"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.'" – official New York World's Fair pamphlet.
In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of New York City retired policemen 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. Working closely with the Fair's committee was Robert Moses, New York City Parks Commissioner, who saw great value to the City in having the World's Fair Corporation (at its expense) remove a vast ash dump in Queens that was to be the site for the exposition, and turn the area into a City park after the exposition closed.
Promotion of this great event took many forms. In 1938, the Brooklyn 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. Howard Hughes flew a special World's Fair flight around the world to promote the fair in 1938.
While the main purpose of the fair was to lift the spirits of America and drive much-needed business to New York City, it was also felt that there should be a cultural or historical association. It was therefore decided that the fair opening would correspond to the 150th anniversary of George Washington's first inauguration as President of the United States.
One of the first exhibits to receive attention was the Westinghouse 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 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 , at a depth of 50 feet. A small stone plaque marks the position.
Other exhibits included a streamlined pencil sharpener, a futuristic car based city by GM and 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 II 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.
Exhibition in the USSR Pavilion included the life-size copy of the interior of Mayakovskaya station of the Moscow Metro. Designer of the station, Alexey Dushkin, was awarded Grand Prize of the 1939 New York World's Fair.
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.
The Jewish Palestine Pavilion introduced the world to the concept of a modern Jewish state, which a decade later would become Israel. The pavilion featured on its façade a monumental hammered copper relief sculpture entitled "The Scholar, The Laborer, and the Toiler of the Soil" by the noted Art Deco sculptor Maurice Ascalon.
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 on 4 July that same year, two New York City Police Department officers were killed by a blast while investigating a time bomb left at the British Pavilion.
Many of the zones were arranged in a semi-circular pattern centered on the "Theme Center". The zones were distinguished by many color cues, including different wall colors and tints and differently colored lighting.
The "Theme Center" consisted of two all-white, landmark monumental buildings named the Trylon (over 700 feet tall) and the Perisphere which one entered by 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 Theme Center was designed by the architect Wallace Harrison and his associate Max Abramovitz.
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.)
At the conclusion of the ride the visitors to the pavilion exited into an area that was constructed as a life-size city intersection with multi-story buildings and stores on all sides. The stores included an auto dealership and an appliance store where visitors could see the latest GM and Frigidaire products. As with almost all pavilions in the fair, these showcases were not only intended to get people to buy the sponsor's products, they were also intended to educate and inform the populace about basic materials and processes that were then very new and not well known. Many experimental product concepts and new materials were shown that were not currently available for purchase, but would become available in various ways over the next few years. In many ways the fair pavilions more resembled a modern-day government-sponsored science fair exhibit or a Discovery Channel program than they would resemble modern corporate advertising and sales promotions.
Adjacent to the GM pavilion was the Ford Pavilion, where race car drivers drove on a figure eight track on the building's roof endlessly, day in and day out. Not far from GM and Ford was the Chrysler exhibit group, where an audience in a theater with the new technology called "air conditioning" could watch a Plymouth being assembled right before their very eyes. (GM had used this same premise at the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago a few years earlier. A visitor could go to the fair and buy his new GM in the morning, watch it being assembled, and drive it home that night.)
Railroads were a major form of transportation for both passengers and freight in 1939, as airlines are for us today. Many visitors to the fair would have arrived in New York by railroad, and most visitors had at least a moderate interest in the area. The centerpiece of the Railroad Conference exhibits (on seventeen acres) was "Railroads on Parade," a spectacular live drama re-enacting the birth and growth of railroads. In addition to the show, there were important historical objects on display by the various railroads and manufacturing companies, such as the Tom Thumb (locomotive) engine. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) 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. GMs Electro-Motive Division had a Display of their then new streamlined Diesel-Electric passenger locomotives.
A visitor walking to the left of the Theme Center on the Avenue of Patriots would visit the Communications and Business Systems focal exhibits. At the AT&T Pavilion the Voder, a mechanized, synthetic voice, spoke to fairgoers, foretelling the widespread use of electronic voices decades later. (The Voder itself would be used in part of one of the most secret voice communications systems of World War II between Washington and London only a year or two after at it appeared at the fair.)
At the IBM pavilion, electric typewriters, and a fantastic machine called the electric calculator that used punched cards, were on display. IBM also had a fine art gallery with hundreds of artworks from 70 countries around the world. The exhibit for Firestone Tires featured the famous pygmy hippo, Billy, who had been a pet of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
Next door to these business exhibits was the "Masterpieces of Art" building housing 300 priceless works of the Old Masters, from the Middle Ages to 1800. This was no sideshow; thirty five galleries featured great works from DaVinci and Michelangelo to Rembrandt, from Hals to Caravaggio and Bellini. Whalen and his team were able to borrow priceless paintings and sculptures from Europe and hang them in a graceful, understated building in Queens for two years.
