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Myths about the 1904 World’s Fair

The 1904 World’s Fair was the stuff of legends, especially in St. Louis. St. Louis has a bit of an inferiority complex, so the 1904 World’s Fair gives it a rare point of pride. But there are a number of myths surrounding the 1904 World’s Fair. Let’s look at three of them: the ice cream cone, hot dog, and hamburger.

According to legend, the ice cream cone, hot dog, and hamburger as we know it today were all invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. But in all three cases, there are earlier examples in history, though one can make a case that the 1904 World’s Fair helped popularize all three.

The ice cream cone and the 1904 World’s Fair

1904 World's Fair myths

Legend has it the hamburger, hot dog, and ice cream cone were all invented at the 1904 World’s Fair. But those are three common 1904 World’s Fair myths.

The ice cream cone was independently invented in England in the 1880s and New York City in 1896. The inventor from New York City even held a patent on it, dating from December 1903.

Perhaps the stories about a vendor running out of bowls and grabbing a Syrian waffle-like pastry and wrapping it up to put ice cream in, and the story of an ice cream sandwich vendor watching someone take the top off an ice cream sandwich and wrap it into a cone, and about a baker imitating with bread the paper and metal cones used in France are all true. Maybe three or four St. Louisans did independently invent the ice cream cone. But even if they did, they weren’t the first.

The hot dog and the 1904 World’s Fair

The first example of prior art on the hot dog dates back to 64 A.D. The first example of prior art on the hot dog bun dates back to New York City around 1860. A St. Louisan supposedly invented the hot dog bun in the early 1880s. The story I heard growing up is that a vendor, selling red hots, would loan white gloves to his customers, who then all too often walked off with the gloves. So his brother-in-law, a baker, baked him long dinner rolls to put the red hots in.

Another example of prior art happened in St. Louis itself. By 1893, the colorful, eccentric, and flamboyant Christian Frederick Wilhelm Von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns baseball team, was selling hot dogs at Sportsman’s Park. Whether his intent was to make his patrons thirsty and drink more beer, or to distract them from the horrendous team he was putting on the field is open to speculation.

But hot dogs and baseball go way back. And the connection started in St. Louis. Before the 1904 World’s Fair.

The hamburger and the 1904 World’s Fair

The case for the hamburger on a bun is just as weak. I’d never heard of this one until it turned up on Wikipedia in 2004. Even growing up in and near St. Louis. There are two examples of prior art in the United States and one in Germany: 1885 in Wisconsin, 1885 in Hamburg, New York, and 1891 in Hamburg, Germany. Maybe in some circles, this myth does circulate in St. Louis. Or maybe this is something outsiders think people in St. Louis think.

I don’t doubt that the 1904 World’s Fair made all three of these things much more popular. But it’s an awfully big stretch to say any of them were invented here.

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