Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
For Mike Truax, it all started with a toothpick holder.
It was red glass, etched with his great-aunt’s name, Philippi. “I was given that after moving to St. Louis, by my mom,” Truax says. “It was called ‘ruby flash,’ because it was pressed glass, mass-produced, the ruby painted on there. When you bought it, they’d ask, ‘And you want what name put on this?’ and then ‘World’s Fair 1904.’ That’s one of my most valuable pieces, though on the market it would only be worth about $10 or $15.”
Truax is standing in front of an heirloom cabinet, now quite packed with etched World’s Fair ruby-flash toothpick holders (“The names were quite different: Myrtle, Lydia—there’s probably a Maude and a Bertha in there…”), goblets, glasses, cups, and creamers. He keeps the cabinet near a sunny window, because the light makes the red glass glow. His collection includes (but is not limited to!) letter openers, transferware, jasperware, flow blue plates, aluminum playing cards, hat-shaped matcholders with strikers on the bottom, “tip trays,” tiny shoes and boots, stamp boxes, sugar bowls, flue covers, small leather purses, pipes, ringholders, penholders, pens, piggy banks, hollow tin eggs, and vases. Also in his collection: medals, paper ephemera, steins, tankards, a glass axe, and an honorary “Jefferson Guard,” sword given to the Victorian bouncers who patrolled the fairgrounds (“It’s more for show. There wasn’t really violence at the Fair. Well...there was a shooting on the Pike. A couple of the cowboys got a little rambunctious”). His favorite pieces are an English walnut holding an accordion of images of the fair buildings (“The World’s Fair in a Nutshell”) and a tiny carriage in its original box, a replica of the one that carried Napoleon to Versailles to deed the Louisiana territory to the U.S. The lid reads: This royal carriage is an exact miniature replica of the vehicle in which Napoleon, in the year 1803, rode from the royal palace of Versailles to the House of Foreign Affairs to in the Touleres Gardens in the city of Paris, affixing his signature of the ruler of France, deeding the territory of Louisiana to the United States.
“So there’s red celluloid in the window, the wheels actually turn…remember, this is 107 years old,” Truax says. When asked if there is a tiny Napoleon inside, he answers by pulling on a hook, which unspools a scroll through the side of the carriage door. It’s printed with World’s Fair scenes. A little ornament on the roof re-rolls it into the interior of the coach. Much better than Napoleon. “I’ve never pulled it out more than a few inches,” Truax says, “so I don’t know how long it is. I don’t ever want to have to take this apart!”
Truax says he’s definitely not one of the top collectors of World’s Fair souvenirs. In fact, it’s been a while, he says, since he’s been “on the hunt,” though he still checks eBay. Back in 2003, when he was interviewed for the lead-up to the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a journalist asked him, “You’re really almost fanatical about this, aren’t you?” He was stumped about how to answer. “A couple of days later, I thought of the answer I should have used, and that I use now,” he says. “It’s a passionate hobby.”
Truax, you’ll not be surprised to learn, is the president of the 1904 World’s Fair Society. But he’s not the founder; that would be Max Storm, whose collection is even bigger and was once the biggest around. On April 30, 1986, 82 years after the fair’s Opening Day ceremonies, Storm and 18 other people met at the Machacek Branch of the St. Louis Public Library. (Storm still has the sign-in sheets.) Last April, when the group met there again to celebrate its 25th anniversary, 100 people showed up. And, Storm says with amusement, they had “special dispensation” to bring a birthday cake into the library. “We have a couple of librarians in our group,” he says, chuckling, “so we went through them.”
This April, on their opening day meeting, they’ll meet at the Buder branch for a presentation on the 5,000 glass World’s Fair Slides that the city library is pulling out of its archives to digitize. And the librarians have come through again. “We’ll have our birthday cake,” Storm says. “They’ll let us do that!” (Last year, the Society celebrated David R. Francis’ birthday, the cake iced with a waggish Happy Birthday, Dave!).
Storm says people join the society because they love history, are collectors, teach, or had a relative who went to the World’s Fair. He’s got a fair connection through Ranken Technical College, where he taught architecture for 30 years (founder David Ranken was a World’s Fair board member and designed some of the fair’s buildings). But Storm’s real interest is as a collector. It all started at the Gypsy Caravan, back when it was held at the Arena.
“There was a man there selling nothing but World’s Fair stuff,” Storm remembers. “I bought some paper items, some books and prints. And from then on, it’s been crazy.” He says it’s the perfect hobby. “Other people would tell you the same thing about their hobby,” he says. “But the fair had everything—art, history, geography, music—and it wasn’t made to be collected.”
