From Preservation Issues, Volume 4, Number 2

The Fair Women of Missouri

by Karen Grace
The first Missouri State Fair opened in Sedalia September 9,1901 with 18 temporary buildings and an attendance of 25,346. The early years of the fair were enormously successful, attracting larger crowds every year so that facilities were soon severely strained. One of the temporary structures on the fair grounds was a tent, provided by the Missouri Ladies Club, which served as a rest area for women.

The park design philosophy prevailing during the early part of this century was that women and children should have a separate building on parkgrounds. Unlike 19th-century parks that encouraged family togetherness, early 20th century park reformers demanded that the sexes and ages be segregated. Thus, the Missouri Ladies Club tent for women was born.

In May 1908, after several years of vigorous lobbying by Missouri club women (see story, page 1), the all-male Executive Committee of the State Fair Board voted unanimously to recommend to the state legislature appropriations for three new buildings on the fair grounds, one of which was to be the Womans Building [sic]." The fair board called the existing situation "deplorable" and declared that the state could do better for its women and children. The state legislature apparently agreed, and in 1909 appropriated $30,000 for a Womans Building to be constructed on the fair grounds.


". . . the great State of Missouri looks after the comfort of its women folk and the kiddies . . ., which doubtless accounts for the little demand for equal suffrage made by Missouri women." Missouri Ruralist, Oct. 12, 1912.
The first such woman's building, with an attached children's pavilion, was constructed for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and proved so popular that numerous parks and state fairgrounds followed suit during the next 30 years.

A better-known, although not more important, influence of the Chicago fair was the revival of interest it created in classical architectural models, particularly Greek and Roman. The exposition's planners mandated a classical theme, which was interpreted in a series of dramatic colonnaded white buildings arranged around a central court. The fair buildings and landscapes were widely photographed and reported, and soon its classical models became the latest fashion. The tremendous influence of the fair on American architecture was noted by architecture critic Louis Mumford who declared that "Roman temples were built everywhere, without thought to the demands of modern life.


Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri. Womans Building - 1910-11

The Missouri State Fair Womans Building (ca 1910-1911), designed by Sedalia architect Thomas W. Bast, is an excellent example of a style influenced, in Missouri as elsewhere, by the Chicago Exposition.

Bast platted the fairgrounds site, and designed all of the fair's other permanent buildings, but he approached the Womans Building from a different perspective. Unlike the earlier male-oriented buildings, this one must reflect Missouri womanhood. The classical model he chose corresponded to what Bast may have thought a feminine standard of conduct and manners to be. It reflected a belief that the moral wealth of the state was embodied in Missouri women. The design also left no doubt as to woman's place in Missouri society - it was, and remains, the most pleasantly homelike of all the buildings on the grounds.

A large rear wing of the Womans Building contained the nursery; a fenced playground was adjacent. Women's dormitories were located on the second floor and attic levels of the main building.

The first floor and basement levels of the Womans Building have seen a variety of uses. For example, beginning in 1911 and for several decades following, the first floor housed the fine arts exhibits at the fair. At various times, lectures and music competitions were held there and educational exhibits displayed. And for several years a cooking school was held in the basement.

The Womans Building did not, however, provide a forum for the promotion of a feminist political platform as the building in Chicago had. A primary function of the Chicago building was to house the first International Congress of Women in which women from around the world were invited to speak their minds on the political topics of the day - and many did. Feminist political discussion was banned from the Missouri Womans Building by the State Fair Board; the official reason given was that Missouri women would find it offensive and, in at least one recorded instance, a suffragette who asked for space in the Womans Building in order to hand out pamphlets promoting voting rights for women was refused admittance.

It seems unlikely that all Missouri women were offended by the idea of political and social equality. By the late 19th century, many Missouri women had learned that there is political strength in numbers; thus the proliferation of women's clubs, which cooperated to lobby for local, state and national legislation to benefit women and children. These women had also learned that the male establishment, and some women, became reactionary when confronted by "loud," assertive women; in order to gain what they wanted, women had to maintain a traditional "feminine demeanor" expected by the larger society. The accomplishments of these women are truly impressive when one considers the simplicity of their political strategy; it was to speak softly and join a big club.


All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace

First electronic edition: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003 
Return to the History of Missouri's Women home page.