March 6, 2017

Indescribably Grand

Book Reviews

Indescribably Grand

Diaries and Letters from the 1904 World’s Fair

By Martha R. Clevenger

Reviewed by Mike Truax

“Indescribably Grand” is an outstanding book for anyone who wants to learn more about the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, by far the largest of the many U.S. and international turn-of-the-century expositions. Illustrated with over 100 excellent pictures, many in color, from the collections of the Missouri Historical Society, its 150 pages include an excellent two-page detailed map of the Fairgrounds. Just published in 1996, “Indescribably Grand” is widely available in softcover for about $25 at major bookstores (in the Local Interest section of St. Louis bookstores, about $35 for hardcover), and also is available at the Missouri Historical Society’s World’s Fair exhibit in Forest Park, site of the Fair.

Ms. Clevenger has been with the MHS since 1982 as an Archivist and Director of Collections and Conservation. She has assisted numerous Fair researchers, published several articles on St. Louis history, and also authored a recent article in the MHS quarterly magazine Gateway Heritage titled “Through Western Eyes: Americans Encounter Asians at the Fair”, which used the same primary source documents that were used as sources for this book.

“Indescribably Grand” contains superb first-hand experiences from four very different Fair visitors who recorded their experiences, sights, and impressions from multiple visits to the 7 month Fair. Their diaries, memoirs, and letters reveal the wealth of sensations and emotions that typically overwhelmed the 12 million Fair visitors as they gazed at the Fair’s elegant statues and palaces, and observed the myriad exhibits and marvels from all over the world. After researching many historical documents from Fair visitors to select the four contained here, Ms. Clevenger kept the author’s written character and style, modifying their original text only for readability and punctuation. The entire book is profusely annotated and footnoted with additional Fair details that provide further interesting explanations about the author’s accounts.

The title “Indescribably Grand” is taken from her first contributor’s written lamentation that he could not adequately describe his visits to the World’s Fair in words. He also used the phrases “Beauty indescribable” and “It cannot be even hinted at by words” to recount his frustration.

Ms. Clevenger’ extensive introduction is an interesting and noteworthy narrative about the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, beginning with the Fair’s history, planning, and construction. The impact and legacy of the Fair on St. Louis is discussed, together with an overview of the gathering of the countless exhibits from many states and countries. She also provides some analysis of the writers’ narratives, descriptions, opinions, and impressions of the Fair’s technology, parades, exhibits, foreign cultures, and the Pike. The introduction would stand well on its own merit as a World’s Fair article.

Her first selected contributor is thirty year old Edward V. P. Schneiderhahn, a single, well educated, conservative attorney who visited the Fair many times. The 25+ selected diary excerpts contain his descriptions of many Fair ceremonies, exhibits, and attractions, including the Cascades at night, Pike attractions such as the Galveston Flood and battle of Gettysburg, the closing of the Fair, and the extinguishing of the Fair lights. After the Fair closed on December 1, he wrote a 26 page memoir of the Fair, which is completely reprinted. He tried to put the Fair in historical perspective, attempted to portray the beauty of the Fair in words, described many exhibits in the Fair’s immense Palaces in more detail, and discussed the Fair’s special events, music, art, and anthropological exhibits.

Edmund Philibert’s text provides tremendous detail from his 28 visits to the Fair. Thirty years old, single, a carpenter and woodworker, he meticulously accounted for every penny spent at the Fair. His recorded visits with various family members (mostly on Saturdays) gradually grow in length and depth from short itineraries to more detailed narrations of his experiences and opinions. He describes many exhibits on display in the Palaces, state buildings, and national buildings, and also recounts his visits to the Jerusalem exhibit, the Chinese exhibit, and several attractions and rides on the Pike including the Temple of Mirth, Hereafter, and Creation.

The third section consists of a handful of letters penned by Florence McCallion, Edmund’s sister, to her husband Frank, a Missouri farmer. Her letters contain a longing and intimate affection for her husband while she spent an extended period in St. Louis for treatment of an unspecified illness. During her stay, she frequently visited the Fair. She saw and recounts the immense Palaces, the Boer War, rode the Ferris Wheel, and attended several attractions on the Pike. In a final letter in May 1905, long after the Fair closed, she describes herself as “heart sick” at the destruction and demolition of the Fair’s many buildings.

The final text is a narrative of Fair visits by Samuel P. Hyde, a 50 year old bookkeeper and artist from Belleville, Illinois. Written in 1909, he combined his beautiful two-color original sketches and illustrations with photographs and calligraphy text. His story begins two years before the Fair’s opening, and describes the changing landscape of Forest Park and the construction of the Palaces and statues. He relates his efforts to photograph an Indian, his impression of the extensive Japanese exhibits throughout the Fair, the Ferris Wheel, the military displays, bands, and parades, and vividly recounts the atmosphere and many attractions on the Pike.

“Indescribably Grand” contains many excellent photographs, an extensive and informative account of the Fair, and four outstanding recollections of the Fair–all brought together to provide true reading enjoyment. The reader is left with a feeling of longing and nostalgia–wishing that we could all attend the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair once again.