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Kentucky On Display To The World

As the immediate past registrar of the Kentucky Historical Society, one of my jobs was to coordinate loans of artifacts between the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) and other institutions. KHS has a long history of lending to and borrowing from other museums. In the past decade, KHS has lent artifacts to more than 50 different institutions, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the National Corvette Museum. Loans allow new audiences to engage with the collections held at the Kentucky Historical Society. I have always been curious about KHS’s first outgoing loan. Early issues of the Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, first published in 1903, document incoming donations and loans to KHS. As I looked through the May 1904 issue of The Register, I found a small article that caught my eye:

As it turns out, KHS lent objects to be exhibited in the Kentucky Building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World's Fair. Despite being one of KHS’s first loans, this loan was significant. The fair, held from April 30 to December 1, 1904, welcomed an estimated 20 million people. Fifty countries and forty-three states had exhibit spaces at the fair. Kentucky was no exception.

Initially, the 1902 Kentucky legislature refused to appropriate any funds for a Kentucky exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. As a result, the Kentucky Exhibit Association raised $30,000 from hundreds of private subscribers that felt it was important for Kentucky to have a presence at the fair.  On January 27, 1904, the Kentucky General Assembly approved "an act to provide for the collection and exhibition of the resources of the Commonwealth of Kentucky” at the fair and appropriated $75,000 to do so. Aside from constructing the Kentucky Building, known as the “New Kentucky Home,” for exhibition, Kentucky maintained 16 additional displays throughout the fair. The displays highlighted all things from the Bluegrass State: minerals, coal, clay, crops, livestock, tobacco, lumber, schools, colleges, paintings, sculptures, authors, composers, historical relics, and women's needlework. Reincorporated in 1896, the Kentucky Historical Society was actively collecting objects, books, and archival material leading up the fair. Jennie Chinn Morton, Secretary of the Kentucky Historical, sent a variety of artifacts to exhibit at the Kentucky Building. Pictures and paintings of Kentucky governors and early Kentucky settlers covered the walls. Here is a list of several artifacts that were exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair that you can view online today:

  • Pen: Governor J. C. W. Beckham used this pen on February 6, 1904 to sign a bill appropriating one million dollars to build a new capitol building in Frankfort.
  • Portrait: Letitia Chesney painting this portrait of Daniel Boone. Her work was exhibited in the Kentucky Building as well as the St. Louis Fine Arts Building.
  • Board: Floyd Day, owner-operator of the Clay City Lumber & Stave Company, exhibited this plank of solid tulip poplar board. This is currently on exhibit in KHS’s permanent gallery, “A Kentucky Journey.”
  • Relic: These pieces of silk are said to have come from Martha Washington’s dresses.
  • Chair seat cover: This is a quilted cover was supposedly made for a window seat by Mrs. Thomas Arnold for Martha Washington.
  • Silhouettes: These silhouettes depict James and Martha Taylor, of Orange County, Virginia, ancestors of President James Madison and President Zachary Taylor.
  • War of 1812 Rallying Horn: Robert Collins, of Franklin County, Kentucky, used this horn during the Battle of the Thames. Kentucky troops served in Canada in 1813. This is also on display in the Kentucky Military History Museum.
  • Sword: This 18th century hunting sword purportedly belonged to Ethan Allen.
  • Sculpture: This is a piece of coal that has been sculpted into Bible by a coal miner from Bell County. This is also on exhibit in “A Kentucky Journey.”

If you want to learn more about Kentucky’s presence at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, be sure to check out Kentucky at the World's Fair, St. Louis, 1904. This was the final report prepared for Governor Beckham. It is full of photos, statistics, finance details, and more. Photo credit: Kentucky at the World's Fair, St. Louis, 1904. References Final Report of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission, 1906. Government Printing Office, 1906. Kentucky Commission, Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Kentucky at the World's Fair, St. Louis, 1904. Being a Report of the Commission Authorized by an Act of the General Assembly to the Governor of the Commonwealth. Frankfort, 1904. “World's Fair at St. Louis, 1904.” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, vol. 2, no. 5, 1904, pp. 26–26.

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