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What Yale Brought to the Fair

“There’s never been anything like it in the whole world,” said Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in Saint Louis. Garland’s character was talking about the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition—the St. Louis World’s Fair. In its 25 pavilions and 11 grand palaces, fairgoers had their first encounters with modern automobiles, airplanes, and x-rays; experienced air conditioning and electric lighting; and ate their first ice cream cones. They also got a taste of Yale.


The “only mounted fossil pterodactyl in the world” had no actual fossil bones in it.

The university had its exhibit in the Palace of Education. Yale highlighted its pioneering Psychological Laboratory with wall charts explaining recent research on the application of photography to optical illusions, on writing as an educational problem, and on the use of recordings to analyze speech. There was also student artwork from the School of Art, the first university art school in the world. Institutional information and memorabilia were on display: photographs of Yale’s eight schools, engravings of 50 famous alumni, university statistics, and a section of the old Yale Fence. In the center of the booth stood a scale model of the campus, 12 feet to an inch.

Most remarkable, however, was the world’s first reconstruction of a pterodactyl. “The first thing which attracts [the visitor's] attention is the restoration of a large prehistoric animal,” read the pamphlet for the Yale exhibit. The skeleton—Pteranodon longiceps—was 14 feet long from wingtip to wingtip and dominated one wall of the booth.

The reconstruction was billed as “the only mounted fossil pterodactyl of the kind in the world,” though there were no actual fossil bones in it. It was a replica of a skeleton collected in 1871 by O. C. Marsh, the Yale dinosaur hunter. But the material had stayed in storage, unassembled, until it was copied for the fair by George F. Eaton '94 “to show to better advantage the general proportions of this most highly specialized and grotesque animal.” Eaton, the Peabody’s curator of osteology, later wrote a monograph on pteranodon anatomy. (In it, he speculated that the creatures, now known to be egg-layers, might have died out because of the risk of giving birth to young with such distended heads.)

Today the pterodactyl restoration is on permanent exhibit in the Peabody’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, and the scale model of the campus resides in the Memorabilia Room of Sterling Memorial Library. Tucked away in the library archives is a large gold-tooled volume bound in Yale-blue leather—the alumni register for Yale’s World’s Fair booth. Instructions at the top of each page direct “All Yale Men” to sign. The autographs, which date from May through December 1, are mostly from students and younger alumni. One is from U.S. Supreme Court justice David Josiah Brewer '56. Scattered among the hundreds of formal inscriptions are a few by alumni who listed their professions as “gold-bricker,” “mule-skinner,” or “loafing.” One of the luminaries signed in is the Yale football star of fiction, Frank Merriwell.  the end


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