Storm has World’s Fair memorabilia in cabinets, on the wall, on tables and shelves. (His wife, Shara, jokes that she married him before he developed the habit.) The dining room cabinet holds a collection of Missouri mules, which he says he didn’t set out to collect, but realized he had a bunch, and so put them together on one shelf. There’s a giant pocketwatch from the fair’s Ingersoll dollar watch display. A brick from the house where Sally Benson wrote Meet Me in St. Louis. He likes “the Olympic stuff,” and has even written a book on 1904 Olympic medals. He likes spoons, both sterling silver and enameled; postcards; clocks; and Japanese moriagi china. He also likes Ferris wheels, and offbeat objects with a sense of humor, like the tape measure shaped like a hat printed with the slogan, “Most hats cover the head. This one covers the feet.” He also, like a lot of members, collects bits of ornament from fair buildings, which were made of a chalky plaster called staff. These have to be excavated: after the fairgrounds were demolished, the detritus was just buried right there.
“You can even see the hemp they put in to bind the plaster together,” Storm points out, holding a large piece of staff he found in Forest Park. “And there’s the reinforcing rod, to help hold it onto the building, but you can hold it and see how heavy it is…” He hands it to me, and it’s as light as Styrofoam. “It’s basically just Plaster of Paris,” he smiles, adding that there was a plasterer employed at the fair to patch up all the buildings on a regular basis. The staff statues that were placed in St. Louis parks after 1904 eventually just fell apart; this fragment of the building survived only because it was buried in the park for more than a century.
Though Storm used to have one of the biggest World’s Fair collections around, now, like Truax, he is retired from “the hunt,” though it’s hard to resist the siren song of Ebay. When he started his collection, pre-Internet, it took a lot more work; he had to hunt it down, piece by piece, at estate sales and antiques shops.
“There used to be an antiques store down in the Grove, a musty little place,” he remembers. “And the guy, he didn’t hardly let anybody in…the roof leaked, and he had plastic all over everything. But if he liked you, he’d let you go rummaging. I would dig and dig and dig, and once in a while, there would be a St. Louis World’s Fair item. I’d take it to him, and he’d price it, and usually it was fair. If it was too much, and I didn’t buy it, the next time I was in there, I’d find it again and it’d be a different price,” he laughs, “Because he didn’t really care.”
And if he happened to be in an antiques shop and saw someone buying World’s Fair souvenirs, he’d follow them out and get their contact information. Because he liked sharing his collection, and his knowledge, but there was no one to share it with. “Once in a while, I’d find another collector,” Storm says. “There weren’t very many of them. And it wasn’t always easy to even visit with them...I knew I needed more of an outlet for this, and I did this for years. I had the idea of starting some kind of an organization.”
His list of fellow fair enthusiasts grew larger; he passed out flyers at Union Station, went to lectures. That’s how he met Charles Koehler, a collector of stereoscopic fair slides, who projects them on a wall in 3-D. Soon, Storm had a mailing list—and an easy first choice for an initial meeting day.
By the end of the first year, the society had almost 300 members; membership peaked in the high hundreds in 2004. Now, there are 270 households on the rolls, some outside of St. Louis, including in New Jersey and Australia. Over the course of its history, it’s had 1,700 discrete members. The society meets every month. Not everyone goes to meetings; some join just to receive the Society’s dense, informative World’s Fair Bulletin (named after the fair’s official bulletin), which the officers write, print, and mail 12 times a year.
And, actually, “meetings,” is a misnomer—they meet not for the dull conducting of business, but for lectures, trips to Jefferson City, World’s Fair bingo at a picnic on the former fairgrounds, cemetery tours to visit the “fair fathers,” and group outings to The Muny for Meet Me in St. Louis. Sometimes special guests are invited, like the late Louisiana Purchase O’Leary Wampler, a woman who was born in a fair construction tent in 1902 and baptized on the Washington University quadrangle. For the 25th anniversary, the Storms printed up “button tags,” based on actual badges worn at the fair, or facsimile ticket books that look almost exactly like the originals, though they were run off on Shara’s laser printer. Last year, she photographed people in period costume and pasted each photograph onto each membership card. And they’ve hardly ever covered the same topic twice.
“When you have 12 meetings every year, plus a few bonus meetings, you cover a lot of subjects in 25 years,” Storm says. “The Fair was so vast and had such great depth, we will never run out interesting subjects.”
Storm says he’s always looking for projects for the society to tackle, too. In the late ’80s, the group interviewed 28 people who went to the fair and produced a 43-minute documentary, I Was There; it has also raised $10,000 for the restoration of the Flight Cage at the Saint Louis Zoo; purchased the master works for the Great Floral Clock, now at the entrance of the Missouri History Museum’s World’s Fair Exhibit; and lent props to the Broadway revival of Meet Me in St. Louis. And last year, it paid for the restoration of the 1922 film Memories of the World’s Fair, a newsreel of David R. Francis and other organizers reenacting the groundbreaking of the fairgrounds, held in the vaults of the Missouri History Museum. (That probably won't be released on DVD, but you can see a copy of it in the Society's library.)
One of the society’s biggest projects was aiding filmmakers Bob Miano and Scott Huegerich with the 116-minute documentary The World’s Greatest Fair. Truax says that the part-time project that Miano and Hugerich started became so time-intensive, they went on a full-time, even overtime schedule to complete the documentary (which premiered to a sell-out audience at the Fox Theater in July 2004, and went on to win regional Emmys, as well as national awards). He also vividly remembers the special prescreening that Miano set up for the society.
