At midnight on this date one hundred and six years ago, December 1, 1904, David Rowland Francis, president of the world’s fair, formally closed the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 with the words,”Farewell, a long farewell to all thy splendor!” The largest such international festival held up to that time (a record that still stands), the World’s Fair of 1904 lasted seven months and was arguably the most important event in the city’s history since Pierre Laclede Liguest climbed the three tiers of bluffs that fronted the Mississippi River here and claimed them and much of the vast, unoccupied prairie to the south, the north and the west for France, naming this place Saint Louis.
During a dazzling fireworks display in which the words “farewell” and “good night” appeared in the sky, David Francis threw a switch, dimming the lights which had blazed throughout the fairgrounds and the band played “Auld Lang Syne” as Forest Park fell into darkness. St. Louisans and the rest of the world had never seen anything quite like it and despite remarkable records made of the event – via film, stereoscope, audio tape recording and photography – the generations which followed could not conceive of either its breathtaking scope and grandeur or its unforgettable impact (both positive and negative) upon those who participated in or simply visited the World’s Fair of 1904. Until Walt Disney, inspired by it, created Disneyland and later Epcott Center – although they weren’t so to speak – the half of it.
In the years following “the Fair” scores of books and articles were written about it and radio and television interviews done with people who’d taken part. One of the most most revealing books is surely 1904 World’s Fair – The Filipino Experience by Jose G Fermin. In 2004 the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Public Library mounted marvelous Centennial Commemorations of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 drawing upon their extensive collections and exhibiting priceless documents and memorabilia to the public. But it took a Webster Groves native, an emerging poet on the national scene, who had grown up with stories from two sets of grandparents present at the fair, to give intimate voice to the individuals who had lived, created that incredible period of St. Louis history.
When I am of an age, I shall beg to be questioned and happily tell. I will say that memory is grander than any vista carved from raw prairie, that I first recognized myself at the Fair in a sea of faces, in flickering images that linger to this day. I will show trinkets and postcards, the only proof. Mere children, we learned more in a week than we could forget in a lifetime, our wildest dreams surpassed, our minds puzzled by the pleasures of a transitory paradise.*
The poet is Holly Krummenacher Iglesias and her retrospective in words and images, Souvenirs Of A Shrunken World, was published in 2008 by Kore Press of Tucson, Arizona, winning the publisher’s First Book Award. A slim volume, a mere seven inches by six, it fits the hand like a true souvenir of the period, easily stowed into a drawstring purse or overcoat pocket and is a delight for a contemporary reader to hold and peruse.
The St. Louis Public Library catalogue lists ninety-eight separate titles pertaining to the subject Louisiana Purchase Exposition alone but not one of them from the smallest and most erudite to the largest, most extensive photo collection captures the experience more succinctly, more personally or in a more thought-provoking way than Igleias’ Souvenirs Of A Shrunken World, which places the Fair within the wider context of St. Louis, when it was the fourth city in the nation and struggling to address challenges remaining from the 19th century even as it plummeted into the 20th.
New Century, New Woman, New St. Louis
Were it not for our dedication to municipal housekeeping, the World’s Fair visitor might take away a memory of coal smoke and unpaved streets. Had we no concern for the loose class, tenements by the station might have remained rubbish piles. Had the Civic Improvement League simply busied itself with box suppers and quilting bees, the water might still be sludge, the color of a Morgan Street quadroon. Instead we have launched an era of moral awakening.*
St. Louis was so far beyond her congenial French Colonial childhood and the terrors of an adolescence marked by the Civil War that little remained to remind one of those rich historic periods. And like the elegant young woman so charmingly depicted in Alphonse Mucha’s Parisian poster for L’Exposition Universelle & Internationale de St. Louis (Etats-Unis) that hangs above the desk where I’m writing, St. Louisans had to make their way precariously. For as Robert Archibald, President of the Missouri Historical Society, wrote in his Foreward to From the Palaces to the Pike: Visions of the 1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis was “a city with poor infrastructure, substandard housing for most, long working hours under hazardous conditions, primitive health care, too much dirt and smoke, and few of the amenities we take for granted. The contrast of the daily life circumstances with the grandeur of the Fair was astounding. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition gave its visitors not only pleasure and excitement, but also an expectant hope for the future.”**
1. Words fail. The scale immense, distances enormous.
2. Addicted to the use of superlatives, the mind reels.*
Holly Iglesias was blessed to have known all four of her grandparents as a child. Her parents grew up several blocks apart in the Central West End and she has vivid memories of visiting each set of grandparents in their homes and listening to stories about “the old days” which included trips to the World’s Fair. Among her family treasures are photographs taken of them circa 1904.
