Ethel Pabst’s experience at the 1904 World’s Fair transformed her worldview. Her story also captured journalistic imaginations, generating an apocryphal ending.
A difficult childhood
Ethel was born in September 1889, the youngest of seven siblings. The family lived in Collinsville, Illinois. Ethel’s mother died when Ethel was still a young girl. Most of the older siblings had started their own families, but Ethel and two of her sisters still lived with their father. When he remarried, the three sisters left home.
In 1898, Ethel and her sister Lucille lived at the Girls Industrial Home on Van Verson Avenue (now Enright Avenue) in St. Louis. By 1904, Lucille had joined their older sister Ada at the Women’s Christian Association Home on Washington Avenue. Ethel, only fifteen years old although she looked at least seventeen, still lived at the Girls Industrial Home.
One day the Home’s matron gave Ethel permission to visit the World’s Fair with some friends. Ethel fell in love with the Fair – and possibly also with a young man she met there. At least that’s what Matron Baker thought when she found a letter to Ethel from a soldier in the Minneapolis National Guard assigned to the World’s Fair. Ada pulled her lively little sister out of the Girls Industrial Home so she could keep an eye on her.
Ethel had been learning the craft of millinery (hat-making) at the Girls Industrial Home. Ada had the elite position of head trimmer (the person who artistically festoons the hat with feathers, flowers, and lace) at a prominent millinery shop. Against her sister’s wishes, Ethel turned her back on her hat-making training and got a job at a soft drink concession booth at the World’s Fair. She lied about her age to get a job at the telephone company. Ada finally forced Ethel to quit her other pursuits and return to millinery work.
“But a girl wants more than that.”
One day, at the end of October, Ethel told the staff at the Women’s Christian Association Home she was going to do laundry. She said that she had packed the dirty clothes in a suitcase to make them easier to carry to the laundry building. But in reality she had packed the suitcase to run away. After quietly searching for three weeks, Ada and Lucille finally reported their sister missing. The police began their search. Everyone suspected that Ethel had eloped with her World’s Fair soldier.
The police found Ethel four days later. The fifteen-year-old blue-eyed brunette with a curvy figure had been working as a dancing girl in the “Ancient Rome” attraction on the Pike, the World’s Fair’s midway. Visitors to Ancient Rome were entertained by acrobats and trapeze artists as well as dancing girls. Costumed employees portrayed slaves, peasants, nobles, statesmen, gladiators, and charioteers amid scaled-down replicas of Augustine buildings and a hippodrome.
Ethel explained to the police that she never intended to run away with a soldier: she just didn’t like sewing and didn’t want to be a milliner. She explained:
“Do you know that I only got 75 cents a week for working in a millinery shop? Of course my board was paid and my sisters clothed me. But a girl wants more than that. The World’s Fair offered me an opportunity and I took it. … I made $10 a week, which kept me very nicely.”
(“Says ‘It’s Bosh’ That She Eloped,” St. Louis Republic, November 25, 1904)
The newspapers reported that Ada planned to send her wayward sister to the House of the Good Shepherd, a St. Louis reformatory for wayward women.
Postscript: Ethel’s life after her adventure
It isn’t clear what happened next to Ethel Pabst. Journalists in Minneapolis and St. Paul reported that she escaped her sisters and showed up in St. Paul to meet up with her soldier beau. One news story claimed she had arrived and secretly married him a mere four days after being apprehended by the St. Louis police. The timing alone makes this seem unlikely. The Minnesota articles mistakenly identify her as being from New York, which casts additional doubt on the veracity of these reports. Perhaps augmenting the story of an adventurous young girl with a slender connection to a local soldier was just too tempting for the writers to pass up. A secret elopement is a happier ending than detention in a reformatory.
Ethel resurfaces in the historical record in 1913 with her marriage to Frank Wiemeyer. She was 24 years old; he was 12 years older and divorced, with a son. In 1920, Ethel and Frank lived in Buckingham Annex, about a mile east of Ethel’s old stomping grounds on the Pike. The couple eventually moved out to the suburbs where they employed a live-in yard man and maid.
United States census records and the following newspapers were consulted for this article: Edwardsville Intelligencer, the Minneapolis Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Republic, and the Saint Paul Globe. Additional sources:
Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women’s History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999.
Everett, Marshall. The Book of the Fair. Philadelphia: P.W. Ziegler Co., 1904. Available at the Madison County Archival Library (library copy is incomplete). Also available online at the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/bookoffairgreate00ever
Gamber, Wendy. The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
The World’s Fair: Comprising the Official Photographic Views of the Universal Exposition held in Saint Louis, 1904. Library ed. Saint Louis: N.D. Thompson Publishing Company, 1904. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.