Next door was the Continental Baking exhibit, presenting a vast, continuous process of baking breads and other products. Consistent with the representative design sense of the Fair, this building was fashioned in the shape of a huge packaged bread loaf, white with red, yellow, and blue balloons on its curved facade. People today will recognize this as the packaging for Wonder Bread. Behind the exhibit was a bona fide wheat field from which wheat was harvested and used in the baking process. There was a sign in the field that noted that this was the first time in over 100 years that wheat had been grown within the incorporated bounds of New York City.
The sixty foreign governments that participated in this fair contributed a wide diversity of creatively designed pavilions housing a stunning array of cultural offerings to fairgoers. The Italian pavilion attempted to fuse ancient Roman splendor with modern styles, and a 200-foot high water fall defined the pavilion's facade. Its popular restaurant was designed in the shape of the nation's luxury cruise line ships. The French pavilion, on the Court of Peace that was the grand open space northeast of the Theme Center, ran such a celebrated restaurant that after the fair closed and World War II ended, the restaurant remained in New York City - and soon established itself (as Le Pavilion) as one of the finest French dining establishments in the city.
Beyond the corporate and government zones, the wildly popular but less uplifting Amusements Area was not integrated into the thematic matrix, and was a mere Area rather than a Zone. 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. A number of the shows provided spectators with the opportunity of viewing women in very revealing costumes (for all intents and purposes topless) for instance the Frozen Alive Girl, the Dream of Venus Building, and the Living Pictures. While there were a number of protests by prominent politicians over the course of the fair about the "low minded entertainment", and the New York Vice Squad raided shows in the area on several occasions, the public generally accepted this form of entertainment. The Billy Rose Aquacade, was a spectacular musical and water extravagnaza, foreshadowing the form of many popular Hollywood musicals in the ensuing years. The Aquacade facility itself served as an entertainment venue in the park for many years and was finally demolished in 1996.
The Temple contained a girlie show. The 19-year-old barker Herbert I. Taffae delivered the following spiel at the 1939/1940 World’s Fair and repeated for recording in 2007. Mr. Taffae went on to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corp from 1942-1945.
It might sound strange and a trifle incongruous having lovely girls in front of the million dollar temple of Jehol whose gold leaf roof you can see over the top of this façade, but the fact is that we have a girlie show in here and a good one.
The author of the book, Forbidden Tibet, Horizon Hunters and technical advisor of the picture, Lost Horizon, he doesn’t want his good name associated with this scandalous enterprise as brought back from the land of the lost horizon, those Terpsichordion aphrodisiacs, the love temptation dancers from the lamaseries of Tibet. A lama is a Buddhist priest and as such he must remain celibate. He must be deaf to the calls of the flesh, immune to the pangs of passion, and adverse to the charms of beautiful women. In other words he must not marry or anything.
Once each year he is given a test. The questions of which are the unquestionable figures of questionable young ladies, courtesans brought from the outside world to corrupt the young lama and seduce him from his holy way of life.
Now ladies, this show has been approved by Good Housekeeping, but in case a stray moron seeking a racy spicy girl show is in this otherwise obviously intellectual audience, he too can go in there and not know the difference, but you, you lovers of art will surely recognize this show to be the apogee of oriental choreography.
The whole thing rises to a climax when Sasha and her hilarious horde of vivacious vestal virgins unite in that unclad climax, that orgiastic ecstasy at the tail end of our performance, the passion dance of love. It’s terrific. Now once inside sit down as long as you like and admire the bare beautiful temple but those beautiful bare forms and they I say are not too formal. Go on right away. This being the first show of the afternoon I am going to cut the price of admission in half.
The Aquacade was put on in a special amphitheater seating 10,000 people and included an orchestra to accompany the synchronized spectacular swim show. It featured Johnny Weismuller and Eleanor Holm, two of the most celebrated swimmers of the era, and dazzled fairgoers with its lighting and cascades and curtains of water, pumped in waterfalls at 8,000 gallons a minute. The cost of admission: eighty cents.
Countries under the thumb of the Axis powers in Europe, e.g., Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France, ran their pavilions in 1940 with a special nationalistic pride. In both seasons, the only major world power that did not participate was Germany. When the fair closed, many among the European staff were unable to return to their home countries, so they remained in America and in some cases exercised a tremendous influence on American culture. For example, Henri Soulé moved from the French Pavilion at the fair to open Le Pavillon, taking Pierre Franey along as head chef.
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: