Rosalie Fairbanks, a guide to the New York World’s Fair, points to the theme of the exposition — the Trylon and Perisphere — in New York on February 22, 1939, after the entire sheath of scaffolding was removed for the first time.
Covering 1,216 acres, in Flushing Meadows, New York, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, like the legendary Phoenix rising from the ashes, was erected on what was an ash-dump. The theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow” echoed in virtually every corner of the Fair. This World’s Fair was a look to the future and was planned to be “everyman’s fair” where everyone would be able to see what could be attained for himself and his community. Within six months of the Fair’s opening, the Second World War would begin, an event that lasted six years and resulted in the deaths of over 50 million people.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair opened on May 30, 1939 which was the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington in New York City, the nation’s first capitol. While some of the pavilions were still under construction and not yet open, that first day of the Fair was attended by 206,000 visitors.Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the opening speech while an estimated 1,000 visitors watched the opening on 200 televisions sets in various locations throughout the Fair.
An aerial view of the 1939 New York World’s Fair site during construction in Flushing Meadows, Queens, on May 17, 1938.
The fair was divided into differently themed zones, such as the Transportation Zone, the Communications and Business Systems Zone, the Food Zone, the Government Zone, and so forth. Virtually every structure erected on the fairgrounds was extraordinary, and many of them were experimental in many ways. Architects were encouraged by their corporate or government sponsors to be creative, energetic and innovative. Novel building designs, materials and furnishings were the norm.
Many of the zones were arranged in a semicircular pattern, centered on the Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz-designed Theme Center, which consisted of two all-white, landmark monumental buildings named the Trylon (over 700 feet (210 m) tall) and the Perisphere which one entered by a moving stairway and exited via a grand curved walkway named the “Helicline”. Inside the Perisphere was a “model city of tomorrow that visitors” viewed from a moving walkway high above the floor level. The zones were distinguished by many color cues, including different wall colors and tints and differently colored lighting.
Shifts covering full 24-hour period were in effect as work was rushed on the filling in of land for the New York World’s Fair in Flushing, New York, on December 16, 1936.
The colors blue and orange were chosen as the official colors of the fair, as they were the colors of New York City, and featured prominently. Only the Trylon and Perisphere were all white; avenues stretching out into the zones from the Theme Center were designed with rich colors that changed the further one walked from the center of the grounds. For example, the exhibits and other facilities along the Avenue of Pioneers were in a progression of blues, starting with pale tints and ending in deep ultramarine. At night, with the latest in lighting technology switched on, the effect was felt by many visitors to be a magical experience.
Outdoor public lighting was at the time of a very limited and pedestrian nature, perhaps consisting of simple incandescent pole lamps in a city and nothing in the country. Electrification was still very new and had not reached everywhere in the US. The fair was the first public demonstration of several lighting technologies that would become common in future decades. These technologies included the introduction of the first fluorescent light and fixture. General Electric Corporation held the patent to the fluorescent light bulb at the time. Approximately a year later, the original three major corporations, Lightolier, Artcraft Fluorescent Lighting Corporation, and Globe Lighting, located mostly in the New York City region, began wide-scale manufacturing in the US of the fluorescent light fixture.
During construction, a bridge leads from the administration building to the exhibit area of the New York World’s Fair, on February 21, 1938.
One of the first exhibits to receive attention was the Westinghouse Time Capsule, which was not to be opened for 5,000 years (the year 6939). The time capsule was a tube containing writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette safety razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and much more. The capsule also contained 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). The time capsule is located at 40°44′34.089″N 73°50′43.842″W, at a depth of 50 feet (15 m). A small stone plaque marks the position. Westinghouse also featured “Elektro the Moto-Man”: the 7-foot (2.1 m) tall robot that talked, differentiated colors, and even “smoked” cigarettes.
