History of the Fair:
The Design and Marketing of the Future

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"Gentlemen of the Board, your approval gives us the word "Go," and we start at once to build the greatest international exposition in history - a world's fair that will be easy to see, easy to understand, easy to like, easy to get to." 

- Grover Whalen, President of the Fair Corporation

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The idea for the 1939 New York World's Fair was born in the mind of Corporate America, but its style was derived from a new breed of artist/architect of the day, the industrial designer.  A Study of The World of Tomorrow's creation and exhibition is really a study of two fairs as well as the study of how its organizers influenced and responded to the American cultural landscape.

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Birth of the Fair: For Fun, Hope, and Profit

In 1935, at the height of the Depression, a group of New York businessmen decided that what the city and the nation needed to lift itself out of the difficulties of the times was an international exposition. That same year they formed the New York World’s Fair Corporation and established an office on one of the higher floors of the new Empire State Building, electing Grover Whalen the President of the organization.  Whalen was in excellent company among the fair’s Board of Directors.

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Grover Whalen

A roll call of the Executive Committee of the Board reads like a "Who’s Who" of the corporate giants of the day and emphasizes that the fair’s original intentions were to stimulate economic profit as much as, if not more than, emotional and educational development.

According to Stanley Applebaum, the committee consisted of "Winthrop Aldrich (chairman of the board of Chase Manhattan Bank), Mortimer Buckner (chairman of the board of the New York Trust Company), Floyd Carlisle (chairman of the board of the Consolidated Edison Company), John J. Dunnigan (majority leader of the New York State Senate), Harvey Dow Gibson (president and chairman of the board of Manufacturers Trust Company), Fiorello La Guardia (Mayor of the City of New York), Percy S. Straus (president of Macy’s), and a host of other political and business leaders. Among these power brokers, Whalen appeared to be the most energetic and indefatigable in support of the fair. He had served previously as New York’s Commissioner of Police and had headed President Roosevelt’s New Recovery Administration.

Whalen’s charge was to market the fair on two counts. First, he had to sell it to the nations of the world and the corporations of America who would build pavilions for the fair’s exhibitions. Second, he had to sell the fair to the American people, the visitors who were to stimulate the city’s and the nation’s economy. Mayor La Guardia made it obvious that in his efforts Whalen would have the full support of the public and private entities involved: "I want to make it very clear that this world’s fair is not a private undertaking. It is as official as government can make anything official . . . a fair dedicated to the future of the American people and the glory of our country."

Whalen spent much of the years prior to the fair shuttling back and forth between Europe and America, pitching the exposition to the leaders of the western world. His first major coup was landing the Soviet Union (despite Whalen’s public disdain for communism), ensuring that the exposition would truly be an international one. For his efforts, Whalen brought to the 1939 fair 60 nations and international organizations as well as 33 states and territories of the Union, helping to fulfill one of the Fair Corporation’s primary goals: "to demonstrate the interdependence of all states and countries in the twentieth-century world."

Whalen aggressively marketed the fair to the American public at every opportunity, never missing the chance to promote it in newsreels, radio, and print. His leadership and direction blurred the line between the events of the day and publicity stunts promoting the fair’s ideals. For instance, he commissioned Howard Hughes to deliver invitations to the nations of the world during Hughes’ famous flight around the globe (even convincing the pilot to paint the Trylon and Perisphere on the side of the plane). Under Whalen’s direction the Westinghouse Corporation developed the famous 1939 Time Capsule, a tube containing millions of pages of text on microfilm as well as cultural emblems of the earlier twentieth-century: writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, comic strips, copies of Life magazine, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, and a host of other artifacts.

The Time Capsule was not to be opened until the year 6939 A.D., and its organizers made very clear that their intention was to provide an organized record of the world as they knew it for future generations, unlike the civilizations of 5000 years ago.

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Loading the Time Capsule

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The Scale, Form, and Style of Tomorrow: Design This Day

Under Whalen’s direction it was clear that the fair was to become a tremendous ideological showcase promoting the Fair Corporation’s objectives. It was also to be geographically massive. John Crowley writes in The World of Tomorrow that Robert Moses, the head of the New York Parks Commission, would not allow the Corporation to use an existing park for the fair. Instead, Moses required the Corporation to build a park on a new site, which the city of New York was to inherit when the fair closed. The Corporation’s site was established on what had once been a trash heap in the Flushing Meadows area of Queens – certainly a statement about how the promise of tomorrow was to re-tool the debris of the past – and it was of "almost unprecedented magnitude." The fair eventually covered 1216 acres, reaching roughly 3 miles south from Flushing Bay, extending 1 miles at its widest point, eclipsed in size only by the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

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Workers pushing visitors around the Fair

The size of the fair required a trolley system and manned push-carts in which visitors could relax while crossing the fair’s grounds.

