The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”
From the official New York World’s Fair pamphlet
It was the “World of Tomorrow” at a time when it seemed as if the world might not be around tomorrow. It was the 1939-1940 World’s Fair held in New York City when America was just coming out of the Great Depression and watching uneasily as the storm heralding the arrival of what would become World War II was gathering strength in Europe.
This, probably the most famous and certainly one of the largest of all world fairs, began in 1935 when a group of New York City retired police officers, headed by former chief of police Grover Whalen, decided to create an international exposition to aid the country in getting out of the Great Depression. They formed the New York World’s Fair Corporation (NYWFC). Whalen was a public relations innovator who saw the Fair as an opportunity as a commercial vehicle for consumer products (rather than emphasizing science and scientific thinking as previous ones did). Working closely with the committee was New York City’s Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, who had his own agenda—using the NYWFC to clean up, at its expense, the marshy swampland in Flushing Meadows that was to be the site for the Fair and turning it into a city part after it closed.
Over the next four years planned, built, and organized the Fair, its exhibitors and exhibits and activities. Despite the international tensions that were beginning to build in Europe, countries there and from other places around the world took part in the spirit of international cooperation and with a message of hope and prosperity.
In reality, however, is was part ideological construct, part trade show, part League of Nations, part amusement part, and part Utopian community. One of its most obvious parts was the emphasis was on the “new-ness” of ideas, forms and, especially, consumer products. The industrial engineers who worked on it were encouraged to push their ideas into untried areas, and the result was a streamlined and modern design, emphasized by exposition’s focal points, the Trylon, a 700-foot spire and the Perisphere, an orb as wide as a city block.
More than 44 million people visited it in its two seasons. And no wonder. No promotional opportunity was neglected. In 1938, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Giants and Yankees all wore patches on their uniforms that featured the Trylon and Perisphere and “1939) on their left sleeve. Howard Hughes was even persuaded to fly a special flight to deliver invitations to the nations of the world. And in order to add to the historical association, opening day was set to correspond to the 159th anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration as president.
That first day, April 30, was a very hot Sunday. Nevertheless, nearly 200,000 people paid seventy-five cents (for adults) or twenty-five cents for children ages three to fourteen, a substantial cost at a time when a subway ride to the fair cost five cents. Despite the fact that many of the pavilions and other facilities were not yet ready, it had all the pomp of any grand occasion. Franklin Roosevelt gave the opening day address, and the new progress that was being made in broadcast technology gave NBC the ability to broadcast his speech over radio networks. They also used it as the inaugural event for their regularly scheduled television broadcasts in New York City.
One of the most remembered events was that of the Time Capsule. Developed by Westinghouse Corporation under the direction of the NYWFC, it was a tube containing, among other artifacts of the time, writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, comic strips, copies of Life magazine, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a kewpie doll, seeds of foods in common use at the time—wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans, alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots and barley—all sealed in glass tubes. and a dollar in change. It was buried at a depth of fifty felt at 40°44_34.089_N 73°50_43.842_W with instructions that it was not to be opened until 6939 AD.
The fair opened each day at 9:00 a.m. Exhibit buildings closed at 10:00 p.m., but the Amusements Area—the Fair’s most popular section, stayed open until 2:00 a.m. It was divided into different zones (Communications and Business Systems, Community Interests, Food, Production and Distribution, Transportation, Government, and the Amusements Area), which were arranged in semi-circular pattern around the Theme Center. Each zone was distinguished by color cues that might range from the richest shade to the palest as one walked out from the center. The main axis was shades of red, the Avenue of Patriots primarily yellow, and the Avenue of Pioneers shades of blue, with a passage of varying colors connecting the three ends of the Mall and avenues, named Rainbow Avenue. “Bright, colorful, and inventive” lighting was encouraged at night, but it also had to be sufficiently restrained that it did not interfere with the Perisphere’s floodlighting and the searchlight canopy over the Court of Peace.
Only the Theme Center with the Trylon and Perisphere was white. Designed by the architectural firm of Harrison & Foulihoux, it emphasized the industrial designers’ idea of purity.
