Covering 1,216 acres, in Flushing Meadows, New York, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, like the legendary Phoenix rising from the ashes, was erected on what was an ash-dump. The theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow” echoed in virtually every corner of the Fair.
This World’s Fair was a look to the future and was planned to be “everyman’s fair” where everyone would be able to see what could be attained for himself and his community. Within six months of the Fair’s opening, the Second World War would begin, an event that lasted six years and resulted in the deaths of over 50 million people.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1939, which was the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington in New York City, the nation’s first capitol. While some of the pavilions were still under construction and not yet open, that first day of the Fair was attended by 206,000 visitors. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the opening speech while an estimated 1,000 visitors watched the opening on 200 television sets in various locations throughout the Fair.
The fair was divided into differently themed zones, such as the Transportation Zone, the Communications and Business Systems Zone, the Food Zone, the Government Zone, 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.
Many of the zones were arranged in a semicircular pattern, centered on the Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz-designed Theme Center, which consisted of two all-white, landmark monumental buildings named the Trylon (over 700 feet (210 m) tall) and the Perisphere which one entered by a 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 zones were distinguished by many color cues, including different wall colors and tints and differently colored lighting.
The colors blue and orange were chosen as the official colors of the fair, as they were the colors of New York City, and featured prominently. 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.
These technologies included the introduction of the first fluorescent light and fixture. General Electric Corporation held the patent to the fluorescent light bulb at the time. Approximately a year later, the original three major corporations, Lightolier, Artcraft Fluorescent Lighting Corporation, and Globe Lighting, located mostly in the New York City region, began wide-scale manufacturing in the US of the fluorescent light fixture.
One of the first exhibits to receive attention was the Westinghouse Time Capsule, which was not to be opened for 5,000 years (the year 6939). The time capsule was a tube containing 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, 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 40°44′34.089″N 73°50′43.842″W, at a depth of 50 feet (15 m). A small stone plaque marks the position. Westinghouse also featured “Elektro the Moto-Man”: the 7-foot (2.1 m) tall robot that talked, differentiated colors, and even “smoked” cigarettes.
On July 3, 1940, the fair hosted “Superman Day”. Notable was the crowning of the “Super-Boy and Super-Girl of the Day” following an athletic contest, and a public appearance by Superman, played by an unidentified man. Broadway actor Ray Middleton, who served as a judge for the contest, is often credited with having appeared in the Superman costume on Superman Day, but he did not; however, he may have played Superman during a live radio broadcast from the scene.
Although the unknown man in the costume is often said to have been the first actor ever to play Superman, Bud Collyer had been performing the role on the Superman radio series since the preceding February.
Ceramic sculptor Waylande Gregory created The Fountain of the Atom, which displayed the largest ceramic sculptures in modern times. It included the four Elements, each measuring 72 inches (180 cm) high and each weighing over a ton.
There were also eight electrons, which were illustrated in Life Magazine (March 1939). Gregory also created two exhibitions featuring his ceramic sculptures for the General Motors Building, American Imports, and American Exports.
Nylon fabric, the View-Master, and Scentovision (an early version of Smell-O-Vision) were introduced at the Fair. Other exhibits included Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a streamlined pencil sharpener, a diner (still in operation as the White Mana in Jersey City, New Jersey), a futuristic car-based city by General Motors, and early 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 fair was open for two seasons, from April to October each year, and was officially closed permanently on October 27, 1940. To get the fair’s budget overruns under control before the 1940 season and to augment gate revenues, the fair management in the second year replaced Whalen with a banker, Harvey Gibson, and placed much greater emphasis on the amusement features and less on the educational and uplifting exhibits.
The great fair 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 a financial failure, and the corporation declared bankruptcy.
Although the United States would not enter World War II 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.
Countries under the thumb of the Axis powers in Europe in 1940 like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France ran their pavilions with special nationalistic pride. The only major world power that did not participate for the 1939 season was Germany, citing budget pressures.
The USSR Pavilion was dismantled after the first season, leaving an empty lot called “The American Commons”. When the fair closed, many among the European staff were unable to return to their home countries, so they remained in the US and in some cases exercised a tremendous influence on American culture.