On July 3, 1940, the fair hosted “Superman Day”. Notable was the crowning of the “Super-Boy and Super-Girl of the Day” following an athletic contest, and a public appearance by Superman, played by an unidentified man. Broadway actor Ray Middleton, who served as a judge for the contest, is often credited with having appeared in the Superman costume on Superman Day, but he did not; however, he may have played Superman during a live radio broadcast from the scene. Although the unknown man in the costume is often said to have been the first actor ever to play Superman, Bud Collyer had been performing the role on the Superman radio series since the preceding February.
Arlene Warner, “queen of beauty” of Elgin, Illinois, presides at the opening ceremonies of the Elgin Time Observatory at the New York World’s Fair on May 10, 1938. She is unveiling a heroic figure of “Time,” represented as a slave striking a gong sculptured by Bernard J. Rosenthal of Chicago.
Ceramic sculptor Waylande Gregory created The Fountain of the Atom, which displayed the largest ceramic sculptures in modern times. It included the four Elements, each measuring 72 inches (180 cm) high and each weighing over a ton. There were also eight electrons, which were illustrated in Life Magazine (March 1939). Gregory also created two exhibitions featuring his ceramic sculptures for the General Motors Building, American Imports and American Exports.
Nylon fabric, the View-Master, and Scentovision (an early version of Smell-O-Vision) were introduced at the Fair. Other exhibits included Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a streamlined pencil sharpener, a diner (still in operation as the White Mana in Jersey City, New Jersey), a futuristic car-based city by General Motors, and early televisions. There was also a huge globe/planetarium located near the center of the fair. Bell Labs’ Voder, a keyboard-operated speech synthesizer, was demonstrated at the Fair.
The Soviet pavilion at the New York World’s fair, one of the last exhibits to be completed for opening of the exposition on April 30, 1939. A theater and a restaurant are incorporated in the semi-circular structure, and the exhibits and activities are designed to show the Russia’s peoples.
The fair was open for two seasons, from April to October each year, and was officially closed permanently on October 27, 1940. To get the fair’s budget overruns under control before the 1940 season and to augment gate revenues, the fair management in the second year replaced Whalen with a banker, Harvey Gibson, and placed much greater emphasis on the amusement features and less on the educational and uplifting exhibits.
The great fair attracted over 45 million visitors and generated roughly $48 million in revenue. Since the Fair Corporation had invested 67 million dollars (in addition to nearly a hundred million dollars from other sources), it was a financial failure, and the corporation declared bankruptcy.
The Coronation Scot, in America for the New York World’s Fair, made several runs between Washington and Baltimore, where she awakened considerable interest. The Coronation Scot stops here on a bridge near Washington, alongside the famous American train Royal Blue, on March 27, 1939.
Although the United States would not enter World War II until the end of 1941, the fairgrounds served as a window into the troubles overseas. The pavilions of Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, did not reopen for the 1940 season. Countries under the thumb of the Axis powers in Europe in 1940 like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France ran their pavilions with a special nationalistic pride. The only major world power that did not participate for the 1939 season was Germany, citing budget pressures.
The USSR Pavilion was dismantled after the first season, leaving an empty lot called “The American Commons”. When the fair closed, many among the European staff were unable to return to their home countries, so they remained in the US and in some cases exercised a tremendous influence on American culture.
The World’s Fair buildings now nearing completion over seven miles away (upper right) can be seen in the distance from the top of the Empire State Building in New York, on February 27, 1939
Flanked by Boy Scouts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened New York’s $160,000,000 World’s Fair with an address in which he said America has “hitched her wagon to a star of good will”, on April 30, 1939. He emphasized the United States’ desire for placid living among the countries of the world and expressed hope that the future would see a breakdown of “many barriers of intercourse” among European nations.
Some of the 35,000 guests of honor who listened to the opening speeches in the Court of Peace at the New York World’s Fair, on April 30, 1939.
A view taken from the side of one of the many lagoons at the New York World’s Fair on July 7, 1939. Light brings out some of the wondrous beauty as erected at the “World of Tomorrow”. The famous statue of George Washington is silhouetted against the lighted Perisphere.
