Empire of Today and Tomorrow: 1939 World’s Fair, New York
“The American experiment in democratic government has long ago ceased to be an experiment; the American ideal has exerted a wide and fruitful influence in the world. The Fair exalts and glorifies Democracy, as a way of government and as a way of life, with all her freedoms and opportunities.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, “Theme and Purpose,” page 40.
Grover Whalen was ready for the world to be delighted.
Whalen, president of the incorporated group that was the organizing force of the New York World’s Fair 1939, (and who would go on to entitle his autobiography Mr. New York) had no doubts fair goers would simply revel in the sheer marvel that was the Fair, in its music and color, festivity and rhythm.
“This is your Fair, built for you and dedicated to you,” Whalen wrote in his “We Welcome the World” introduction of the Fair’s official guide book. “You will find it a never-ceasing source of wonder.”
But delight was just one aspect of the Fair. Under Whalen’s leadership, the Fair, sandwiched between two of the United States’ most defining and nation-altering events – the Great Depression and World War II – was a chance for the United States to shine a bright, brilliant spotlight on itself. Further, it was a chance for the country to promote a progressive futuristic concept of the world, with the United States as a, if not the, key player, one who could use its powers of persuasion, its ideology, its pure democracy, to unite the world.
“We show you here in the New York World’s Fair the best industrial techniques, social ideas and services, the most advanced scientific discoveries,” Whalen’s guide book introduction boasts. “And at the same time we convey to you the picture of the interdependence of man, class on class, nation on nation. We tell you of the immediate necessity of enlightened and harmonious co-operation to save the best of our modern civilization. We seek to achieve orderly progress in a world of peace…”
Certainly the United States considered itself the best of modern civilization. The Fair served as the perfect opportunity for the United States to remind everyone of that – American citizens, foreign governments exhibiting at the fair (and even those who did not) and foreign citizens following news of the fair in newspapers and magazines. The official guide book advertised it, media promoted it, and even the President of the United States trumpeted it during his speech to open the Fair. The United States was exceptional, and the Fair was the perfect venue through which to remind everyone of that, via its amazing design, use of color, dazzling displays of technology, constant overt and subliminal messaging, industrial exhibitions showing the best of everything the country had to offer, and more. Every aspect of the Fair was a chance to, with the world’s eyes watching, demonstrate American power, show just how impressive the American empire was and would continue to be. It also allowed the US to harness some energy, to fill citizens and politicians alike with a sense of pride and amazement.
The United States would need that energy, for change was coming. Even as flags waved in the New York breeze, as millions of people filed through grandiose exhibitions promising an amazing world of tomorrow with the potential of utopian peace among the world’s inhabitants, the world was inching toward war.
Putting the Moment in Perspective
“There is a great difference between the financing of fairs in Europe and in America. Recent European fairs, especially in France, Belgium and Germany, have been directly subsidized by their respective governments. But American fairs are primarily the results of private enterprises; they do not enjoy the boon of direct governmental subsidies.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, “Financing the Fair,” page 25.
Organizers of the New York World’s Fair in 1939 were by far the first to try to put on a show. Since 1851, at what’s recognized as the first World’s Fair in London (known as both the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace Exhibition), the world’s countries had been using international showcases as a way to display the best about their society, both in terms of the most up-to-date manufacturing techniques and technology and as expressions of their unique (and, as each nation felt, superior) national and imperial identities. The authors of World’s Fairs on the Eve of War; Science, Technology, and Modernity, 1937-1942 indicate that World’s Fairs were a way, after the Industrial Revolution, for countries and their citizens to try to make sense of constantly changing modern times and to provide a new semblance of order when frequent and massive change threatened to make things seem out of control.
Things certainly had been out of control in the United States in the years before the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and by the time the New York event was in the works the country was ready for something to celebrate; citizens were more than eager to feel proud again about the United States after the chaos of the Great Depression and the challenging years of the 1930s. And, as worry began to build over increasingly menacing international posturing, something shiny, progressive, positive and boastful was what many were clamoring for. The New York event could be all things to all people: both a venue to display American power and its ability to guide a new and better world, but also a place to nudge the Depression-era economy into motion, by dazzling consumers with merchandise, products and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
But it wasn’t only United States citizens who got to see what the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – what the country – had to offer; so did representatives from other countries attending the Fair. What a chance for the nation to openly and gleefully display its culture and all it offered. Cultural imperialism, indeed as the mighty United States could bestow upon smaller less powerful countries its culture, its products, its essence, its way of life. “Don’t you want to take some of this home with you?” the Fair was constantly whispering to all who wandered its grounds. “Isn’t capitalism great? Isn’t America great?”
