1939 New York World's Fair

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Trylon, Perisphere and Helicline photo by Sam Gottscho

The 1939 New York World's Fair, located on the current site of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (also the location of the 1964 New York World's Fair), was one of the largest world's fairs of all time. Many different countries around the world participated in it, and over 25 million people attended its exhibits. The NYWF of 1939 allowed all visitors to take a look at "The world of tomorrow."


[edit] Planning

In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of New York City businessmen decided to create an international exposition to lift the city and the country out of depression. Not long after, these men formed the New York World's Fair Corporation, whose office was placed on one of the higher floors in the Empire State Building. The NYWFC elected Grover Whalen as the president of their committee. The whole committee consisted of Winthrop Aldrich, Mortimer Buckner, Floyd Carlisle, John J. Dunnigan, Harvey Dow Gibson, Fiorello La Guardia, Percy S. Straus, and many other business leaders.

Over the next four years, the committee planned, built, and organized the fair and its exhibits, with countries around the world taking part in creating the biggest international event since World War I.

In 1938, the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees did their part to promote the upcoming fair with their jerseys. All players on those teams wore patches featuring the Trylon, Perisphere, and "1939" on their left sleeve.

[edit] The Fair's Two Seasons

[edit] Grand opening

Finally, on April 30, 1939, the fair had its grand opening, with 200,000 people in attendance.

[edit] Exhibits

Image:PRR S1.jpg
The PRR S1 on display at the fair.

One of the most famous exhibits was a time capsule, which was not to be opened till 6939 A.D. The time capsule was a tube containing writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and much more. The seeds contained in the time capsule (wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans, alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots and barley, all sealed in glass tubes) are probably the only ones on earth never exposed to radiation from nuclear explosions. The time capsule is located at 40° 44' 34".089 North Latitude, 73° 44' 43".842 West Longitude (NA datum 1927), at a depth of 50 feet. A small stone plaque marks the position.

Other exhibits included the Chrysler Air-flow, a streamlined pencil sharpener, a futuristic car based city by GM and one of the first 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 copy of Magna Carta belonging to Lincoln Cathedral also left Britain in 1939 for the first time to be in the British Pavilion at the fair. Within months Britain joined World War Two and it was deemed safer for it to remain in America until the end of hostilities. It therefore remained in Fort Knox, next to the original copy of the American constitution, until 1947.

The fair was also the occasion for the 1st World Science Fiction Convention, subsequently dubbed Nycon 1.

On July 4, 1940 the fair hosted "Superman Day." Notable was the crowning of the "superboy and supergirl" of the day, and a public appearance by Superman, played by actor Ray Middleton; the first time any had played the role.

Although the United States would not enter the Second World War 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. Also that year, two NYPD officers were killed by blast while investigating a time bomb left at the British Pavilion.[1][citation needed]

[edit] Themes

The Fair was themed. It was divided into different "zones" (a Transportation Zone, a Communications Zone, and so forth). The wildly popular but less uplifting Amusements Area was not integrated into the thematic matrix, and was a mere Area rather than a Zone. The zones were distinguished by many subtle cues, including differently colored lighting. The "Theme Center" consisted of two landmark monumental buildings named the Trylon and Perisphere approached by a grand walkway named the Helicline. The design of Disneyland, with its themed Frontierland, Tomorrowland and central Cinderella's Castle clearly owes something to the 1939 World's Fair [citation needed]. The resemblance of Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center to the Fair is even closer, and was widely noted by architectural writers when it opened. Epcot's geodesic-sphere "Spaceship Earth" bears a distinct family resemblance to the Perisphere.

Life Saver Parachute Jump photo by Sam Gottscho

Despite the high-minded educational tone that Grover Whalen attempted to set, the "Amusements Area" was the most popular part of the Fair and included roller coaster, the Life Savers parachute jump (which was later moved to Coney Island where it still stands), and carnival acts such as a collection of performing midgets. Many of the shows provided spectators with the opportunity of viewing women in very revealing costumes (for all intents and purposes topless): the Frozen Alive Girl, the Dream of Venus Building, and, above all, The Billy Rose Aquacade, which was demolished in 1996. Somehow, the nudity was generally accepted by the public as part of the "World of Tomorrow".