Visitors ascend the “electric stairway” in the Hall of Power at the Westinghouse Building at the World’s Fair, on May 8, 1939.
Jamming every inch of space in the huge Hall of Electrical Living at the Westinghouse Building at the World’s Fair, crowds stand 6 deep on the sidewalk outside the glass-enclosed structure to watch Elektro, the Westinghouse Moto-Man, perform his 26 mechanical tricks, including, walking, talking, smoking a cigarette and counting, on May 8, 1939.
Prominent representatives of the state of Washington look at a diorama of Grand Coulee dam, part of their state’s exhibit at the New York World’s Fair on May 1, 1939, after opening day ceremonies on April 30. From left are Mrs. E.B. McGovern, U.S. Senator Homer Bone, Mrs. Bone, and Comm. E.B. McGovern, representing the governor.
A World’s Fair night views of Consolidated Edison’s fountains, on June 24, 1939.
With New York City as a backdrop, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (first car) proceed up the Westside highway along the Hudson en route to the New York World’s Fair, on June 10, 1939, soon after they landed at the Battery. A score of New York motorcycle police surrounded the royal car, and several men stood guard on the running boards.
Presentations are made to Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the British Pavilion, during their visit to the fair in New York, on June 19, 1939.
A workman at New York World’s Fair repaints the famed Perisphere, on June 6, 1939.
Color view of the 1939 World’s Fair. Corona gate with Bulova clock, ca 1939.
The entrance to General Motors’ Exhibit at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. The exhibit attracted nearly 25 million visitors.
Futurama, the model city of 1960, designed by Norman Bel Geddes for the General Motors Exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. This photograph shows an elevated view of the huge model of a futuristic city with widely spaced skyscrapers, double-decked streets with moving cars representing traffic patterns, and parks and landing pads for helicopters and auto-gyros shown on the roofs of low buildings
“The Road of Tomorrow,” an elevated highway of cork and rubber composition, at the Ford Exhibit at New York’s World Fair in 1939.
Lines to enter the fair at Flushing Gate, on October 27, 1940.
The National Cash Register Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Workers in an exhibit use modern techniques to package bacon for Swift Premium Meats.
Bumps and laughter enliven one of the Fun Zone’s many novel rides at New York’s World Fair in 1939.
Jack Sheridan’s “Living Magazine Covers” exhibition, where, for a fee, one could enter and photograph topless models posing in sets designed to look like contemporary magazine covers.
Ford Motor Building entrance, May 12, 1939.
Poland’s pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.
Members of the New York World’s Fair staff, on a tractor train in 1939.
World’s Fair, railroad pageant. Final curtain, May 27, 1939.
A closer view of the end of the railroad pageant, as a “woman of the future”, center, brings together performers representing past and present, on May 27, 1939.
An overhead view of the expansive fairgrounds in June of 1940.
Statue of George Washington on the fairgrounds, on the 150th anniversary of his inauguration.
Swimmers in Billy Roses “Aquacade” at the Marine Amphitheater at the New York World’s Fair, on June 10, 1939.
General Motors Building with the B. F. Goodrich Tire Building in the left background.
Crowds surround a new television in the RCA exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.
The waterfall exit of the Electrical Utilities Building.
General night view of the World’s Fair, New York City, September 15, 1939.
The second and last season of this edition of the New York World’s Fair closed on October 27, 1940. Unfortunately, events in Europe were descending into a second World War, and budget overruns ended up leaving the World’s Fair as a financial failure. Shown here is a view of the View of the Trylon and Perisphere being dismantled in New York, on January 23, 1941.
A March, 1940 aerial view of the World’s Fair grounds.
Formerly a New York World’s fair excursion bus, the “Spectroheliogram,” was converted after the fair closed, to be used to shuttle WAACs to and from work at the armored force replacement training center, July 26, 1949 in Fort Knox, Kentucky.