At these fairs, premature babies were medical oddities, the disabled were sideshow “freaks” and primitive tribes were billed as “savages.”
“People were organized in a way we would recognize as racist,” said Adam Kloppe, public historian at the Missouri Historical Society. There was a hierarchy underlying the exhibited people that went from most primitive to most “advanced.” White, Western cultures were presumed at the top of the order.
At the time, “scientific” racial theories “proving” the natural inferiority of nonwhites were popular in the United States, and the fair was used to advance these ideas.
There were more than 50 different Native American tribes, native people from all over the world, such as the Ainu from Japan and Pygmies from South Africa, the Patagonian giants from Argentina and various Filipino tribes on the fairgrounds. Robert Rydell, professor of history at Montana State University, is a specialist on world’s fairs and author of “All the World’s a Fair.” He explained that contracts from the 1893 fair in Chicago with the concessionaires who were granted human exhibits mandated that the indigenous people act as “savages.” That same philosophy guided the human exhibits in St. Louis.
The Department of Anthropology, sponsored by the U.S. Government, offered visitors a chance to see different cultures in re-created habitats while the anthropologists purported to study them at the fairs.
“Show men, who were mostly white, tried to capitalize on the popularity of these living shows,” he said. St. Louis had the largest Philippines exhibit, with 92 buildings on 42 acres. About 1,100 Filipinos were brought to live at the fair.
Villages were built to replicate those of the Visayans, Bagobos, Samals, “Moros” (as they were called then), Igorots, Tingguianes, Negritos and 30 other tribes and were “stocked” with tribal men, women and children as living exhibits, according to Positively Filipino, which notes the exhibits helped popularize distorted images of the Philippines and its people.
“In our eyes today it is appalling,” Kloppe said. “For 1904 eyes, it was an opportunity to try to understand other cultures.”
Several Filipinos died en route, while on display or after the fair closed. Anthropologists removed the brains of some and shipped them to the Smithsonian. In the context of the fair, the “scandals” most 1904 visitors heard about were the “interracial” dates between Filipino Constabulary members and white “society” ladies, which nearly resulted in a riot. The society was also scandalized by the native dress of the Igorots, Rydell said.
“All of these issues came to light in the context of much discussion about whether to annex the Philippines and whether Filipinos should be accorded citizenship rights,” Rydell said.