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1939 NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR LIVES
ON THROUGH COLLECTIBLES

by Bob Brooke

 

An assorment of 1939 World's Fair collectiblesIt was a time of innocence and Depression, summer dance bands and comic-strip adventures, baseball games and rumors of war in the evening news. The year was 1939.And after 10 long years of the Great Depression, the New York World’s Fair brought with it the glittering promise of the future. The Wonders of Oz were illusions--The 1939 World’s Fair was a wonder of science.

Chicago had dazzled the world with its Columbian Exposition of 1893 and then again in 1933 with its Century of Progress. Philadelphia celebrated the nation's history at the 1876 Centennial, and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 opened the new century. But for some reason, New York City, financial and cultural center of the nation , had hosted no fairs since 1853. But when it finally did host a World's Fair in 1939, a spectacle that no one who was there has forgotten, it did it in style.

A Brief History
In May, 1935, a Jackson Heights engineer, Joseph F. Shagden, and Edward F. Roosevelt, a distant relative of the President, presented the idea of the Fair to a group of New York businessmen. A steering committee began meetings in June and by October a nonprofit corporation had been formed.

The Flushing, Queens, location chosen for the Fair was the geographical and population center of the city but the activities of the Long Island Railroad, along with the indifference of local builders and politicians, had turned the marshy area into a monumental garbage dump bounded on one side the foul-smelling Flushing River. During the 1920s the Brooklyn Ash Removal Co. bought land to dump 50 million cubic yards of burned refuse which created one mound 90 feet tall by 1934 - nicknamed "Mt. Corona."

Robert Moses, intent on linking the Long Island Railroad to Manhattan, built the Grand Central Parkway in 1932, but couldn’t transfer the dump and there was no financial support to transform it into a park--thus, the World’s Fair.

The Fair opened on April 30 , 1939--the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City. At 10:00 a.m. Mayor LaGuardia cut the orange and blue ribbon at a dedication ceremony in the Temple of Religion. Trumpets heralded the procession of thousands of police officers and military men and public officials. And at 2:00 p.m. President Roosevelt dedicated the fair.

Altogether, 60 nations and international organizations took part in the Fair. Thirty-three states of the United States also had exhibits. With all of this cooperation, the Fair Corporation was able to achieve its main goal--to demonstrate the interdependence of all states and countries to each other in this 20th-century world.

The Age of Industrial Design
But it was the industrial designers--Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfus and Walter Dorwin Teague--who persuaded American businesses that beauty could sell their products. Fashioning hundreds of products from toothbrushes to ocean liners in the clean, uncluttered lines of the Art Deco style, they added the word "streamlined ' to what might well have been a stodgy curio show.

Photos of Mayor LaGuardia welcoming some dignitary or movie star to the World’s Fair filled newspapers. Visitors arrived by elevated and when they stepped out of the train there was the Trylon and Perisphere, the abstract symbols of the World of Tomorrow. There they stood, white in the sun--white spire, white globe--as if in some sort of partnership.

Colorful banners flew from the pavilions. Wide streets painted red, yellow and blue led to streamlined buildings with rounded edges, the way buildings of the future were supposed to look.

Visitors walked down Rainbow Avenue, consulting their guidebooks. Some filled Constitution Mall, adorned with bright tulip gardens. Others rode in small trains of a dozen rubber-wheeled cars pulled by orange and blue electric powered tractors, and when the drivers blew their horns they played "The Sidewalks of New York"--"East side, west side, all around the town."

Everywhere people walked in family groups and stopped to take photos in front of the exhibit buildings. Lady guides wore gray uniforms and hats. Anxious children and adults took their places in long lines that went up ramps alongside great streamlined buildings of rounded corners and windowless walls. Everyone wore their Sunday best.

Here the world was reduced to tiny size by the cunning and ingenuity of builders and engineers. At the same time, things loomed up that were larger than they ought to have been, like the enormous walk-in eye of the Public Health Building. Here, too, resided an enormous man made of Plexiglas, with all his organs showing.

The Fair also brought far-off wonders to middle-class America. Winter Wonderland--with its contingent of penguins brought back from Antarctica by Admiral Byrd. The Infant Incubator Building, where, inside, behind glass partitions, attended by white-uniformed clad nurses, rested babies in newly invented incubators.

But the Fair’s main purpose was to showcase brand-name products, products which we take for granted today--Sealtest Ice Cream, Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese, General Motors cars, Wonder Bread, Kodak cameras and film. Brand new and brand name foods made their debut at the fair.

The 1939 World’s Fair was designed for average Americans, with lots of hot dogs and American optimism.

The 700-foot-tall truncated needle-shaped Trylon and 200-foot-diameter Perisphere, joined by the Helicline, a long curving ramp, and symbolizing the linking of the past, the present and the future, became the centerpiece of the World of Tomorrow.

