When you look at pictures of the Minnesota State Fair 100 years ago, one thing stands out: Everyone’s wearing about 47 pounds of clothing. The women are cinched in a whalebone frame, their shameful limbs sheathed from ankles to wrists. Men are wearing about six layers, but at least it’s summer-weight wool.
You might think old newspapers had stories like “HORRIBLE TRAGEDY AT FAIR — HUNDREDS DEAD AS HEAT SOARS PAST 80 — MEN AND WOMEN TRAPPED IN THEIR OWN CLOTHING WITH NO ESCAPE” or read that fainting was so common that a big bump on the forehead was known as a “Fair Knob.”
But apparently they coped.
The fare was simpler then, if I read the signs by the food stands correctly. Everything was sanitary! Meaning, perhaps, “Fewer flies than you’d expect.” Nowadays we would think twice before stopping at Clean Hamburgers or Hygienic Corn Dogs, because you’d wonder why they felt the need to point that out. Fairgoers in 1914 would be astonished by our selections of food, and wonder if some plague had taken all the cows, forcing us to eat ostrich and alligator and camel.
They would have recognized Ye Old Mill, which opened in 1915. Ahhh, of course: A place where you can escape the prying eyes of the elders, sit with someone you’d been giving the sheep eyes for a year, and slosh along through a dark tunnel in tremulous excitement, waiting for the moment when your trembling hands could touch, thereby signifying you were engaged. (In the first few years, every boat had a minister with a flashlight and a whistle, just in case the couple did anything untoward, like make eye contact.)
The years have utterly transformed the State Fair, and every year something brasher and brighter takes the place of a humble old sign or a homely wooden booth. But a fairgoer of 1914 would know it was the fair, and wouldn’t be entirely surprised by what it had become, aside from the lack of giant gas-filled airships overhead, trailing signs that exhorted everyone to beat the Kaiser. It makes you wonder if the fair of 2114 would be familiar to us. Some predictions:
• Popular grandstand concert consists of real humans re-enacting the last concert of the androids who replaced the Rolling Stones in 2030.
• Fairchild, the mascot who roams the grounds pantomiming excitement and enthusiasm, is no longer a guy in a costume, but a genetically enhanced gopher.
• Skyview gondola cars have temporal-field windows that let you look back in time, so you can see how the fair looked in decades past. The windows are bolted shut because some idiot in 2047 dropped his iPhone and it fell into 1942; it was found by some impressionable people, and a cult developed around “Apple” that persists to this day.
• Cow barns now filled with rows and rows of glass tanks in which cow meat is grown by cellular replicators; prize ribbons are stuck on the tanks and no one knows what they really mean, just like today.
• Most fair food is replaced by a chemical coating that reproduces the taste of various edibles, so all you get is the stick.
• Mini-donuts replaced by Nano-donuts, which are three microns across and are sold in batches of several million — although most people eat about 700,000 and figure that’s enough and throw the rest away, feeling virtuous.
• Dippin’ Dots is still touted as the ice cream of some theoretical future in which Dippin’ Dots have replaced ice cream; projected date for the frozen-treat revolution now pushed back to 2127.
• The Star Tribune booth of 2114 no longer sells paper subscriptions, but the digital version sells briskly, thanks in part to Sid’s column.
• Midway consists entirely of electrodes plugged into a port in the back of your head, simulating various rides. There’s a Tilt-O-Whirl for the hard-core nostalgics, but regulations require that it go only 5 miles per hour, and it’s frequently offline because the air bags keep deploying.
• Daily parade includes the spoils of war from the Dakota Democratic Republic, vanquished in the most recent conflict that resulted from the dissolution of the Union.
• “Guess Your Weight” guy now guesses your genome sequence: I’d say you have a recessive gene for hypertension on your paternal side. Right? Thanks for playing.
It’ll still be the fair. Still, some changes tell you a lot about who we were, and who we aren’t anymore. In the old days they’d stage a head-on collision of train engines for grandstand amusement. Nowadays we’d have two light-rail trains demonstrating their collision-avoidance system, where they get very close but automatically stop and back up. Not in the vigorous days of the yore! Two great iron beasts heading straight for a catastrophic smashup — a thunderous explosion, the screams of tortured metal, the expiring hiss of steam and the shocked silence of the crowd before they rose to their feet, knowing they had seen something unique that could not be repeated.
If you did it today everyone would be holding up smartphones to record it.
So why not just broadcast a train crash to people’s phones, and they can pretend it’s really happening? No. That wouldn’t be the fair. It’s one of the few places on Earth where you don’t see everyone hunched over a glowing rectangle, tapping out their updates.
We leave that behind at fair time. We want to experience the here, the now. Also because we have a corn dog in one hand and a cookie bucket in the other.