While doing extensive research for her collection in the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis (Holly is an editor and translator as well as a poet, and teaches creative writing in the Master of Liberal Arts Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville) she had the stunning experience of hearing on audiotape and recognizing the voice of her grandmother ‘s sister, Emma Kuhn Mohr, one of numerous St. Louisans interviewed late in life about their recollections of the Fair.
And what recollections they would have been! Aside from the electrical, engineering, industrial, medical and architectural innovations exhibited, reknowned scientists, educators, entertainers, lecturers, innovators of all kinds – Geronimo, Thomas Edison, John Philip Sousa, Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, Scott Joplin – could be seen and heard by the poor as well as the wealthy.
Joplin admonishes the parlor pianist – Slow down! – while up and down Market Street clubs explode with players who define prowess in terms of speed. At the Rosebud Cafe, syncopators feed on gossip and cutting contests as they wait for messengers dispatched to hire them. Black and white alike may fear it, but ragtime’s the rage, even if it does scramble the brain and corrupt youth.*
Iglesias captures the exuberance of youth –
A lamp inside my breast like a miner’s, slashing darkness to find a seam, my ribs a cage for the beast inside pacing. Racing for the train, we are a cyclone of knickers and pinafores, nickels and gum drops. Twelve, I am twelve, and I will act the lady. Take ice cream in a dish and touch door knobs only with my hanky. I will ride the Wheel, once, and no screaming.
They say that night is brighter than day at the Fair. That women swoon at the sights. But I shall keep my eyes open . . .*
as well as the reverie of a tribal person uprooted, displaced and knowing:
We never go home, we stay and stay, in huts or barracks or plaster cliffs. But Sundays are ours, free of the obligation to pose for strangers. Fathers and mothers hover at the perimeter of the sandbox, humming in alien tongues, first head to head, then opening outward, gesticulating tales of their beautiful lands. Hammocks swing in the breezeway, empty until tomorrow, when the visitors’ children will gladly sleep. We are too busy for rest, laughing in the shade of private languages, drawing intricate maps of our villages in the dust.*
In the Spring 2004 Issue, editor Karen Monks included ten poems from Souvenirs Of A Shrunken World in Gateway, The Magazine of the Missouri History Museum – the first inclusion of poetry to document history in that publication. Most appropriately! Since what we have gleaned of ancient tribal cultures – Scandinavian, Celtic, Native American, Mediterranean, African, Asian – is that the collectors and disseminators of their history were often poets.
Whether you have an extensive private collection on the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 or your interest has just been piqued, Holly Iglesias’ Souvenirs Of A Shrunken World would make a wonderful acquisition placing in fascinating perspective, the flaws as well as the splendor of the seven months when the City of St. Louis played host to the world. You will find it at www.korepress.org and at http://www.amazon.com/Angles-Approach-Marie-Alexander-Poetry/dp/1935210173 along with Holly’s other’s books.
*Souvenirs of a Shrunken World, Holly Iglesias, Kore Press, 2008 www.korepress.org. The poems quoted above are used with the generous permission of the author and of her publisher.
** From Palaces to the Pike: Visions of the 1904 World’s Fair, Timothy J. Fox and Duane R. Snedekker, Missouri Historical Society Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 1997.
Photo Credits: Florence Gay, Circa 1905 – which appears beside the poem “Beyond Her Years” (image of the poet’s maternal grandmother ) – courtesy of Holly Krummenacher Iglesias; Black & White Photo of Pauline Kuhn and Rudolph Krummenacher, Circa 1914 (the poet’s paternal grandparents) – courtesy of Holly Krummenacher Iglesias; Sepia Photograph of Richard Lancaster and His Mother, Circa 1910 (the poet’s maternal grandfather and great-grandmother) – courtesy of Holly Iglesias; all other photos and images of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, Scott Joplin, Ta-ayz-slath and Child (wife and son of Geronimo) & Ota Benga – in the public domain at http://www.wikipedia.com.