World of Tomorrow: The 1939 World’s Fair

(View of the Trylon and Perisphere from the Amusements Area, Wired)

On this day 79 years ago, April 30, 1939, the “World of Tomorrow” opened to the public. No, this wasn’t a Disney theme park, it was the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Fair was a bubble in time, with buildings straight out of pulp science fiction. Sweeping curves, shining chrome, towers of dizzying heights, and huge geometric shapes not yet seen in everyday architecture. After ten years of the Great Depression, the people of New York and the United States were ready to move on to better times, and the glittering world of the Fair provided an escape that the Depression couldn’t touch. Planning for the Fair began in early 1935, right in the heart of the Depression. After seeing Chicago’s financial success with their “Century of Progress” themed fair in 1933, New York decided to take the risk and host a World’s Fair. Construction for the fair took three whole years and cost a grand total of $155,000,000, which is almost $3,000,000,000 adjusted for inflation! To try and make up for this great expense, the Fair charged admission to all guests, at a price of  75 cents ($13.56 adjusted for inflation) for adults and 25 cents ($4.52 adjusted for inflation) for children. Season passes and student tickets were also available at discounted rates.

(View of the opening ceremony, The Atlantic)

The opening ceremony was quite the spectacle. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially opened the Fair with an address honoring George Washington, as opening day marked the 150th anniversary of his inauguration as the first President of the United States, and assured the people that the future would certainly be better. Television was also introduced to the mass public during the opening ceremony by RCA president David Sarnoff. Lastly, Albert Einstein gave a speech about cosmic rays which concluded with the lighting of the Fair, including the the Trylon and Perisphere that made up the central theme center. The Fair would be visited by numerous world leaders, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II of England in the weeks following the opening. Each of these visits were accompanied by much celebration.

The Fair was divided into seven main areas:

(Portion of a souvenir map from the official guide book)

  1. The first, and perhaps most popular, was the Amusements area. This 280 acre section was filled with various types of entertainment, including stage shows, street performers, boardwalk games, and an over the top water ballet organized by showman Billy Rose. Several rides were also present in this area, including the 250 foot tall Life Savers Parachute Tower, which was later moved to the Coney Island boardwalk where it can still be seen, though it is no longer operational.
  2. The Communications and Business Systems area  focused on man’s ability to receive and spread knowledge. Some exhibits found in this area include the American Telephone and Telegraph Co.’s (AT&T) Demonstration Call Room, where visitors could make long distance calls to any registered US telephone, and the Radio Corporation of America’s (RCA) demonstration of newly available televisions.
  3. The Community Interests area was organized around home life and community living. Featured exhibits of this area include the Gardens on Parade, a six acre flower show with a restaurant in the center, and a model home running entirely on gas hosted by multiple American and Canadian utility organizations.
  4. The Food Zone focused on the production, distribution, and consumption of food products. Major exhibits here include the American Tobacco Company, where the cigarette making process was demonstrated, and the Continental Baking Company, who showed the process of making bread and sold sandwiches made from the fresh bread.
  5. The next area, and perhaps the most important, is the Government area, home to over 60 world nations. Some of the biggest exhibits in this area belonged to Great Britain and the British Colonial Empire, Italy, Japan, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and of course, the United States of America. A sub area of the Government zone was the Court of States, where some of the states presented their history, their tourism industry, and their industries.
  6. The next area, moving closer to the heart of the park and perhaps most important to the theme of “The World of Tomorrow,” was the Production and Distribution area which showcased how resources were transformed into products and how they were then put into the hands of the public. Some featured exhibits from this area include the Consolidated Edison Company of New York Incorporated’s diorama, which was about a city block in length and almost four stories tall, and the Bethlehem Steel Company’s “How Steel is Made” show.
  7. The Transportation area was home to many extraordinary exhibits, including a large scale model car-based city presented by General Motors, and a parade of international trains presented by the 27 Eastern railroads on their 17 acre railyard stage.

 

The 1939 fair would close in October after six months of operation, only to reopen again in April of 1940 for a second season of operation. During the gap between seasons, the fair underwent many changes due to the impending Second World War, including the demolition of the USSR Pavilion and the closing of the Poland and Czechoslovakia pavilions. Upon its reopening it was re-themed as “For Peace and Freedom,” due to the escalating war in Europe. The second season of the fair focused much more on the amusements rather than the scientific and historic pavilions. The fair officially closed on October 27th, 1940 and was deemed a financial failure. Upon its closure, many of the fair’s amusements were sold to the famous Steeplechase Park (formerly Luna Park) in Coney Island, and other buildings were repurposed or sold to interested buyers. The site of the Fair would later host the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, famously known for it’s Disney influence, including “It’s a Small World,” and an audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. These two fairs would inspire Walt Disney to create the EPCOT Center at his Walt Disney World park in Florida. The fairgrounds are now currently known as Flushing Meadows – Corona Park, and are home to the several remnants of the two world fairs held there.

With these World’s Fairs over and gone, one might wonder why they aren’t held anymore. The short answer is that they still are but in a very different form. These new fairs focus on the environment we live in, both the physical built world and architecture, and the actions we must take to preserve the naturally occurring world. With the ability to see the world on your phone, the need for a traditional World’s Fair has faded away. But still, it is incredible that the 1939 World’s Fair happened amidst the financial crisis that was the Great Depression, and gave people hope that the future would be better.

(View from the top of the Empire State Building looking towards the fair, The Atlantic)

I would also like to thank Eleanor, a volunteer here at the library, for bringing in a souvenir teapot from the 1939 World’s Fair that belonged to her parents. Being able to hold a piece of memorabilia from an event so influential in the growth of our world filled me with a sense of wonder that I can’t quite put into words. 

Works Cited and Related

Zim, Larry., Mel Lerner, and Herbert Rolfes. The World of Tomorrow: The 1939 New York World’s Fair. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/315869

Queens Museum., Helen A. Harrison, and Joseph P. Cusker. Dawn of a New Day: The New York World’s Fair, 1939/40. Flushing, N.Y. : New York: Queens Museum, 1980. https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/192428

Wurts, Richard., and Stanley Appelbaum. The New York World’s Fair, 1939/1940 in 155 Photographs. New York: Dover Publications, 1977. https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/304397

Rolfes, Herbert. The 1939 New York World’s Fair in Postcards. Pittstown, N.J.: Main Street Press, 1988. https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/319066

New York World’s Fair. Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair, 1939. New York: Exposition Publications Inc., 1939. https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/10757308

Rybczynski, Witold. “What Happened to the World’s Fair?” Architectmagazine.com, The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, 9 Apr. 2018, www.architectmagazine.com/design/what-happened-to-the-worlds-fair_o.

Taylor, Alan. “The 1939 New York World’s Fair.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Nov. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/11/the-1939-new-york-worlds-fair/100620/.

Snyder, Jon. “1939’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Shaped Our Today.” Wired, Conde Nast, 29 Apr. 2010, www.wired.com/2010/04/gallery-1939-worlds-fair/.

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