Building the World of Tomorrow (but also a look at the great US past)
“Washington and his colleagues had, with courageous vision, charted a course out of dangerous seas; they planned better than even the most optimistic dared hope. Those who formulated the theme determined that emulation was the highest tribute – that the Fair should accomplish in our day what Washington and his contemporaries did in theirs.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, “Theme and Purpose,” pages 40-41.
The slogan of the Fair – “Building the World of Tomorrow” – certainly directed thoughts to the future. But another key component of the Fair was a look to the past, as it also served as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States.
Built in Queens atop what was essentially a trash and ash heap dubbed “Corona Dumps” by the locals, the New York World’s Fair opened in April 1939. A massive complex, the Fair’s grounds were an Art Deco explosion of design, complete with a sophisticated color plan and advanced lighting. Fish and moving water were encapsulated in upright, tubular fountains called Aqualons and new words were coined as names of the two most visually identifiable symbols of the Fair – the Trylon, a giant spiked obelisk, and the Perisphere, a 200-foot diameter huge hollow globe 18 stories high.
Democracity, or The City of Tomorrow, was the theme exhibition contained inside the Perisphere. It contained the then-longest moving electric stairway in the world leading to rotating platforms upon which Fair goers could gaze upon the model futuristic city. “Seldom, if ever, has such an entrancing vista been created by man,” the guide book gushed. “Visitors will never forget it, symbolical as it is of the interdependence of man with his fellow and of humanity’s age-old quest for knowledge, increased leisure and happiness.”
The Fair was divided into seven zones, all but two of which had their own focal exhibits. Over the course of the two-year existence of the Fair, more than 45 million paid attendees wandered the zones: Amusement; Communications and Business Systems; Community Interests; Food; Government; Medical and Public Health; Production and Distribution; Science and Education; and Transportation.
It was from the Government zone that 60 foreign governments presented their countries; “Here,” promised the guide book, “the peoples of the world unite in amity and understanding, impelled by a friendly rivalry and working toward a common purpose: to set forth their achievements of today and their contributions to the ‘World of Tomorrow.'” Visiting countries included the USSR and Japan, but notably absent were China and Germany.
That a celebration of 150 years of US history was an important part of the Fair is significant. Weaving history into the Fair allowed for continual positive rhetoric about the United States, giving organizers and US representatives an opportunity to advance the ideals of the United States in the constant effort to express and exert American power on a global scale. A large statue of Washington at the time of his inauguration, sculpted by James Earle Fraser who designed the Indian-head nickel, gazed down from atop a perch in the Constitutional Mall basin, and sprinkled throughout the Fair’s grounds were other visual reminders of the Washington celebration.
Fair construction in 1938 and its opening in 1939 allowed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to celebrate the United States and advance the ideals of the nation, while also positioning the nation as a power keenly aware of world affairs. The opening day speech, according to author David Gelernter in 1939 Lost World of the Fair, was a chance to position the US in a place of power, to make it clear to world leaders to the East that the United States was watching and knew what was going on. Increasingly preoccupied with foreign affairs, the president, as Gelernter explains in his book, in mid-April 1939 penned a note to Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini asking them to abandon any plans to attack small countries in Europe.
“They casually brushed him off,” Gelernter writes, “and his dedication speech at the Fair was FDR’s first occasion to answer them.”
After listening first to the cornerstone speech from 1938, and then reading the speech made at the opening of the Fair in 1939, what do you think? Did the president gloss over what was happening in Europe? If so, why do you think he did so? And if not, was the Fair, ostensibly dedicated to peace and harmony among the world’s countries, an appropriate place to discuss aggression and mounting hostilities?
