The most recent World’s Fair took place in Yeosu, South Korea. The theme was “The Living Ocean and Coast: Diversity of Resources and Sustainable Activities”, and it was all rather average. The centerpiece of the expo was a 135-foot tall circular sprinkler called “The Big O”, and 8.2 million people basked in its majesty from May to August 2012. Aside from “The Big O”, Denmark brought Legos and Switzerland (which has neither ocean nor coast) took home a gold medal for their creative display of an old iceberg. That is to say, International Expositions (let’s just call them World’s Fairs) have lost a bit of steam since their heyday at the turn of the 20th century.
They used to be unbelievable. The first one in London in 1851 showed off Joseph Paxton’s amazing Crystal Palace and the 1889 Expo in Paris debuted the Eiffel Tower. The fluorescent light bulb, the Ferris wheel, motion pictures, the escalator, X-rays, the Statue of Liberty, IMAX and Heinz Ketchup were all first displayed or popularized at a World’s Fair. The 1900 Fair in Paris attracted 50 million people, and the whole population of France was only 38 million!
The most American World’s Fair, though? That would be The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo in St. Louis. Those three summer months in Missouri saw the introduction of puffed rice cereal, the ice cream cone and French’s mustard, and the popularization of Dr. Pepper, cotton candy and hot dogs. Classic American fast food essentially appeared overnight in eastern Missouri.Let’s start with the easy ones. In 1901 Alexander Pierce Anderson was working in his Minneapolis laboratory when he stumbled on the process for “puffing” rice or other grain and quickly sold the idea to Quaker Oats, but they weren’t seeing much market potential for it. To win some hearts and minds, Anderson set up shop at the 1904 World’s Fair and managed to puff (and sell) more than 20,000 pounds of rice. Puffed cereal was born. Meanwhile at the fair, George French was showing off his brand-new yellow mustard (which is said to have been immediately put on a hot dog) that would go on to become one of the most popular American condiments and a constant barbecue presence. Likewise, Robert Lazenby and J.B. O’Hara made the trip from Waco, Texas, to St. Louis to show off their soft drink called Dr. Pepper, which has done pretty well in the intervening 110 years.
The big-ticket introduction, though — the one that all Americans should carve out a portion of their afternoon routine during the summer to commemorate, the one that made St. Louis the most American World’s Fair of all time — had to be the ice cream cone. Like all epic origin stories, there’s still a bit of contention in this one (thanks to a New York lemon ice salesman named Italo Marchiony who claims invention but was later denied because he patented cups and not cones), but the most popular version and the one approved by the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers involves two neighboring booths at the World’s Fair: a pastry maker named Ernest Hamwi and a teenage ice cream vendor named Arnold Fomachou.
On a particularly hot, particularly ice cream-worthy day, Fomachou was selling far more than he expected and managed to run out of cups. When asked for help, Hamwi took a Zalabia (a thin waffle-like pastry popular in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey) and formed it into a cone shape to hold the ice cream. History was made and they called it a Cornucopia. Later Hamwi would go on to sell his idea and turn it into the Cornucopia Waffle Company, traveling the US to show his invention to the world, later calling it the Missouri Cone Company.
Classic American fast food essentially appeared overnight.
While ice cream cones were more or less confirmed to be created at the fair, things get considerably murkier from there on out. While cotton candy and hot dogs were ostensibly popularized by the fair, neither can actually claim invention in St. Louis. Cotton candy — then called Fairy Floss — was patented in Nashville by William Morrison and John C. Wharton a few years before the Fair but was a smash hit in St. Louis. They managed to sell 68,665 boxes at 25 cents a piece over that summer (that’s the equivalent of about $460,000 in 2015 revenue for heated sugar).
Hot dogs (and, similarly, iced tea and hamburgers) were likely made long before the fair — either by local German immigrants or others around the country — but were shown to a mass audience in 1904 at the Fair. Just imagine thousands of people returning back from their vacation and saying, “You won’t believe what I ate at the World’s Fair.”
Even with some murky origin stories, it’s hard to contest the culinary impact of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Puffed cereal, yellow mustard, Dr. Pepper, ice cream cones, and the popularization of cotton candy, all over three months in Missouri. Never mind the other momentous displays at the St. Louis fair (the first display of Rodin’s Thinker, and the first full cast of a blue whale), the food alone was enough to put modern International Expositions to shame. There’s an Expo going on right now in Milan, but seeing as it was condemned by the Pope and home to a handful of riots, it’s safe to say that one’s going to go over a lot like South Korea. The next one is 2017 in Kazakhstan. I think we can all agree it’s time to bring the magic back.
Alongside the 1904 World’s Fair, the Summer Olympics were also held in St. Louis that year, and the standout event was the marathon. On August 30th, at three in the afternoon, 32 runners set off in 90-degree heat with the only water stations placed at six and 12 miles into the race (this was — seriously — to study the effects of dehydration on athletes). As you’d expect, less than half of the field finished and the winner got so far as receiving a wreath from Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter before organizers found out he’d traveled 11 miles by car. The real winner, Thomas Hicks — fueled by brandy and strychnine — crossed the line in 3:28.