Meet Me at the Fair

An original postcard of the Ferris wheel, then only a decade old, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the other members of their expedition, boarded their boats north of St. Louis for a trip upriver on the Missouri and an adventure that would take them west to the Pacific Ocean. Part of their mission was to explore portions of the vast new piece of real estate purchased in Thomas Jefferson’s presidency just a year earlier — the Louisiana Purchase — a land so vast that its acquisition doubled the size of the young nation. As the 1903 centennial of that purchase approached, workers hurried to complete six years of preparations for a world’s fair in St. Louis, intended to be grander than its predecessors in other cities. But like the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the St. Louis fair would open a year late, welcoming the first of its 20 million visitors on April 30, 1904.

The St. Louis World’s Fair, also called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, contained more than 1,500 buildings (including several buildings that are now on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis) spread across nearly 1,200 acres, displaying the foods, inventions, and cultures of the world. Its cost was around $15 million, approximately the cost of the Louisiana Purchase. In recognition of this celebration of progress, Kerry Mills and Andrew Sterling wrote the song that would become an American classic, beginning with the words:

A view outside the Palace of Varied Industry.

“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis.
Meet me at the fair.
Don’t tell me the lights are shining
Any place but there.”

The shining lights of the Palace of Electricity covered several acres, and Thomas Edison himself was on hand to participate in the events. Visitors to the fair experienced the marvels of new technologies such as telephones and motion pictures, as well as the exotic peoples of distant lands. Hidden away from the fair-going public was another part of the World’s Fair, a series of formal addresses by leading authorities from around the world. Labeled the International Congress of Arts and Sciences it included more than 340 invited speakers selected from most academic disciplines, but especially from the sciences. Unlike previous international congresses characterized by a segregation of speakers in various specialties, this meeting sought to bridge the work of disparate disciplines, emphasizing the unity of knowledge. This plan stressing unity was the brainchild of Harvard psychologist and philosopher, Hugo Münsterberg who had written to the Congress planners in 1902, “[I]nstead of a hundred congresses, let us have one congress, — one congress with a hundred sections to be sure, but one congress; and let us give to this one congress the definite purpose of working toward the unity of human knowledge. Let us give to it the mission, in this time of scattered specialized work, of bringing to the consciousness of the world the too much neglected idea of the unity of truth” (Münsterberg, 1903). Münsterberg’s plan was adopted by the Congress officials, and he was named one of two Vice Presidents of the Congress and one of the three members of the planning committee responsible for all of the speaker invitations.

Speakers were given explicit instructions about the nature of these unity talks, and in many cases they were issued specific titles for their addresses. Still, the various disciplines met separately with most sub-disciplinary topics covered by one American speaker and one international speaker, typically from Europe. The contingent for psychology was a truly impressive one. Münsterberg addressed the opening of the Congress in his role as Vice President. G. Stanley Hall spoke on “The Unity of Mental Science” in a plenary address. Mary Whiton Calkins, John B. Watson, and C. Lloyd Morgan (University College, Bristol, England) spoke on comparative psychology. Morton Prince and Pierre Janet (College of France) addressed the field of abnormal psychology. And Edward B. Titchener, Robert MacDougall, and James Ward (Cambridge University) spoke on experimental psychology. Other psychology speakers included James McKeen Cattell, James Mark Baldwin, Harold Höffding (Copenhagen), Josiah Royce, Max Meyer, George Trumbull Ladd, Max Dessoir (Berlin), Edmund C. Sanford, Adolf Meyer, and Henry Rutgers Marshall. The speakers outside of psychology were equally as impressive. There was Max Weber in sociology, Woodrow Wilson in political science, Wilhelm Ostwald and William Ramsay in chemistry, Jacques Loeb in biology, Henry Osborn in paleontology, and Frederick Jackson Turner in history.

Despite the talented lineup of scholars, reviews of the meetings were generally not kind, at least not with regard to the stated unifying goal of the Congress. One critic expressed a sentiment echoed by several others: “The attempt to unify knowledge on the lines of a particular philosophical system must naturally fail. No one supposes that a conference at the Hague will give the world enduring peace, or that a congress at St. Louis will unify the sciences” (The International Congress of Arts and Science, 1904-1905).

Psychologist James Rowland Angell (1905) offered a similar criticism. He wrote that “the unification of knowledge which the congress was to glorify is, in this department [psychology] at least, for the most part a figment of the imagination, an ideal toward which progress may ultimately bear us, but from which at the present moment we are conspicuously remote.” He argued that the failure of the Congress was a natural consequence of Münsterberg’s unity plan that “unavoidably caters to a retrospective and somewhat obituary of mind.” Angell faulted Münsterberg further for his speaker selections, arguing that key omissions, such as Alfred Binet, Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and John Dewey harmed the Congress’s chances for success. However, given Angell’s comments about the unity plan dooming the Congress to failure at the outset, it seems unlikely that he believed that invitations to those psychologists would have played any role in achieving the Congress’s stated goal. Describing the addresses themselves Angell noted, “[O]ne is again likely to feel a little disappointment that so distinguished a group of speakers should have offered upon an occasion of such moment so little that is fundamentally fresh.”

