It 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.