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New York World's Fair, 1939-1940

"A Glimpse of the Future"

Held on 1,216 acres of former landfill in Queens, New York, part of which is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, this was the second largest American world's fair ever, behind the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The Fair's opening date of April 30, 1939 coincided with the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the nation's first President. The first season closed on October 31, 1939; a second season ran from May 11 through October 27, 1940.

The first exposition to be based on the future, the Fair's opening day slogan was "Dawn of a New Day," and its official slogan was "The World of Tomorrow." According to the official New York World's Fair pamphlet: "The eyes of the Fair are on the future -- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: "Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future."

The first "glimpse of the future" came on the Fair's opening day, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's opening day address was broadcast over various radio networks, as well as by television. NBC used the event to inaugurate regularly scheduled television broadcasts in New York City over their station W2XBS (now WNBC). An estimated 1,000 people viewed the telecast from about 200 television sets scattered throughout the New York area.

Pavilions and Exhibits

The Fair was divided into different "zones" (Transportation, Communications and Business Systems, Food, Government, 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.

Fair-goers entered the interior of the Theme Center by riding a portion of the way up the 610-foot-tall Trylon in what was, at the time, the world’s largest escalator. They were then directed into the 180-foot-diameter Perisphere to view Democracity, a huge diorama depicting an ideal city of the future. The diorama was viewed from above on a moving sidewalk, while a multi-image slide presentation was projected on the interior surface of the sphere. After exiting the Perisphere, visitors descended to ground level on the third element of the Theme Center, the Helicline, a 950-foot-long spiral ramp that partially encircled the Perisphere.

The Trylon and Perisphere, with the New York City Building in the foreground.
Trylon and Perisphere

Cutaway diagram of the Trylon and Perisphere.
cutaway view of the Trylon and Perisphere

Looking down on Democracity.

Futurama, sponsored by General Motors, was a 36,000-square-foot scale model of America in 1960, complete with futuristic homes, urban complexes, bridges, dams, surrounding landscape, and, most important, an advanced highway system which permitted speeds of 100 miles per hour. Four general ideas for improvement of the nation's then-existing road-and-highway network were incorporated into the exhibition showcase. First, that each section of road be designed to receive greater capacity of traffic. Second, that traffic moving in one direction could be in complete isolation to traffic moving in any other. Third, segregating traffic by subdividing towns and cities into certain units that restrict traffic and allow pedestrians to predominate. And, fourth, consequent traffic control for predetermined maximum and minimum speeds. The elements of the diorama gradually became larger as the visitors (who were seated in moving chairs overhead) moved through the exhibit, until the cars and other elements of the exhibit became life-size.

General Motors' Futurama exhibit

Ford demonstrated its contributions to the future by incorporating a winding, half-mile road as part of the Pavilion's architecture. Calling it the "Road of Tomorrow," Ford’s road included spiral ramps, which "...demonstrated how traffic can be lifted to the express level, without wasting space." Chrysler provided an air conditioned theater in which visitors could watch a Plymouth being assembled right before their eyes. In fact, a customer could actually buy his new Plymouth at the exhibit, watch it being assembled, and then drive it home that night.

Ford's "Road of Tomorrow."
Ford Pavilion

The centerpiece of the Railroad Conference exhibits was "Railroads on Parade," a live drama re-enacting the birth and growth of railroads. In addition to the show, there were important historical objects on display, such as the Tom Thumb engine, the first successful railroad locomotive built in the United States. The Pennsylvania Railroad had their S1 engine on display. This engine was mounted on rollers under the driver wheels, and ran continuously at 60 mph all day long.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's S1 engine.
Pennsylvania Railroad S1 engine

Shaped like a radio tube, the RCA Pavilion contained a massive glass window illuminating a mural dedicated to the accomplishments of RCA technology. RCA's newest technology was also on display, via a room full of television sets on which visitors could watch live broadcasts from within the fairgrounds. In the original televisions, the image was viewed when reflected from a mirror in the lid.

Looking down on the RCA Pavilion.
RCA Pavilion

Early television sets in the RCA Pavilion.
early television sets in the RCA Pavilion

Just prior to the opening of the fair, the Westinghouse company created for the fair a "Time Capsule, bearing the message of present-day America to the people of Earth of 6939 A.D." The capsule's contents represent a comprehensive cross-section of everyday life in 1939, and includes: 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, seeds of foods in common use (wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans, alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots, barley), and much more.

Technicians loading the Westinghouse Time Capsule.
the Westinghouse Time Capsule

Other notable commercial buildings and exhibits at the Fair included: the Continental Baking Pavilion, which was dotted with red, blue, and yellow balloons like those on the wrapper of Wonder Bread; the American Tobacco Company Pavilion, shaped like a giant pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes; and the Borden Company Pavilion, which contained a massive revolving platform called the Rotolactor on which 150 pedigreed cows were washed, dried, and mechanically milked.

Notable areas within the Amusements Zone included Frank Buck's Jungeland, which featured rare animals, a trio of performing elephants, an 80-foot "monkey mountain" with 600 monkeys, and camel rides, and the Billy Rose Aquacade, a spectacular musical and water extravaganza.

More than 60 nations were represented in the 1939 fair, including Chile, Portugal, Venezuela, France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium, Canada, Argentina, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, and Japan, as well as a building representing the League of Nations. The fair also contained a Court of States, with structures representing 33 states and Puerto Rico.

America in the 1930s
Early Television Museum
Images From the '39 NY World's Fair

1904 St. Louis World's Fair
George Washington
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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The Robinson Library >> Exhibitions, Trade Shows, World's Fairs, Etc.

This page was last updated on 07/08/2018.