The 1904 World's Fair: A Turning Point for American Food

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[Photograph: Library of Congress]

If you believe the popular tales, more new American foods were invented at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, than during any other single event in history. The list includes the hamburger, the hot dog, peanut butter, iced tea, the club sandwich, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone, to name just a few. If all the pop histories and internet stories have it right, American foodways would be almost unrecognizable if the 1904 fair had not been held.

And what dramatic stories they are. It's said that after too many patrons walked off with the white gloves that vendor Anton Feuchtwanger gave out to hold his steamed sausages, he had his brother-in-law bake buns to hold the meat—thus ushering in the first hot dog! Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian-born waffle concessionaire, had a flash of inspiration when the ice cream vendor next to him ran out of glass serving dishes. Hamwi rolled up one of his thin waffles, scooped in some ice cream—and bam, invented the ice cream cone! On a sweltering day, few passersby were interested in the cups of hot tea offered by Richard Blechynden, the Tea Commissioner in the India Pavilion, so the desperate man decided to pour his tea over ice, and (supposedly) an iconic American beverage was born. Perhaps the most widely repeated tale from the fair is that of Fletcher "Old Dave" Davis, a lunch counter operator from Athens, Texas, who purportedly came to St. Louis to introduce a sandwich he'd invented by placing a patty of ground beef between two slices of bread. German-born St. Louis residents dubbed it the "hamburger," knowing that the citizens of Hamburg, Germany, had a particular fondness for ground meat.

These stories are all quite precious, but they're also pretty easy to debunk. Iced tea, for instance, had been fashionable for decades by the time of the exposition. In 1868, more than 30 years before the fair, a widely circulated syndicated newspaper piece noted that "iced tea with lemon juice is said to be a popular and healthy drink," and provided instructions for making it. The beverage subsequently appeared in numerous late-19th-century cookbooks. The term "Hamburg steak"—referring to a patty made of ground beef, meant to be eaten with a knife and fork—appeared in print before the Civil War, and references to "hamburger" being served as a sandwich date back to the 1880s, decades before the fair. The other foods commonly said to have been invented in St. Louis antedate the exposition by many years, too, evolving slowly over time into the forms we know today.

But I think there's a reason that so many of these tall tales have been rooted in a single place and point in time. When it comes to food origin stories, we crave the details. We want our favorite foods to have been invented by a specific person at a specific moment. If we can work in a little tension and drama, like hot tea that won't sell or ice cream that's melting all over, then all the better. And the more we dig into these tales, the more we can see why the St. Louis World's Fair was such a ripe venue for these dramatic origin stories.

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[Photograph: Library of Congress]

In part, it has to do with the nature of World's Fairs in general. From the 1851 Great Exhibition in London to the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, these ambitious international gatherings, which took place every few years in a different location, celebrated trade and technological advances, highlighting the new and novel. In an era before mass communication and jet travel, they brought the wonders of the world to a single spot to delight and inspire millions of attendees. It seems only natural that people would link these memorable events to innovation and novelty.

But there was something special about the 1904 World's Fair. It took place at an important historical turning point in American food culture. While there may not be conclusive evidence that any single food item was invented from scratch on the fairgrounds, American foodways were undergoing a radical transformation. The real legacy of the fair is that, for a few brief months in a single place, it captured an entire culture of eating that was being remade for the modern world.

"A Marker of the Accomplishments and Progress of Man"

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[Photograph: Library of Congress]

Occupying two square miles on the western side of St. Louis, the 1904 World's Fair was the largest in history, with 1,272 acres containing more than 1,500 buildings. There were grand lagoons with gondola rides and an ornate Festival Hall that held the world's largest pipe organ. A gigantic floral clock told time with a 74-foot-long minute hand above a broad face composed of beds of flowers in a rainbow of colors.

At the heart of the exposition were 11 monumental "palaces," each dedicated to a subject, such as Electricity, Fine Arts, Horticulture, or Machinery. Sixty-two countries and 42 American states had their own halls or buildings, where they displayed the highest achievements of their cultures and economies. Despite their impressive facades, all of the buildings save one (the Palace of Fine Arts, which now houses the Saint Louis Art Museum) were temporary constructions, made from a mixture of plaster of Paris and jute. They were designed not to endure for the ages but to captivate the crowds for a brief moment.