It is interesting to compare psychology’s presence at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair with the display of psychology at the Chicago World’s Fair approximately 10 years earlier. The psychology exposition in Chicago was initiated principally by University of Wisconsin psychologist Joseph Jastrow with assistance from Münsterberg and G. Stanley Hall. Laboratory psychology was then only a decade old in America, and Jastrow believed that the Chicago Fair offered psychology an important opportunity to tell the world about the new science, a chance to help the public distinguish between the science of psychology and activities the public believed to be psychology, such as mind reading, phrenology, and séances that promised communication with the spirits of the deceased. The result was a two-room display of psychological science when the fair opened in 1893. One room consisted principally of displays of psychological apparatus along with photographs from the Clark University psychology laboratory illustrating use of the equipment. The other room was a psychological (anthropometric) testing room, consisting of about twenty stations where volunteer subjects were assessed in terms of sensory, motor, and cognitive functioning, as well as some physical measurements.

In planning for psychology’s presence at the St Louis Fair it is not evident that there was any intent to duplicate or expand on the Jastrow exhibit. There was no public display other than the lectures, and those were not publicized in any way that would have attracted ordinary fair-goers, nor would the majority of those individuals have found the addresses comprehendible. There was, however, one similarity between the two world fairs and that was a mental testing laboratory. The laboratory for psychological testing was located in the basement of Cupples Hall on the Washington University campus. It would not have been identified as a psychological laboratory by the public, and was in fact part of the exhibit on anthropology. The laboratory was headed by Columbia University psychologist Robert S. Woodworth and a psychology graduate student, Frank G. Bruner, who used the data collected at the St. Louis Fair for his doctoral dissertation under Woodworth’s supervision. Although the laboratory may have been open to fair-goers, as had been the case in Chicago, Woodworth and Bruner had a research agenda that focused their interests on a different population, one they referred to as “primitive peoples.” They tested approximately 1,100 subjects in terms of their research goals.

The beginning of the 20 th century was a time in which the tools of psychological and anthropological science were used to measure racial differences, with expectations from many that the obtained measures would support “learned opinion” that the white race was superior to people of color. The St. Louis Fair, with hundreds of visitors as part of the international exhibits as well as Native Americans, provided a golden opportunity for such testing. For example, Bruner (1908) tested nearly 400 individuals for his dissertation research on auditory range and acuity, describing his sample as “156 whites; 63 Indians; 137 Filipinos (Christianized); 10 Cocopa Indians; 7 Ainu from the Island of Hokkaido, Japan; 7 Indians from Vancouver’s Island; 6 so-called African Pigmies; and 4 Indians from the region of Southern Patagonia.” Some of the subjects tested were members of the athletic teams taking part in the Olympics that were also in St. Louis in the summer of 1904. Based on his measures, Bruner (1908) concluded that whites were superior to all other races “both in the keenness and the range of the hearing sense.” Just looking at the small sample size of some of his groups would suggest problems with his interpretations, and there were more significant problems in his methodology and his analysis of data that would not justify his conclusions.

In addition to measures of auditory acuity, the laboratory assessed head size, body stature, reaction time, tests of strength, respiration rates, facial characteristics, performance on form boards, color vision, visual acuity, touch sensitivity, taste sensitivity, and sensory disorders such as color blindness and hearing deficits. Measures such as head size, reaction time, and sensory abilities formed the earliest measures of intelligence as endorsed by Francis Galton and James McKeen Cattell. Head size was used as a measure of brain size, reaction time was thought to be a measure of the speed of information processing, and because the senses were judged to be so critical in the acquisition of information, it was assumed that they were important in differentiating levels of intelligence. These anthropometric intelligence tests would be found to be unrelated to school performance once the correlation coefficient was invented, and they would be replaced by the intelligence tests developed by Alfred Binet. But that transformation was a few years away yet.

This year marks the centennial of the St. Louis World’s Fair with its august gathering of psychologist dignitaries seeking unity of knowledge and its psychology laboratory assessing differences among races. It is interesting to reflect on that history and what it may reveal about a contemporary psychology that is seen as ever-fragmenting and still obsessed with the search for individual differences. t

Author’s Note: The author expresses his appreciation to John A. Popplestone for his assistance on this article.

Angell, J. R. (1905). Psychology at the St. Louis Congress. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 2 , 533-546.
Bruner, F. G. (1908). The hearing of primitive peoples. Archives of Psychology , No. 11, 113 pp.
Münsterberg, H. (1903). The St. Louis Congress of Arts and Sciences. Atlantic Monthly, 91 , 671-684.
The International Congress of Arts and Science. (1904-1905). Popular Science Monthly, 66 , 97-104.


How could Munsterberg not have invited William James? He owed everything to him? James brought him to Harvard and did whatever he could to entice him to stay.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.
In the interest of transparency, we do not accept anonymous comments.
Required fields are marked*