed their treasures and cultures to demonstrate humanity's advancements since the Louisiana Purchase.

The exposition, also known as the "St. Louis World's Fair," took shape on 1,272 swampy acres in the heart of St. Louis. Laid out with broad boulevards, curved bridges and landscaped water vistas, the fair was considered a "world's university" - with lessons for all about civilizations far removed from their everyday lives. It was also designed to demonstrate a structured, logical urban community - a community of the future.

At the time, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States and wanted to mark its presence in the world as its rival, Chicago, had with the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Originally the fair was scheduled to open April 30, 1903, the 100th anniversary of the Purchase. However, as the scope of the Exposition become more and more ambitious, planners found they could not complete all its aspects by that date. They needed transportation, restaurants, fire protection, sanitation, Olympic venues and hotels for millions of visitors. They had to carve lagoons and erect power plants. So the opening date was put off until the 1,500 distinct buildings on 75 miles of walks and roadways could be finished. The fair operated from April 30 to December 1. Visitors came in throngs - 19,694,855 of them.

The Exposition was divided into 12 major classifications, including transportation, art and anthropology. Each classification was grouped around a palace. The Palace of Electricity covered seven acres, and Thomas Edison himself was brought to the grounds to oversee the proper installation of the exhibits. The Agriculture Palace alone covered 23 acres. All the "ivory white" palaces boasted massive columns and spired towers - meant to impress by their size, extensive glazing and dazzling use of that recent invention, electric light. The palaces were temporary, their outsides covered with "staff" - a mixture of plaster of Paris and hemp fiber over wooden frames.

Visitors to the Fair could choose to see a 13-acre recreation of the walled city of Jerusalem, a Japanese tea garden, the North Pole or a Chinese temple. They could visit the 47-acre Philippine Reservation, populated by seven "primitive" Philippine tribes and demonstrating the fruits of America's most prized colonial possession. The French Pavilion was a facsimile of the Grand Trianon of Versailles. The actual log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born had been moved to the grounds. One could ride in a gondola on a lagoon, hire an automobile, an Irish jaunting cart or ride on a camel, a turtle or an elephant. Every day there were organ concerts.

John G. Brady, Governor of the Alaska Territory, asked Congress for money to support an exhibit at the fair. Congress appropriated $50,000. D.W. Fales of Juneau designed the 100- by 50-foot building with upper and lower halls, according to a research paper delivered by Al Minnick at the 1989 annual meeting of the Alaska Historical Society. Brady's goal for Alaska's exhibit was that it would attract settlers to the Last Frontier. He said in 1903 that his vision for the exhibit was "to teach everything possible about Alaska ... getting immigrants our way."

To that end, Brady negotiated with Native Americans in Southeast Alaska for totems. In 1903 he was able to retrieve 20 poles - from the Tlingit villages of Tuxekan and Klawock and from the Haida villages of Howkan, Sukkwan, Old Kasaan and Koinglas. (When the seven months of the Exposition were over, he had some of the poles transported by steamer to Sitka - then the capital - where they became the basis for today's national historical park collection.) Brady also sent south a war canoe donated by Chief Saanaheit of Kasaan and four house posts. Some of the totems were planted in a row in front of the Alaska Pavilion.

The efforts of Brady (1847-1918) to transport totems, a Tlingit plank house and other commanding objects to the Alaska Pavilion generated considerable public interest. In June 1904, Brady wrote to his son from the Exposition, "... the totem poles are doing the work intended. They draw the people."

In fact, they did much more. In combination with other anthropological displays at the fair, Alaska art helped to give observers the feeling that indigenous art might be something worth preserving - something complex and artistic, rather than mere decorative "craft."

The official oration on Alaska was delivered at the fair by a minister and educator, Rev. George Irwin, United States Commissioner of Instruction at Douglas.

The Keystone View Co. produced Fair souvenirs in the form of 3-D stereographs. One titled "Eskimo Dog Team & Sledge" shows a sled with four dogs hitched to it. In the background, an Eskimo dressed in furs holds an Athabascan snowshoe upright. In the distant background is a rude plank structure.

(At the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Midway included an "Esquimaux Village." But it did little for the Territory's reputation. According to Eric Mattie's book "World's Fairs," "Controversy erupted when Innuits complained of gross mistreatment and exploitation." On the other hand, African Americans were completely excluded.)

Among the attractions of the St. Louis Fair were innovative foods and beverages. The fair was the birthplace of hot dogs, ice cream cones and iced tea. It also saw the popularization of a new "health drink" called Dr. Pepper, and a "health food" called peanut butter. Fairgoers were introduced to a new confection, "fairy floss" - today known as cotton candy.

Only one building from the fair remains standing today, the Palace of Fine Arts, now the St. Louis Art Museum. However, the exhibit was immortalized in the musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," starring Judy Garland.

Because 2004 marks the hundredth anniversary of the Exposition, St. Louis is commemorating the Fair this year with a year-long World's Fair Centennial Celebration.

E-Bay is taking advantage of the anniversary to market all sorts of kitsch and collectibles from 1904, from ice-cream forks to maps.



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