Officially named the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the fair was meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase—"the great transaction," as the organizers put it, "that opened the West to the United States." Its exhibits celebrated the achievements of the intervening century, aspiring to represent in physical form the entire sweep of humanity's progress to date.

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[Photograph: From The New York Public Library]

The United States was at a turning point as a nation. In 1890, the superintendent of the federal census had declared that the West had been so widely settled that "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." The taming of the West was symbolized at the fair in living form by Geronimo, the once-feared Apache warrior. Now aged 75 and a prisoner of the US Army, he was presented as the star attraction in the Apache Village—one of many exhibits purporting to show "primitive culture." Also living on the fairgrounds were representatives of the Igorots, who occupied a re-created version of a village from the Philippines, which, just six years before, had become a territory of the newly imperialistic United States as a spoil from the Spanish-American War.

The US's rising global ambition was reflected in the international character of the mile-long Pike on the north side of the fairgrounds, which was lined with cafés, amusements, and the food concessions where so many beloved treats were later alleged to have been conceived. In addition to typical fair fare, visitors could dine at the Chinese Village, the Streets of Cairo, the Irish Village, and the grand Tyrolean Restaurant, which sat 3,000 customers amid miniature replicas of the Alps.

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[Photograph: From The New York Public Library]

As it was emerging as a world power, the United States was rapidly urbanizing, too. By 1900, more than 40% of the population was living in urban areas, and that number would cross 50% in 1920. Fewer and fewer Americans were working on farms, but thanks to improved machinery, new plant breeds, and efficient growing techniques, they were producing far more food than ever before.

The products of those farms were on full display in the Palace of Agriculture, the largest structure on the exposition grounds. Two acres of space were devoted to cereals, tubers, coffee, tea, meat, eggs, spices, beer, whiskey, and, the official guidebook promised, "everything else used as food or drink by mankind." Within the Palace's walls, the Borden Company temporarily operated the largest condensed-milk factory in the world, and the Pillsbury Flour Pavilion offered daily demonstrations of the milling of Pillsbury's Best Flour, along with free samples of bread made from it.

The breaking of seasonality and the commoditization of the exotic was under way, and the once-local trade in fruits and vegetables was becoming national and even international in reach. California and Florida were becoming the great garden for all of America, their produce distributed via the newly completed national rail network on newly perfected refrigerator cars. The exhibit halls of the Agriculture building celebrated this bounty: The California delegation displayed "pyramids of oranges, stacks of lemons, and tables laden with apples." They also introduced the kumquat, a small fruit that fairgoers found easy to slip from the trees and sneak into their pockets as a souvenir.

The Florida exhibit had a novel item, too: a hybridized version of the pomelo that had been introduced to American markets just a few years before. It still sold for the luxury price of five dollars a box (around $100 in today's dollars), but that would drop rapidly over the next two decades as it became a commodity known as the grapefruit. New multinational trading firms were bringing in other fruits from the Caribbean and Central and South America, too, like bananas, which were featured in both the Cuban and the Brazilian exhibits. By the year of the fair, Americans were importing 16 million bunches annually, and these once-rare and expensive treats were well on their way to becoming an everyday staple.

Sarah Tyson Rorer and the Future of American Cooking

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[Photograph: From The New York Public Library]

Of all the personalities featured at the fair, perhaps none more fully represented the bridge between the old food world and the new than Sarah Tyson Rorer. The proprietor of the Philadelphia Cooking School, domestic science editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, and author of more than 50 cookbooks and pamphlets, Rorer was one of the most influential cooking authorities of the late 19th century. For the St. Louis exposition, the famous cooking teacher turned restaurateur operated a large facility in the Eastern Pavilion on Art Hill, where she presided over breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and supper and, in between seatings, lectured on "domestic economy."

The fare at Rorer's restaurant reflected the major shift in American cooking that she was helping usher in. Rorer insisted that "simplicity is elegance." Instead of the elaborate multicourse meals of the Victorian era, her cookbooks declared that "'simple dinners' are now the correct thing." She also sold her World's Fair Souvenir Cook Book (1904) for 50 cents a copy. The book promised to "present in compact form a few choice recipes from the Eastern Pavilion at the Fair" and to "show how simply and easily all foods may be prepared."