Your Guide to the Fair
“This Edition of Your Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939 goes to press before the Fair formally opens on April 30th, just one hundred and fifty years after George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States in New York City, the first capital of the new nation. The information for your Guide Book has been compiled from the official archives of the Fair Corporation and from the materials directly supplied by the many foreign and state governments, the exhibitors and the concessionaires; each text has been checked and approved by competent authorities.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, “Foreword,” page 2.
The 256-page First Edition Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, a copy of which is available through the University of Kansas Libraries, provided information in detail for Fair attendees. For twenty-five cents, Fair goers could purchase their own copy and learn about each foreign exhibition, look at a fold-out map to orient themselves and be assured of their safety due to the presence of the specially trained World’s Fair Police. They could browse the list of US companies at the Fair, figure out where to find leisurely dining, spiced with music, and read advertisements from companies such as the Fuller Brush Company and determine what ride they should head to next in the Amusement zone.
“This is your book, designed for you, written for you and placed in your hands to increase your enjoyment and appreciation of the New York World’s Fair of 1939,” reads the “…How to Use Your Guide Book” section beginning on page 7, opposite a photograph of the Trylon and the Perisphere. “It is not merely a guide to the Fair; it is a miniature encyclopedia of the greatest international exposition in history.”
A mini encyclopedia it is. Roughly organized by the Fair’s seven zones, the guide book demonstrates just how eager Fair officials were to impress upon all attendees at the Fair just how truly impressive the Fair was. They made sure to include facts about the overwhelming size of the Fair – that it was larger than any international exhibition in history and a full three times greater (in terms of physical area and total investment) than the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition of 1933 and that “the Amusement Zone of the New York World’s Fair alone is larger than the entire Paris Exposition of 1937.”
The guide book reflects the culture of the day, of the moment. In addition to walking attendees through nearly each detail of the Fair zones, it guides them through sculptures (the 35 sculptors commissioned were selected only after careful consideration; of novel note are the “folklore sculpture which they hope will stimulate renewed interest in American folk heroes such as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and Strap Buckner “who enjoyed liquor and fighting until he met his match in the Devil himself”), murals (Fair organizers desire that the impressions of the decorating scheme are stimulating and admirable, but also suspect some artwork might not be liked by all), landscaping (Fair grounds are a veritable Eden with tulips from Holland, almost ten thousand trees, a million and a half spring bulbs and one half million hedge plants), color (“Color, glorious color”) and lighting (the Fair is a glowing spectacle at night, with features that will keep the world talking for years to come).
In the Food Zone, America’s cultural prowess was on full display, in all its glory. The guide book promised the “Bottling Plant of Tomorrow” would produce 140 bottles of Coca-Cola – “the drink everybody knows” – a minute; spectators could watch from the points glass bottles were sterilized to being mixed and sealed. Visitors could head to the Continental Baking Company’s exhibition to see a huge Wonder Bread wrapper, and see bread produced from flour to being sliced and wrapped in Wonder Bread bags (with sandwiches made from the bread fresh from the oven) and could go to the Borden Company exhibition to watch a revolving platform upon which cows “are washed, dried with an individual sterilized towel, and mechanically milked.”
Country by country, the Government Zone section of the guide book details in a gleeful manner the foreign attendance at the Fair. “The presence of sixty foreign participants makes the Fair a true parliament of the world,” it lauds. From Albania to Yugoslavia countries are highlighted, followed by a page-long feature on the United States Federal Building, with this conclusion: “It is hoped that the American nation will play an important part in bringing about a greater sense of harmony in the relationships of the countries of the world.”
After reading a bit about the guide book, what do you think it reflected about how Fair organizers viewed the United States? Do you think organizers intentionally wrote the content in an overwhelmingly pro-United States manner, or do you think it was unintentional? If it was unintentional, what do you think that indicates?
See it With Your Own Eyes
“Seldom, if ever, has such an entrancing vista been created by man.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, page 43.
It’s one thing to read about the Fair, to see how it was described in the guide book, or to hear about the Fair, to listen to how it was described by President Roosevelt. But what did the actual Fair look like? What was it like to see the crowds bustling through the complex? What was it to see the towering size of the Trylon, the celebratory fireworks that lit up the New York sky at night, the water rushing at the hydraulics demonstration?
This newsreel provides a brief glimpse into the Fair, and also provides examples of the laudatory language of the time used to describe the Fair and all of its features.
