The World Expo that made America’s heartland a centre stage

The World Expo that made America’s heartland a centre stage

Many are aware of the United States’ history with World Expos, with the country having organised several World and Specialised Expos. In addition to Chicago – which hosted World Expos in 1893 and 1933 – another Midwestern city has hosted a World Expo:  St. Louis in 1904. This is not counting the Specialised Expos that also took place in the American heartland – Expo 1982 Knoxville, which had a theme based on energy and Expo 1984 New Orleans, with a theme around rivers. The latter was the most recent Expo hosted in the United States.

The theme of Expo 1904 in St. Louis was the celebration of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, whereby France sold more than 200 million hectares of land to the United States for $15 million, in 1803. Much of what is known as America’s Heartland was part of French territory and, consequently, part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Canal at Expo 1904 St. Louis. Image credit: Library of Congress

First known as the “Gateway to the West”, St. Louis had this nickname because it was the starting point of the westward movement of settlers in the United States during the 1800s, thus St. Louis had a direct role in the westward expansion of the country. Expo 1904 in particular, receiving nearly 20 million visitors and reaching profitable outcomes, impacted the city’s economic growth and overall rise in the United States’ position in the world. By 1950, the population of St. Louis peaked, becoming the eighth-largest city in the United States, with a population of 856,796. At various stages, the city was either home to headquarters of global companies and/or the cradle of iconic American companies: Anheuser-Busch, McDonnell-Douglas, Ralston Purina, TWA and Southwestern Bell. Despite the mergers and acquisitions of some of these companies, they all maintain operations in St. Louis. The city is still the 18th largest municipality in the United States – bigger than Seattle, Denver, or Boston - as of last year. Some tangible legacy of the Expo include the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park, which was built as the Palace of Fine Arts during Expo 1904.

Electricity Building at Expo 1904 St. Louis

Nationally, Expo 1904, of which the theme in essence celebrated the expansion of the United States, also began to showcase its status as a global superpower. Unique to Expo 1904 St. Louis, like its predecessor Expo 1900 Paris, was that the Summer Olympic Games were held alongside it. Originally with plans to be held in Chicago, the Summer Olympic games was moved to go alongside the Expo 1904 and was held at the prestigious Washington University. Although not regarded as successful as the Expo, it was remarkable in that it was the first time the Olympics were held in the United States and outside of Europe. These Olympic Games were also the first to reward athletes with the gold, silver, and bronze medals as we know them today.

Finally, similarly to the legacy of Expo 1893 Chicago, Expo 1904 St. Louis introduced many products to the masses that people today take for granted, including some well-known staple foods and technologies. The following products were either popularised or first showcased there: the hamburger, the hot dog, peanut butter, iced tea, the club sandwich, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone – to name a few. As for technology, the X-ray was presented to the public by the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service. The Expo also hosted the 5th International Electrical Congress where delegates agreed to work towards the standardisation in electrical equipment – including the X-ray apparatus. Later in 1906 the International Electrotechnical Commission was established. In addition to the X-ray, another invention that was also introduced to the masses was the private automobile.

The World Expo in St. Louis championed the heartland of the United States and played a significant role in raising the country’s status on the global stage. The event brought many firsts for the country, and had a lasting influence on the economic and cultural development of St. Louis, the wider region, and the whole nation.

Find out more about Expo 1904 St. Louis

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