The cookbook's recipes had one foot firmly in the 19th century and the other sneaking into the 20th. "Grandmother's rice pudding" appeared right next to "cerealine blocks with jelly." Cerealine was the first dried breakfast food, an early version of cornflakes, which were invented in the 1880s and grew in popularity in the 1890s—a small hint of the commercial products that were about to transform the home kitchen. (In the Palace of Agriculture, in fact, the Quaker Oats exhibit featured a new process invented just the year before: Every 50 minutes, a load of rice was put into giant cannons and heated until it exploded from the barrels, puffed to eight times its original size.)

On the one hand, Rorer's recipes follow the conventions of the receding Victorian age, with no ingredients lists, just instructions in paragraph form and steps amusingly out of order. No cooking temperatures are specified—just "in a hot oven" or "a quick oven"—and no precise cook times, either, since most Americans still baked in wood- or coal-burning ovens with no thermostats. Rorer, however, was an ardent proponent of innovations like the gas range, and in the years just after the World's Fair, she became a paid endorser of gas stoves. "I used the first gas stove that came to America," Rorer is quoted as saying in one 1910 advertisement. "In burning coal you have to make your own gas, which means labor, both in making and keeping of the fire and in cleaning." Rorer, the ad went on, "thinks women spend too much time in the kitchen. She favors appliances that make kitchen work easier."

And more sanitary, too. At Rorer's restaurant at the World's Fair, the food was touted as being prepared "on hygienic principles." It was the early years of industrial food production, and the business was rife with spoilage, adulteration, and outright fraud.

"Beware the Hamburger," the Kansas City Journal warned in 1904. Far from being invented at the St. Louis fair, the hamburger was already a notorious public health threat. Dr. Cutler, Kansas City's meat inspector, was hot on the heels of fraud among the city's meat producers, one of whom, he alleged, "makes 1000 pounds of blue meat look like the reddest and freshest Hamburger" by dosing it with sulfurous acid. "He sells it to the lunch wagon men and they make sandwiches of it."

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[Photograph: Library of Congress]

But scientists and entrepreneurs promised solutions. A full two acres of the Agriculture building in St. Louis were dedicated to the Pure Food Exhibit. Forty brands of ketchup were displayed side by side to show how chemical analysis could expose which were pure and which were adulterated, including one determined by the Kentucky Food Department to be "made from tomato peelings and heavily filled with starch, colored aniline dye and preserved with benzoic acid." Manufacturers touted a dazzling array of new, supposedly healthful items, like Cottolene shortening—a lard substitute made from cottonseed oil that "shortens your food, lengthens your life." The Genesee Pure Food Co. of Le Roy, New York, proudly displayed a brand-new gelatin product that was transported from its sanitary factory to consumers in sealed packaging. It bore the brand name Jell-O.

While the fair was in its closing weeks, a young writer named Upton Sinclair headed to Chicago to visit the Packingtown slaughterhouses, and his investigations would be published as The Jungle in 1906. His efforts and those of other reformers culminated in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first major piece of legislation to outlaw adulterated or mislabeled food products, and the beginning of federal oversight of the nation's food supply.

The St. Louis World's Fair, in other words, took place right at the moment when many of the key elements of modern foodways were being introduced to the world. Though the specific icons of modern American eating—the hamburger, the hot dog, the ice cream cone—might not have been literally invented at the World's Fair, the conditions necessary for their arrival had, for the first time, been drawn together and illuminated in a single space.

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[Photograph: From The New York Public Library]

On the night of December 1, seven months after the exposition opened its gates, a crowd of 100,000 gathered for the closing ceremonies. At midnight, the great floral clock chimed 12 times, and David R. Francis, the president of the exposition, pressed an electric button that extinguished the millions of lights that had enchanted visitors from around the globe. "The great White city," the St. Louis Palladian reported, "lapsed into shadows and silence."

The world of the 19th century was receding rapidly behind them. Ahead lay a future powered by gas and electricity, a world of breakfast cereals and year-round citrus fruit, a hygienic new world of simplicity and ease. And plenty of unadulterated hamburgers.