A special subway line, the IND World's Fair Railroad, was built to serve the fair. World's Fair (now Willets Point-Shea Stadium) station on the IRT Flushing Line was rebuilt to handle fair traffic on the IRT and BMT. A Long Island Rail Road station (now Shea Stadium) was built next to the Flushing Line station.

[edit] Some selections from the official guidebook

G. & C. MERRIAM CORPORATION:—A 20-foot glass column, "The Pillar of Knowledge," dramatizes words, their meanings, and use, and inspires visitors to use big dictionaries lying open nearby.

EX-LAX, INCORPORATED:—In order to demonstrate why the chocolated laxative known as Ex-Lax is the most widely used product of its kind in the world, the company engaged an internationally known designer and artist, Oskar Stonorov, to create a dignified theme.

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORPORATION:—The Exhibit enables the visitor to see how machine-aids facilitate the efficient operation of business. Swift, unerring accounting machines read the meanings of holes punched in cards and transform them into finished printed reports. A device that automatically computes the scores of test papers [is] among the ingenious devices displayed.

Image:Maurice Ascalon 1939 New York Worlds Fair.jpg
Maurice Ascalon's "The Scholar, The Laborer, and The Toiler of the Soil" copper relief sculpture. Adorned the facade of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion of the 1939 New York World's Fair

JEWISH PALESTINE PAVILION:—This Pavilion introduces the world to the concept of a modern Jewish state. "The exhibits here are crammed with information and painstaking research on Jewish accomplishments in modern Palestine". The pavilion was designed by the noted architect Arieh El-Hanani, and featured, on its facade, a monumental hammered copper relief sculpture entitled "The Scholar, The Laborer, and the Toiler of the Soil" by the sculptor Maurice Ascalon. Ascalon's sculpture represents the three facets necessary to create a florishing society. These three facets were reflected in the themes of the Pavilion's exhibits.

RAY E. DUNLAP:—In various locations throughout the Fair fifteen "Guess Your Weight" scales enable patrons to guess their own weight. The charge is 15 cents, each patron receiving a suitable prize if the operator fails to guess the weight within three pounds.

THEODORE GOLDSTEIN:—Known as "Hum-a-Tune," the concession consists of three separate locations for the display and sale of a metal whistling device. Employing an accompanying musician, Mr. Goldstein gives an entertaining demonstration.

[edit] Closure

The fair was open for two seasons, and was officially closed forever on October 27, 1940. It 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 an economic failure, and the corporation declared bankruptcy.

[edit] Influence on later literature and popular culture

The 1939 World's Fair made a strong impression on attendees and influenced a generation of Americans. Later generations have attempted in to recapture the impression it made in fictional and artistic treatments:

  • World's Fair, by E. L. Doctorow
  • 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, a mixed non-fiction and fictional book by David Gelernter
  • All-Star Squadron, a comic book published by DC Comics from 1981 until 1987 and set during the 1940s, was about a superhero team whose headquarters were in the Trylon and Perisphere.
  • In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, one of the main characters breaks into the abandoned fairgrounds and the Perisphere itself, where he has a significant sexual experience.
  • "Fifty Years After the Fair" is a song written and recorded by Aimee Mann. With a mixture of nostalgia and remorse, it describes the Fair from the current vantage-point of "tomorrow".
  • In addition to the Fair's subtitle, the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (apparently set in 1939) features a shot of what look like the Trylon and Perisphere.
  • In the game "Chrononauts", in an alternate universe where Hitler has been assassinated, black forest cake is popularized at the German pavilion at the fair.
  • Matt Groening's show Futurama was named after the GM exhibit.
  • In the animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a young Bruce Wayne and girlfriend attend the Gotham World's Fair, dubbed "The World of Tomorrow" and full of 1930's style architecture.

[edit] External links

Preceded by:
Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (1937)
World Expositions
Succeeded by:
Port-au-Prince International
nl:New York World's Fair (1939)

1939 New York World's Fair

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