Fair Souvenirs by the Thousands
Fifty stands sold souvenirs--everything from postcards to guidebooks to view folders and books, as well as a myriad of novelties that gave "knick-knacks" a whole new meaning. Visitors could even have their pennies embossed with Fair Corporation-approved designs at 15 "Pennie Crusher" stations.

Kazoos had World’s Fair emblems emblazoned on them. Vendors sold a myriad of pins. Cloth banners sported images of the Trylon and Perisphere.

The Board of Design of the Fair, established in the spring of 1936, imbued with the principles of designers Bel Geddes, Loewy, Dreyfus and Teague , drew up rules and guidelines that helped make the exposition a success. Architects chose unusual shapes and materials for the Fair’s 375 structures, including 100 major exhibit buildings and 50 major amusement concessions. Though some were abstract, others were representational or emblematic, such as RCA's radio tube show and the twin prows of the Marine Transportation Building.

Even color was regulated in a rainbow-like way. The Trylon and Perisphere, the Fair's symbols, were dead white, the immediate surrounding area, off white. They conceived the main axis of the Fair in reds, the Avenue of the Patriots in yellows and golds, the Ave. of the Pioneers in blues, and the curved thoroughfare that connected the three ends they named Rainbow Avenue..

With all these goings on, the shear number of souvenirs from this two-year extravaganza numbered in the thousands. From a bizarre, but stylish, man’s smoking jacket made from silk interwoven with stylized Trylon and Perisphere symbols to movie viewers to jewelry to elegant dinnerware, the souvenirs taken home by visitors often ended up in some dusty attic. But today, they’re resurfacing, many in pristine condition.

The list seems almost endless. Items can be grouped under several headings--those given away as mementoes of commercial exhibits, those made especially for the Fair, those made of paper and those used in the everyday workings of the Fair.

Corporate Advertising at Its Best
As stated above, corporations gave away thousands of little advertising mementoes so that visitors would remember them when they returned home. Lots of people had Heinz pickle pins. Planter’s also had their nut company’s Mr. Peanut, who wore a top hat and monocle. The Aviation exhibit gave out DC-3 charms. Scot Tissue gave away two of its new paper towels in an envelope. Of course, visitors could purchase such items as rayon material with the Dupont Pavilion woven into it, or a blown glass ship from the Glass Center, or streamlined Bakelite and metal cameras, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, or Baby Brownie Cameras, also of Bakelite and metal and designed by Raymond Loewy, from the Eastman Kodak exhibit, or a rubber and glass tire ashtray from the B.F. Goodrich exhibit.

Hundreds of everyday useful items, made by leading manufacturers, were given the seal of approval of the Fair Corporation as long as they showed some image of the Fair. Metal trays, sets of glasses, commemorative plates, bowls, pens, desk sets, typewriters, scarves, lamps, ties and tie racks, wallets, salt and pepper shakers, paper fans, carpet sweepers, silverware--the list goes on and on.

Brightly colored paper items with art Deco and WPA influenced design--matchboxes, posters, playing cards, bridge scorepads, and menus are highly popular with collectors. As are ticket books, maps, postcards, photo packs, and sheet music.

And then there were the thousands of items that made the daily operation of the fair possible: police badges, caps and jackets worn by guides, shoulder patches. And one of the most common items, the "I was there" pins.

These mementoes allowed the Fair’s impression of utopia to linger long after it was demolished.

Manufacturers used common materials--wood, plastic, metal and paper--to fashion souvenirs of the Fair. Coasters and tabletop radios of pressed wood, plastic salt and pepper shakers, metal, and paper posters. All designs had to be licensed by the World’s Fair Corporation.

Trylon and Perisphere–Symbols of Tomorrow
The Trylon was a skyscraping obelisk; the Perisphere a great globe. Standing side by side a the Fair, together they represented the World of Tomorrow, the Fair’s theme. What’s interesting is how both were integrated into the design of each souvenir. Their image appeared on jewelry, cosmetic cases, license plates, ashtrays, cigarette cases, toys and assorted games--every conceivable ornament and novelty.

Dealers like Betty Abramowitz, gift shop manager for the Queens Museum of Art at Flushing Meadows, Corona Park, Queens, New York, agree that anything with the Trylon and Perisphere is very popular among collectors.

The World’s Fair Corporation buried a time capsule under the Westinghouse Building so that future generations in the year 6939 would be able to get an idea of what life was like in 1939. Torpedo shaped and 7 ½ feet long and 8 ½ inches in diameter, it contained samples of plastics, metal and fabrics, numerous books and essays reproduced on microfilm, newsreels with instructions and a key to the English language. What they forgot to include was an assortment of souvenirs of the Fair, which while clear to fair goers at the time, would probably confuse generations to come.

For more information on the 1939 World’s Fair, click here.  

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