History Stories

From pie-eating contests to funnel cake, food has always been a central part of fairs. This was especially true of the first World’s Fairs, which provided hungry patrons with a thrilling introduction to “authentic” delicacies from exotic locales like China, Turkey and Morocco. The industrial exhibitions of the late 1800s didn’t exactly feature the salty, greasy, eat-on-the-go snacks of today’s traveling carnivals and county fairs. Visitors to Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1889, for instance, plowed through over 400,000 dozen oysters a day and around 100,000 pounds of cheese a week.

The French culinary hub would be outdone in 1893 by Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. There, the Wellington Catering Company handled an impressive array of concessions, including 1.5 miles of lunch counters scattered throughout the park. Choices ranged from cold meats and pies at the counters to $2 Porterhouse steaks at the fancier Great White Horse Inn. (Adjusting for inflation, that’s a $48 piece of meat.) Meanwhile, restaurants like the Hungarian Orpheum and the Turkish Village served the cuisines of faraway lands. And guests could wash it all down with Pabst beer, which won its titular “blue ribbon” at the fair.

As the 20th century dawned, popcorn was popularized at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Vendors enticed hungry visitors by chanting rhymes like “Lovely eyes come shine and glitter; buy your girl a popcorn fritter.” Charming, sure, but it just doesn’t have the staying power of “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” first coined at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by Missouri fruit specialist J.T. Stinson.

The 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exhibition looms largest among fans of fair food. The list of treats attributed to that fair is long, if somewhat inaccurate, and includes hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream cones, banana splits, iced tea, Dr Pepper, cotton candy and peanut butter. In reality, hot dogs had existed in some form in Germany for years, and iced tea had been mentioned on menus for at least 40 years before the fair. Travelers to Germany had reported eating ice cream from edible cones in Düsseldorf since the late 1800s, and Dr Pepper had been sold in Waco, Texas, since 1885. While these foods may have first been popularized at the fair, St. Louis can’t take all the credit for some of our favorite snacks.

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