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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

February 26, 2020: Leap Years: 1904

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]
On five of the many cultural legacies of the 1904 World’s Fair (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in St. Louis.
1)      Fair Foods: As is often the case with large public events like fairs, the 1904 World’s Fair didn’t necessarily debut many of its striking innovations, but it did feature them and thus bring them to more widespread attention. That was never more true than with its culinary highlights, a partial list of which includes: hamburgers and hot dogs, ice cream cones, cotton candy, Dr. Pepper and 7Up sodas, and Puffed Wheat cereal. Visitors to this epic fair could truly eat their way into American history!
2)      Flight: The Wright Brothers’ first manned flight had taken place less than six months before the fair’s April 30th opening, and as you’d expect flight became a central focus for the fair’s exhibits. That included the famous “Airship Contest,” which promised a $100,000 prize (nearly $3 million in our current society) to any flying machine which could successfully navigate the “Aeronautic Concourse” while traveling at 15 miles per hour or higher. Although no vehicle won the prize, the fair did feature a ground-breaking act of flight, as Thomas Scott Baldwin and Roy Knabenshue’s dirigible became the first such airship to fly in public.
3)      The Summer Olympics: The modern version of the Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, and the second games were held in conjunction with the 1900 Paris Exposition. So it made sense that the first games held outside of Europe would be similarly paired with the 1904 Fair, but in fact Chicago was initially awarded the 1904 games and they were only moved to St. Louis when the fair organizers threatened to hold an alternate contest. Partly for that reason, and partly because St. Louis was more difficult to reach, Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin did not attend, nor did many international athletes (nearly 600 of the 651 competing athletes came from North America). But holding the games outside Europe at all, and in the US specifically, was a significant step nonetheless, and one tied to the 1904 World’s Fair.
4)      Kate Chopin: Chopin, one of America’s most talented turn of the 20th century authors and both a native and longtime resident of St. Louis, was only 54 when she attended the fair on August 20th (she had bought a season ticket and had attended many prior times as well). That day was one of the hottest of the summer, however, and that night Chopin called her son complaining of a severe headache. It is believed that she had a cerebral hemorrhage; the next day she fell unconscious, and she died without waking on August 22nd. She would be prominently buried in the city’s Calvary Cemetery, one more reflection—as was the World’s Fair itself—of the deep interconnections between St. Louis and this ground-breaking literary voice.
5)      “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis”: I don’t want to end on that tragic note, so here’s one more way the World’s Fair continued to echo into American culture long after it closed its gates on December 1st. The aforementioned song was written in response to the fair and recorded by many artists over the years (perhaps the first being Billy Murray’s version, recorded while the fair was still ongoing), but became especially prominent through Judy Garland’s performance in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Thanks to that film, and the late 20th century Broadway musical adaptation of the same title, the 1904 World’s Fair seems destined to stay in our collective memories beyond even these various, striking influences.
Next leap year studying tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

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