Ted Mathys in the Stacks: Sang Froid and the World’s Fair

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the fourth in a series; see below for previous entries. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

It’s hard, living in St. Louis, to not feel the historical pull of the year 1904. It marked our city’s coming out party. During that single summer, St. Louis played host to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, as well as the 1904 Olympics and the 1904 Democratic National Convention.

Today, the World’s Fair legacy is everywhere. Most palpably it is felt in Forest Park, the site of the Fair. Twice as large as Central Park in New York, and four times the size of Grant Park in Chicago, the park accommodated 20 million people at the Fair during 1904. The fountains and grounds where the Fair was held are now the site of the St. Louis Art Museum. In the park there’s also the Missouri History Museum, which has a permanent exhibit about the Fair, as well as the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center, the World’s Fair Pavilion, restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, ball fields, horse stables, an ice skating rink, and gobs of geese.

But the legacy of the Fair also indexes aspects of St. Louis identity. Like, we here in St. Louis were once the center of the world, and now we’re not sure what we are, but damn, look at those amazing trees and serpentine gravel paths and fountains and architecture. If you look in the right direction, doesn’t it just feel like Paris? The Exposition was also largely a celebration of conquest and racial exceptionalism, issues that haunt the city today. The Fair came in the wake of the Spanish-American war in which the U.S. had acquired new territories in Puerto Rico, Guam, and elsewhere. People from these areas, as well as Native Americans and indigenous peoples from the Philippines where literally put on display at the Fair. Finally, the Fair lives on in kitsch. For example, there’s an amazing little hole-in-the-wall donut shop that I visit at the end of each semester to get donuts for my students to bribe them into thinking I’m a good teacher. It’s called World’s Fair Donuts. The address is, appropriately, 1904 Vandeventer Avenue. And yes, of course, there’s Judy Garland as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis, which takes place in the lead up to the World’s Fair, and has given us standards like the “Trolley Song.”

The Internet also tells me I can now buy an incredible Judy Garland doll donning her trolley dress.

But, as with Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and toasted ravioli and slimy provel cheese on St. Louis cracker crust pizza, I’m never sure if I’m supposed to be proud of the Fair. Turns out this is nothing new. It’s a question about St. Louis’ identity as a provincial city or a national city, an outpost or a center. And it’s further a question about citizen humility vs. citizen self-regard and ambition. This is what Reedy wrestled with in The Mirror during 1904.

In the New Years Eve issue in 1903, Reedy pontificates on the coming year. Writing about the Fair, he wonders about the city’s residents’ flatlining enthusiasm: “What shall we say of it that shall avoid the mere hyperbole of patriotic booming? It will be the greatest Exposition of all history: that is vague. There have been already expended upon it $30,000,000….[But] to us here in St. Louis, perhaps the Fair doesn’t wear its true proportions.” Reedy feels that despite its magnificence, the locals have been working for so long to land the Fair, raising money for the Fair, preparing for the Fair, and thinking about the Fair, that they’ve forgotten that St. Louis is about to do something of global significance. He mocks how St. Louisans think of the local leaders who helped secure and bankroll the events as just guys down the street: “Dave Francis is a big man? Pshaw! We see him every day. We even take a drink with him. We don’t see any halo around him. He’s much the same sort of man he was when we knew him only as a citizen. He a man of genius? Go on! He’s only a slob of a St. Louisan like the rest of us.” For Reedy, this line of thinking is the problem. “That’s the essential slobbiness of sentiment that has kept the St. Louisan of worth always in the slob class – in his own town.” Reedy wants his city to act like a world city, to have some self-regard.

As the Fair approaches, Reedy ramps up his boosterism. “The Fair opening is only four months away,” he writes. “The old town isn’t in the least excited.” Having struck out in his attempts to whip up excitement, he then tries an about face, half satirically and half earnestly suggesting that St. Louisans aren’t excited precisely because they are not provincial bumpkins but mature cosmopolitans: “We are only acting as cosmopolitans. This is a big city and the World’s Fair isn’t anything more than an unusually large and pretty bazaar or picnic held in an outlying wood…We are not like Kansas City, that turns out en masse to a flower show or a horse show or a cattle show. St. Louis is Cosmopolis. It has all the sang froid of Cosmopolis. It has acquired an “imperturbable aplomb.’…As was written of India, so of us it shall be said: “She heard the legions thunder past, then turned to dream again.”

By February he’s grumpy. He’s worried that construction on a new railway terminal to transport people to the Fair is behind schedule. He uses the fair to highlight corruption again, this time focusing on how “Lindell avenue, the main boulevard to the World’s Fair, is to be paved with bituminous macadam. Now bituminous macadam in St. Louis is a rank monopoly….But Lindell Avenue had to be paved for the Fair, and the Board of Public Improvement would have nothing but the Warren Brothers’ material, and “there you are.”” And he inveighs against local barbers who are preparing for the coming influx of visitors by jacking up prices: “Barbers about the St. Louis Union Station will make whiskers popular with World’s Fair visitors, if they keep up the present rates of $2 per have and $6.25 for a hair cut…The robbery of visitors to the Fair should be punished as severely as the laws permit.”

But by early April he’s excited, as is everyone else, and his pride is palpable. His reflection on April 28th, right before the opening, reads in its entirety: “Even the mighty Mississippi rises thirty-five feet above its banks to do honor to greatest World’s Fair in history.”

Reedy writes on the Fair throughout the rest of the year, though he seems more interested in and writes more frequently about the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis and the meatpacking strikes in Chicago that would be later immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. About the Fair, he’s consistently celebratory, working to convince the locals that what they’ve done is great. He pillories national and international newspapers that have attacked the Fair for early sluggish attendance and for the “recklessness with which the critics set about to knock the city.” By the time the Fair attendance turns the corner and the year winds down, Reedy seems sure that the Fair will go down in history, and he’s right. In the end his verdict is: “World’s Fair a Winner.”

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