With its 1,200 acres of technology, art, shops, concessions, carnival amusements and exhibits from more than 60 countries, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, dazzled some 19 million visitors from April to December 1904. Included in the crowds were members of the Obenchain family of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Sixteen-year-old Margery Obenchain attended the Fair in August while visiting friends in St. Louis. Then it was the turn of her mother, Lida Calvert Obenchain, and younger sister Cecilia. On September 23, while 9-year-old “Cecil” and a cousin toured the massive Palace of Manufactures Building, a weary Lida sat on the steps and composed a letter to her sister Josephine.
Lida found two aspects of the extravaganza the most interesting: the flowers, which she termed “the glory of the fair,” and its international flavor. The French pavilion was “so gorgeous and magnificent that we held our breath and talked in whispers.” The Austrian and Italian pavilions were also full of “beautiful things.” The Brazilian pavilion, by contrast, was just “coffee, nothing but coffee, with a few photographs thrown in.” She also alluded to the Fair’s “living exhibits,” where exotic peoples from the Americas, the Far East, the Philippines and Africa demonstrated their native customs in a manner that tended to reinforce the onlooker’s prejudice about the superiority of Western, industrialized ways. What were mere curiosities for Lida, however, were objects of scholarly interest for another visitor, her niece Jeannette Brown Obenchain, then studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. Jeannette was “listening to lectures and hobnobbing with the savage races,” Lida reported. “They treat her like a man and a brother and she thinks they are ‘perfectly lovely.’ Indians, Filipinos, Cliff Dwellers and all seem to recognize her as a kindred spirit.”
And Cecil? True, she “went into raptures” over the lace displays at the Belgian pavilion, but was also busily accumulating a good deal of souvenir “plunder” and demanding popcorn, candy and “other trash” whenever they passed a concession booth. No mention, however, of whether she sampled that confection now most famously associated with the Fair, the ice cream cone.
Lida’s letter from the St. Louis World’s Fair is part of the Calvert-Obenchain-Younglove Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here for a finding aid. For other collections relating to fairs and exhibitions, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.