However, it was not until the Corporation’s Board of Design became fully involved in the project that the fair became "The World of Tomorrow." Like many of the massive world’s fairs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the fair was nominally to be organized around a momentous historic occasion. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, but the 1939 fair was to commemorate an event unique in the history of America and the history of New York City – the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration in the city that was, in its day, the capital of the United States. Whalen had even scheduled a publicity event in which the inaugural scene was re-enacted, complete with actors in full 1789 dress. The people hired to design the plan of the fair and set regulations for its architecture, sound, color, and lighting had a different notion. They wished to use the fair as a display of Modernism and the streamlined motif, created by a new type of artist and architect, the industrial designer. Among the members of the Board of Design were the "big four" of industrial design: Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, and Walter Dorwin Teague.

Most of these men came from theatrical design or artistic backgrounds and, according to Stanley Applebaum, "had persuaded the large American corporations that beauty – of the Bauhaus and Art Deco persuasion – could sell their products."

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The Chrysler Air-flow

They seized the fair as the opportunity to promote the belief in clean lines and "pure" forms which they demonstrated in their commercial products, from toothbrushes and pencil-sharpeners to the Chrysler Air-flow automobile and the Douglas Transport plane.
Teague and Bel Geddes in particular saw themselves as social theorists and outlined their plans for the future in books such as Teague’s Design This Day and Bel Geddes’ Horizons.

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A streamlined pencil-sharpener

It was Teague, in fact, who wrote that "Industrial design offers the only hope that this mechanized world will be a fit place to live in." Michael Robertson notes that "Bel Geddes . . . spoke of designing 'social structure' in the same breath with designing 'objects of daily use.'" In short, the industrial designers of the day represented a new breed of artist, with a belief in a clean and rational design for products and societies, and they sold their ideas to the Fair’s Executive Committee, Corporate America, who in turn sold it to the American public as "Building the World of Tomorrow." The impact of the industrial designers on the fair and subsequently on the landscape of American culture cannot be overestimated. It was their vision, combined with the messages of social critics such as Lewis Mumford, who proved Moses correct when he wrote at the time that "the patriotic background of the New York World’s Fair of 1939 - that is the 150th Anniversary of the Constitution and of the inauguration of Washington in New York - was the excuse and not the reason for the Fair."

The Board of Design's charge was to regulate the artistic and architectural organization of the fair in order to make it consistent with the themes and principles adopted by the Corporation. They established a relatively low maximum line of height for the buildings, save for structures like the Trylon and the Soviet pavilion, in order to allow visitors to view the fair’s architecture against the backdrop of "Manhattan's spires."

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The NCR Building

Except for buildings of the Amusements Area and Government Zone, the pavilions were to be "outspoken but not alarming," many of which, such as the NCR Building, announced the product of its sponsor organization and advertised its products or services.

The Board employed an impressive array of Modernist architects in their prime, such as Alvar Aalto and Skidmore & Owings. It was also the Board who organized the fair into seven geographical zones and a Theme Center for easier navigation of the grounds. In no specific hierarchy, the zones were: Communications and Business Systems, Community Interests, Food, Production and Distribution, Transportation, Government, and the Amusements Area. The Board also regulated the general color of the fair by topography, with the Theme Center as the only stark white area, the main axis as shades of red, the Avenue of Patriots as primarily yellow, and blue for the Avenue of Pioneers, with a passage of varying colors connecting the three ends of the Mall and avenues, named Rainbow Avenue. "Bright, colorful, and inventive" lighting was encouraged for the exhibitions at night, but it was required to be restrained so that the floodlighting of the Perisphere and the searchlight canopy over the Court of Peace were emphasized, except for the fireworks and special light shows which were to be displayed nightly. In addition, sound was regulated to the point that no "outside spiels" could be displayed unless crucial to the exhibition.

All told, the Board of Design created a highly ordered and structured environment in the overall plan of the fair and in the regulations for the exhibits. The same philosophy would filter into the exhibits which, in the words of Jeffrey Meikle, became "machines for processing people." Teague’s intention was to create a "craftily . . . planned maze" so that "the spectator’s interest is stimulated and his responses are involuntary," and to that extent he and the Board were highly successful.

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The Marketing of the Future

The Fair opened on April 30, 1939, ushered in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and displayed on the medium of the future, television (in its first day of public broadcasting in New York City).

Paid admission that day numbered 198,791, with general admission costing 75 cents for adults and 25 cents for children ages 3 to 14. The admission fee was considered fairly high in its day, since the subway ride to the fair cost 5 cents.