After viewing the newsreel, how did your understanding of the Fair deepen? Was there any part of the newsreel that surprised you, and if so, what part, and why do you think it surprised you? What do you think the newsreel reveals about the Fair as it was understood by those in 1939, and what it reveals about how we today contextualize and view the Fair, especially within the lens of American empire?
What the Media Had to Say
“Here is centered every type of amusement, the romantic and the realistic, the fantastic and the impressive, the unique and the weird.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, page 49.
The Fair was big news, not just because organizers wanted it to be, but because it was.
Part of the fascination with the Fair was its location – New York. The country was fascinated by New York, writes Gelernter; New York, in turn, was fascinated by the Fair. Therefore the nation was fascinated by the Fair. “New York dominated the country in 1939; New York was accustomed to the biggest, newest and best, and it was enchanted by the fair. The fair mesmerized New York the way New York mesmerized the nation. To understand the United States of America in the late 1930s, you have no choice. You must see the fair.”
Various newspapers and magazines provided coverage of the Fair. Some examples of that coverage follow.
This example contains an article about states being invited to the Fair. Click here to access the image.
Not all of the media coverage was limited to the United States; foreign exhibitors also were interesting.
This article appeared after the USSR’s plane left on its voyage to New York, but the page contains other notable news items. Click here to access the image.
Newspapers weren’t the only types of media covering the Fair.
What do you think of the examples of the media coverage? What message do you think the image on the cover of Vogue is meant to convey? How do you think those reading the media articles felt as they read about happenings in Europe as the Fair was also being covered?
Government at Work
“The Fair is important in its influence upon the promotion of foreign trade, but its educational features are even more important. The visitor can make a tour of the world at the Fair; here he examines the achievements and the products of which the nations of the Earth are most proud.”
– Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, “Government Zone,” page 117.
Planning for the Fair wasn’t limited to only organizers. Even the United States government was in on the action.
The Fair provided government officials with the chance to discuss the Fair, and to take actions that would make attendance at the Fair somewhat less bureaucratically challenging to foreign exhibitors. The two documents below provide a glimpse into the types of government actions that related to the Fair.No-tarrifs
After looking at the documents, what is your reaction? What do you think the actions that needed to be taken by the government in relation to tariffs and foreign governments said about relationships between nations? How does the action of eliminating tariffs make the United States appear? In what ways might the Congressional action be seen as condescending, if at all, by foreign governments?
Saying Goodbye to the World of Tomorrow
Robert Rosenblum was delighted.
A boy on the precipice between 11 and 12, one who had lived in Manhattan during the Depression years, he had spent months devouring newspaper articles about the impending New York World’s Fair, clipping them carefully and organizing them in a scrapbook, along with articles from any other source he could find. He let new words like “Trylon” and “Perisphere” and “Futurama” become part of his lexicon, even though he didn’t quite know what they’d turn out to be. He imagined, though.
And then – eureka, as he would write years later – the Fair opened!
“And though I still find it hard to believe, I think I went out there by subway almost every single day of the summer holiday, rain or shine, returning exhausted and happy after sunset, having been dazzled by fireworks and colored beams against the night sky, but never so sated that I didn’t long to return the next morning,” he remembered 50 years later, all vestiges of that young boy gone, and yet still recalling the Fair with a sense of childlike wonder. “For someone about to turn twelve and, I suspect, for everyone else too, the Fair was total, complete magic, and I couldn’t rest content until I had seen absolutely everything not once, but again and again.”
He learned how to turn free samples into meals, how to grab a gulp of milk at the Borden Company exhibit, and how to mimic the comedic timing of the slapstick routine between two pretend housewives demonstrating how much easier women’s lives could be, would be, with the most modern household appliances.
He grew deliriously excited when the weather turned bad; then he could avoid the typical two-hour wait for the biggest hit of the fair, General Motor’s Futurama, and “glide in rapture over a vista of Planet Earth.” He got goosebumps when HE WON ONE OF THE LOTTERIES and was chosen to place a long-distance phone call in the Bell Telephone exhibit. He found exotic introductions to foreign countries he’d only read about in books, places like Poland, Iraq and Venezuela.
