Films from Nebraska at the St. Louis World’s Fair

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 celebrated the centennial of the historic land purchase by the U.S. from France in 1803.(The bicentennial of the event is approaching.) Between the opening day, April 30, 1904, and December 1, when it closed, more than twenty million people visited the St. Louis World’s Fair.

With only a limited appropriation, the Nebraska fair commissioners decided not to erect a separate building for the state’s exhibits. Instead a “Nebraska Pavilion” was erected within the Palace of Agriculture. There they operated a small theater “for the purpose of illustrating the daily life of the principal business enterprises of the state.” According to the January 4, 1905, report of the fair commissioners to Governor John H. Mickey:

“The unique idea of doing this by moving pictures and stereopticon views was hit upon by the president of the commission [Gurdon W. Wattles]. The plan was early adopted by the commission, and during all of the summer of 1903 and in the spring of 1904 an expert photographer, under the direction of the secretary of the commission [H. G. Shedd] and the various superintendents was engaged in taking suitable pictures for this exhibition. . . .

“One of the most attractive moving pictures shown was that of the late President William McKinley, at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. The film of this picture, which is one of the very few moving pictures of the late president in existence, was kindly loaned to the Nebraska Commission by Frank A. Rinehart, of Omaha. . . .

“[I]t may be further said that this moving picture feature has established a new idea in the matter of advertising a state’s resources. . . . The moving picture, from a purely entertaining feature, has advanced into the educational and scientific field.”

A more complete discussion of the films and their importance is found in Andrea I. Paul’s “Nebraska’s Home Movies: The Nebraska Exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair,” in the spring 1995 issue of Nebraska History.

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