Iowa's Incredible Exposition Palaces

corn palaceDid you know that a century ago Iowans built beautiful palaces for their kings? Imagine that you are climbing up into the high palace towers. Across the countryside the roads are filled with buggies headed toward the palace. Trains are arriving down at the station. Thousands of visitors are coming to see the kings.

You didn't know that kings lived in Iowa in the late 1880s? They did. And their names were King Corn in Sioux City, King Coal in Ottumwa, King Flax in Forest City and King Bluegrass in Creston.

Crops Were King

The kings were crops and resources, not people. But they were so important to Iowa's economy that Iowans called them "kings." Iowans were proud of their rich soil and new businesses. And they needed a way to advertise this to people who didn't live nearby.

They could have used the old, traditional ways of advertising. For centuries, and in all parts of the world, merchants and farmers have gathered at fairs and markets to sell their products. When settlers first came to Iowa and planned their towns, they always included a place for the market. County and state fairs had been common in Iowa since the 1850s. At the fair the person who grew the biggest or best vegetable or animal, or who baked the best bread or made the best quilt, would win a prize.

New Products, New Advertising

But fairs and markets were the old ways of showing off hard work and good ideas. Life was changing in the late 1800s, and people wanted new ways of showing those changes. The 1800s are sometimes called the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Before this time, the people who worked on farms and in factories did much of the work by hand. Now in the late 1800s huge machines powered by steam did the work. New products were invented and manufactured faster than ever before. Better communication and transportation networks meant that people could travel and do business in different parts of the world.

In Europe and America huge expositions were held to show the new products, machines and ideas to the public. The expositions were a lot like the World's Fairs. In America the first big exposition was held in Philadelphia in 1876. Visitors stood in line to see how telegraphs, telephones, sewing machines and typewriters worked. The American people were proud of their new inventions. Expositions were the new, exciting way to advertise products and celebrate progress.

Palaces in Iowa

Around 1890 several cities and towns in Iowa wanted new ways to show their local pride too. This was the era of the great exposition palaces in our state. Citizens built large and elaborate wooden buildings. Inside they set up magnificent displays of their crops and products. Thousands of visitors came to see the palaces.

But there was one thing that made the palace buildings really unusual. The outside of each palace was covered with the crops grown and the resources found in that part of the state. Local artists covered the palace walls with grains and grasses and minerals in patterns and designs. Thousands of people visited them, and they talked about the palaces for months afterwards.

Now most of our advertising is done on television, radio, billboards or on the Internet. We hear about new products in catalogs and magazines. But back in the 1880s and 1890s, Iowans thought palaces were a terrific way of exhibiting or exposing their products to the public. Some people said Iowa was the state with the best exposition palaces in America.

Adapted from an article printed in The Goldfinch 6, No. 1 (Oct. 84). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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