The two buildings were connected by a giant ramp called the Helicline, which led visitors back to the fairgrounds once they had completed their tour of the structures. But they began it by riding a portion of the way up the Trylon in what was then the world’s largest escalator. From the Trylon, they were directed into the Perisphere. This gigantic sphere, 180 feet in diameter, houses a diorama called “Democracity,” the model city of future. Democracity was viewed from above on the moving sidewalk, under movies displayed on the sides of the sphere.
One of the most popular of all zones was the Transportation one located just south of the Theme Center. The General Motors pavilion, with its massive, 36,000-square foot scale model of America in 1960 known as the Futurama—complete with 500,000 individually-designed homes, urban complexes, bridges, dams, surrounding landscape including a million miniature trees of diverse species, 50,000 miniature vehicles, and an advanced highway system which permitted speeds of 100 miles per hour—received more attention that any other. At the conclusion, visitors were taken into an area constructed as a life-size city intersection with multi-story buildings and stores on all sides including an auto dealership and appliance store (displaying, naturally, the latest GM and Frigidaire products).
Adjacent to the GM pavilion was the Ford pavilion. Here, race car drivers drove cars endlessly on a figure-8 track on the building’s roof. Down a bit from their competitors, Chrysler used a theater fitted out with the new technology of air conditioning to show off the actual assemblage of a Plymouth.
Railroads were, of course, still a major form of mass transportation so over at the Railroad Building, the largest at the Fair, was “Railroads on Parade,” a live drama re-enactment of the birth and growth of railroads. There was also a 160-by-40 foot diorama with 500 pieces of equipment demonstrating the processes of the functioning train and railroad.
Over in the Business and Communications Systems area, AT&T showed off advancements in person-to-person calling that would soon eliminate the need of an operator to make calls by providing opportunities for fairgoers, chosen by lottery, to make a free long-distance call from the Demonstration Call Room. This room had a large map of the U.S. so that visitors could actually see where calls could be placed. A sign read: “Demonstration Telephone Calls to any one of the 16,000,000 telephones of the Bell System and to any of the 4,200,000 telephones of the other companies in the United States,” thus emphasizing that AT&T was four times bigger (and thus four times better) than its competitors. In a way, AT&T utilized its products and exhibit better than many other exhibitors because it got its visitors personally involved with the excitement of technology.
Technology was truly the star of the fair. Among the many exhibited products that were new or in development were television, air conditioning, the diesel engine, color film, Lucite, and new product by Owens-Corning, Fiberglas. The company passed out souvenir bookmarks, breathlessly sharing its excitement over “Glass you can weave like silk!”
This bookmark is made of a modern new glass that is so soft and flexible you can fold it. This glass is called Fiberglas—and it’s 100% pure glass.
Fiberglas is now made in a number of forms
One kind looks like soft white wool. This kind of Fiberglas is an excellen tinsulator against heat or cold.
Another type of Fiberglas consists of coarser fibers that filter the air in air-conditioned buildings and in homes heated by modern warm-air furnaces.
And the kind of Fiberglas used in this bookmark consists of fine smooth threads which are used to insulate electric motors, wire and appliances, or are woven into beautiful decorative fabrics.
Fiberglas is used in homes for house insulation (sold as “Red Top”); and for insulation in the better refrigerators, stoves, electric roasters, hot water heaters, and boilers. It is also used for pipe covering, wicks for oil stoves, air filters for forced warn-air furnaces (trade name: “Dust-Stop”), retainer mats in automobile batteries and for many other household and industrial uses.
Over in the Food Zone were buildings representing food and drink products. The central exhibit was the Food Building South, which was characterized by a massive art deco mural displaying farming and food production. Food was the future, especially as it was seen (and pushed) by Continental Baking Company (Wonder Bread), Beech Nut, Heinz, National Dairy Products Corporation, and Planters, the makers of Mr. Peanut.
Bordon, the “Dairy World of Tomorrow,” had in its building, a huge revolving platform called the Rotolactor. On it were 150 cows, including the original Elsie, who were washed, dried and mechanically milked to produce clean, pure, wholesome milk with technology.