“It was projected up on a 20- by 20-foot screen,” Truax remembers. “All of a sudden, you go, ‘Oh, can I walk in there? I want to go there.’ If you’re really into it, there isn’t a single one of us that wouldn’t pay a significant amount of money to go back there for a week,” he says. “A day wouldn’t be enough.”
“I think that’s pretty much the popular opinion,” Storm says. “Dentistry! You don’t want to have a dental problem in 1904. Even the water wasn’t cleaned up, right up until about the time the fair opened up. They didn’t want that dirty water coming down the Cascades, but it was the drinking water, too.”
At events like the society’s Closing Day Ceremony Banquet on December 1, members try to get a least a little closer to experiencing the fair, even if it’s only through period clothes and pure imagination. This year, for the 25th-anniversary banquet, nearly everyone dressed up; if you didn’t want to wear a corset or a top hat, you could dress as a person from another country visiting the fair. The room was a riot of kilts, kimonos, evening gowns, day dresses, cartwheel hats, sombreros, saris, and sequins. Truax and the Storms dressed in Middle Eastern garb. And accordion player Rich Lauenstein, dressed in Tyrolean finery, including a fake mustache, roamed the room, serenading each table with songs like “The Missouri Waltz.”
Barb Cook, a member since 1986, wore a poppy-orange raw silk dress she bought overseas in Vietnam. During the “Punch Bowl Fellowship” before the dinner, Cook stood talking to Pam Danklef, who’s been involved in the Society since the ’90s, but doesn’t regularly go to meetings. (They also know each other from the St. Louis Chapter of the Victorian Society of America.) Danklef’s shimmery purple gown, complete with matching fascinator and tiny drawstring purse, was custom-made for her by a woman who sews custom period garments.
“This is similar to what a woman might have worn at the closing dinner,” Danklef explains. “They were allowed to show cleavage, but not ankles. I’m showing more than I want to, because my body has rearranged itself since it was made seven years ago!”
“She actually has a long train she can wear if she chooses,” Cook adds. “And it’s got a little hoop on it so I can hold it up and waltz.”
Danklef has a shotglass that a relative brought back from the fair. Cook’s grandparents on both sides attended; her mother’s parents met there (her grandfather served on a fair committee, and her 18-year-old grandmother cut classes to go). Her father’s parents were already married, and took the train from Iowa. “I still have a stock certificate,” she says. “And a ticket book.”
Neither woman considers herself a collector, but Danklef notes she has more Victorian outfits than modern ones. Would they go back to the fair? Cook responds immediately in the affirmative.
“I wish I could visit back then,” Danklef says. “Women had no rights. They were told what to do. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t hold property. I wouldn’t last very long! I’d love to be able to blink my eyes, just see and observe, drink tea and go to a ball. But I wouldn’t want to live there.”
Cook laughs. “I agree,” she says. “‘Visit’ is a much better word.”
Louise Drescher’s grandfather took her dad to the fair when he was 7 years old. He told her about being fooled by Hale’s Firefighters on the Pike, who rode horses through a tiny New York streetscape, putting out fires made of steam, silk fabric, electricity and celluloid—he thought they were fighting a real fire. Drescher started collecting paper memorabilia in her 50s, and has about 1,700 World’s Fair Postcards. Her husband used to collect glass; he eventually switched to playing cards, because they didn’t break. If she could go back for a week, she would, but she wouldn’t stay on the fairgrounds. “I would just love to see St. Louis,” she says. “Because my family’s been here since the 1850s.” But she has other associations between the World’s Fair and close relationships. “It’s a very close-knit group of people,” she says of the society. “It’s not a cliquish organization, though. It’s like... family.”
That much becomes clear when Truax gives his “Year in Review” PowerPoint after dessert, and dozens of photographs from 2011 flash up on the screen; ease, familiarity, and deep affection shines through in every scene. At the end of the night, Truax calls Storm up to the front to present him with a gift from the Society: a framed set of all of the 25th anniversary button tags.
The night ends with pianist Linda Gurney and singer Devin Jones leading the crowd in “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a reference to the 1904 closing ceremonies; you’ve probably seen a picture of it. The last night of the fair, the band played that song as Francis turned out the lights, and fireworks sizzled out the words GOOD NIGHT and FAREWELL. You can know all of the World’s Fair buildings were made of wood and plaster, and would have melted away in the rain. You can know it was a bigger, grander version of the state fair, complete with midway, butter sculptures, and plenty of advertising. It wasn’t a city. It wasn’t meant to last. But that somehow makes the beauty of it, not to mention its complexity and scale, even more astonishing. And it makes you twice as wistful that they had to turn the lights off. You begin to understand why someone might not want it to end and why, on April 30, the World’s Fair Society will celebrate Opening Day all over again.