“Like the happiest of homeless people in Utopia, I somehow managed to live at, not visit, the New York World’s Fair, still dreaming of it in my Manhattan bedroom,” he explains in Remembering the Future: The New York World’s Fair from 1939 to 1964.
He would have been content for that delight to last forever. It did not.
Even though millions of people joined Rosenblum at the Fair, it wasn’t a money-maker. As the 1939 Fair wrapped up in October, organizers decided to open it again the following Spring of 1940, to recoup some of the event’s financial losses. And outside that magical bubble of the Fair, as that first spring moved to fall and then back to the 1940 Fair opening, the world was changing. So was the Fair.
When it reopened in 1940, gone was the USSR and its massive exhibit with the huge Soviet worker, armed extended holding a star; it backed out of the event after signing a non-aggression with Germany. Other countries didn’t return. By June 1940 more than 10 of the countries had been pulled into war and the relationship between the United States and Japan was deteriorating.
The sheen of the Fair was fading. Gone was the imperialistic bravado, the promotion of capitalism, the displays of American exceptionalism. 1940 saw a new theme, far less visionary, far less futuristic. Gone was the World of Tomorrow; it had been replaced by “For Peace and Freedom.” Organizers shifted the event to more resemble a simple country fair; anything else just didn’t feel right.
The New York World’s Fair 1939 was a massive undertaking, and demonstrated all that America was at that moment in time: a nation very much wanting to shed the painful Depression years, but one also ready to demonstrate power, leadership and the strength of the American empire. The Fair, a cultural extravaganza of American products, companies, technology and ideology, was an open invitation to the world to come participate in all capitalism and an exceptional United States had to offer. The 1939 Fair excelled at all of this; the 1940 Fair didn’t have a chance to succeed at it; world events simply precluded it.
In October 1940, the New York World’s Fair closed for good. The complex was quiet. The flags were lowered, the statues removed, the cows returned to their dairy pastures, the fish and water emptied from the Aqualon tubes. The Fair ended bankrupt, despite the millions of visitors.
Trylon and Perisphere, those massive symbols of the Fair and all that it promoted, were dismantled.
“The four thousand tons of steel that went into the making of the Trylon and Perisphere became scrap destined to make bombs and other instruments of war,” writes Warren I. Susman in an essay in Dawn of a New Day: The New York World’s Fair, 1939/40. “Designed to teach lessons of mutual interdependence which would make all future wars impossible, in its own final functioning the symbol became an instrument of war.”
Learn more through these links:
The Atlantic – a photo essay
Building the World of Tomorrow
Listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to open the Fair (find date of April 30, New York City – Remarks on opening of New York World’s Fair (17 min)
Joe the Worker and the USSR exhibit at the New York World’s Fair 1939
The Great Exhibition of 1851 – the first recognized World’s Fair – information from KU’s Kenneth Spencer Research Library
Bureau International des Expositions page on the World’s Fair New York 1939
ExpoMuseum World’s Fair 1939
1. Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939 (New York, Exposition Publications Inc, 1939)
2. Robert H. Kargon, Arthur P. Molella, Morris Low and Karen Fiss, World’s Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, and Modernity, 1937-1942 (finish citation here with City: Publisher, date).
3. Photograph of car in front of Trylon and Perisphere: La Guardia, Fiorello H.: attending the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Photograph, from Britannica Academic, accessed May 9, 2016, http://academic.eb.com/EBchecked/media/157757/Mayor-of-New-York-City-Fiorello-H-La-Guardia-attending
4. David Gelernter, 1939 The Lost World of the Fair (New York: The Free Press, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1995).
5. All speech PDFs and audio from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/.
6. Fashion: Fair weather ahead. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93, 102-102, 103. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.www2.lib.ku.edu/docview/897867938?accountid=14556
7. Cover: Vogue. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93 Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.www2.lib.ku.edu/docview/897848813?accountid=14556
8. The Queens Museum, with an introduction by Robert Rosenblum, Remembering the Future: The New York World’s Fair from 1939 to 1964 (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1989).
9. Helen A. Harrison, Guest Curator, with essays by Joseph P. Cusker, Helen A. Harrison, Francis V. O’Connor, Eugene A. Santomasso, Warren I. Susman, Dawn of a New Day: The New York World’s Fair, 1939/40 (New York: New York University Press, 1980.