By far the most popular section of the Fair was the Amusements Area. It covered approximately one-third of the fairgrounds, included Fountain Lake (renamed Liberty Lake in 1940) and offered a vast array of exhibits that though marketed as educational exhibits were closer to simulated vaudeville acts or even strip shows that featured scantily clad women (Frozen Alive Girl and the Living Pictures) who allegedly promoted art or advancements in biotechnology. Politicians prosted the “low-minded entertainment” and the New York Vice Squad raided the shows, but they went on. Other entertainments included the Life Savers parachute jump, a collection of performing midgets, the Cyclone roller coaster, dance floors, and Billy Rose’s Aquacade offering synchronized swimming shows (often featuring Esther Williams and Johnny Weismuller) in a special amphitheater seating 10,000 people and including an orchestra.
States and foreign countries had, of course, been invited and many accepted. Sixty nations and international organizations as well as thirty-three states and territories designed and built their own pavilions to house and share their culture and to demonstrate, as one of the NYWFC’s goals put it, “the interdependence of all states and countries in the twentieth-century world.” Those countries included Chile, Portugal, Venezuela, France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium, Canada, Argentina, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, and Japan. The nation most conspicuously absent was Germany.
The first country to accept the invitation was the Soviet Union, which displayed a life-size copy of the interior of the famously beautiful Mayakoviskaya station of the Moscow Metro in its pavilion. The Italian pavilion attempted to fuse ancient Roman splendor with modern styles, and a 200-foot high water fall decorated the pavilion's facade. Its popular restaurant was designed in the shape of the nation’s luxury cruise line ships. The French pavilion ran such a celebrated restaurant that after the fair closed and World War II ended, the restaurant remained in New York City - and soon established itself (as Le Pavilion) as one of the finest French dining establishments in the city. While this bookmark does not appear to be related to Le Pavilion, it does represent the tie of the fair to city establishements.
When the fair closed its first season’s doors October 31, 1939, the NYWFC found that attendance was well below expectations. Because of that, a new chairman and business manager, Harvey Dow Gibson, was appointed for the second season. He quickly reduced the admission fee to fifty cents for adults, and brought in what some considered “rowdier” exhibits to the Amusements Area (renamed the Great White Way). But the effect of World War II, in which much of Europe was engaged by the time the Fair opened on May 11, prevented or limited their participation. The Soviet pavilion was gone. British, Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Finnish pavilions opened but had reminders of the war in their exhibits. Norway and Denmark were only minimally represented. Though still popular, the 1940 season wasn’t much better financially. The fair ultimately ended up generating about $48 million from more than 45 million visitors. Unfortunately, the NYWFC had invested $67 million. It proved to be an economic failure, and the corporation declared bankruptcy.
But it has never ceased to be a source of fascination. Movies and books about it or that reference it abound including Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Murder Over New York as well as E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and The Lost World of the Fair. Other mentions are made in television shows (including The Twilight Zone’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33”), comic books, songs, and a card game.
While researching this article I came across some truly amazing websites, in particular this forum for fans, the World’s Fair Community. Others include PM Photo, Images from the ’39 NY World’s Fair, and Welcome to Tomorrow.
Bookmark specifications: Visit the New York World’s Fair
Dimensions: 7" x 2"
Manufacturer: NYWF official vendor
Bookmark specifications: New York World’s Fair Book Mark
Dimensions: 2 1/2" x 3 1/2"
Manufacturer: NYWF official vendor
Bookmark specifications: New York World’s Fair 1939 (blue and orange card)
Dimensions: 3" x 3 1/2"
Manufacturer: NYWF official vendor
Bookmark specifications: Greetings from the New York World’s Fair
Dimensions: 8 1/2” x 1 1/2” (card is 8 3/4” x 4 ")
Manufacturer: NYWF official vendor
Bookmark specifications: Glass You Can Weave Like Silk
Dimensions: 8 1/2" x 1 1/4
Manufacturer: Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation
Bookmarks’ specifications: Greetings from the World’s Fair (Mr. Peanut)
Dimensions: 6 1/2" x 3" (at tallest and widest parts)
Material: Heavyweight paper
Date: 1939 and 1940
Bookmark specifications: Charles French Restaurant
Dimensions: 1 1 1/2" x 3 1/2"
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, nearly 1,300 bookmarks and approximately the same number of books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact Lauren.