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FDR's Opening Day Speech teenyicon_video5.GIF (62 bytes) teenyicon_audio5.GIF (76 bytes)

Visitors could purchase season tickets if they desired, and separate admission charges were required for roughly one-fourth of the fair’s exhibits. Concessions included, it was expected that the average visitor who attended all of the exhibits would spend $14.15. The fair opened each day at 9 a.m., exhibit buildings closed at 10 p.m., and the Amusements Area stayed open until 2 a.m.

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The Queen of England at the World of Tomorrow

From day one the fair was a money-making operation linked with a message of international cooperation and the benefits of technology.
It promoted the Corporation’s ideals with visits from dignitaries such as the Queen of England as well as with thematic days for each nation represented, such as Lithuania Day.

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A parade on Lithuania Day

It appropriated major scientific figures to promote its message; Einstein’s visit included a speech that began with "If science, like art, is to perform its mission totally and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning: into the consciousness of people" teenyicon_video5.GIF (62 bytes) teenyicon_audio5.GIF (76 bytes). Each day parades and fireworks highlighted the fair’s activities, designed to draw visitors from across the nation and the world. Whalen and La Guardia in particular continued to aggressively market the fair in the media, posing with guests as well as with sponsors of exhibits, such as Henry Ford on Ford Day teenyicon_video5.GIF (62 bytes) teenyicon_audio5.GIF (76 bytes).

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(From left) Whalen, New York Governor Al Smith,  Ford, La Guardia, and a host of onlookers on Ford Day

La Guardia’s intention, of course, was not only to promote the fair but to promote tourism for New York City, stating to skeptical perspective visitors that "New York City is like every other town in this nation, except we can give you better accommodations and better food for less money."

Despite the efforts of the Fair Corporation, when the fair closed its doors for the winter on October 31, 1939, its attendance was well below expectations, and in the words of Applebaum, "the financial situation of the Fair Corporation seemed to call for drastic measures."

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Two Fairs: from "The World of Tomorrow" to "For Peace and Freedom"

Grover Whalen remained president of the Fair Corporation, but for the 1940 fair Harvey Dow Gibson was named chairman of the board and business manager. Gibson had formerly served as American Red Cross commissioner in 1919 and had been the finance chairman on the fair’s Board of Directors. Gibson reduced the admission fee for adults to 50 cents and also reduced the social theorizing inherent in the 1939 fair.

He brought in what were considered generally "rowdier" exhibits into the Amusements Area, renamed the Great White Way. He changed the writing style of the Official Guide Book from didactic to more sensationalized language.

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An open invitation to the 1940 Fair

Some critics have argued that in his attempt to "popularize" the fair, Gibson "dumbed it down." The admission fee and exhibits, however, were not the only new developments for the 1940 fair.

By the time the 1940 fair opened on May 11, Europe was well into the second World War. The Soviet pavilion was gone, replaced by the "American Common" (complete with "I am an American Day" teenyicon_video5.GIF (62 bytes) teenyicon_audio5.GIF (76 bytes)). Fountain Lake in the Amusements Area had been renamed Liberty Lake. The British, Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Finnish pavilions had reminders of the war in their exhibits. Norway and Denmark were only minimally represented the second summer. In June of that year France fell to Germany. Gibson, in the business of promoting international cooperation and the benefits of technology for tomorrow’s America, obviously had his work cut out for him. The mind of the nation was no longer on the future of the 1960s but on the possibility of war. The momentum of April 1939 and the allure of the new had subsided, and in the words of John Crowley, "It was the same fair, only the heart seemed to have left it."

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The Closing of Tomorrow

The fair closed on October 27, 1940, having drawn approximately 45 million admissions and 48 million dollars. Unfortunately, the Fair Corporation itself had invested 67 million dollars of the roughly 160 million dollars used for the original construction, promotion, and operation of the fair. What Whalen called "the greatest civil engineering feat of the century" had failed economically, and the Corporation declared bankruptcy. Few of the original structures remain; the New York City building and the New York State Amphitheatre have functioned in recent years as the Queens Museum and a paid bathing establishment on Meadow Lake, respectively. Robert Moses maintained his claim on the park for the city of New York, and in subsequent years portions of it have been used to house the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair as well as Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the Queens Zoo.

Despite its economic failures, the politicians, corporate figures, artists, designers, architects, and social planners involved with the fair attempted to create a "working model of the future in Flushing Meadows," and to some extent they succeeded. The planners also compiled a remarkable collection of the finest minds in their respective disciplines: composers such as Aaron Copland and Arthur Schwartz; sculptors and painters such as James Earle Fraser, Jo Davidson, and Paul Manship; industrial designers such as Loewy, Teague, Dreyfuss, and Bel Geddes; and a host of other architects and social theorists formed a spectacle of hope – hope for social and economic prosperity.

The history of the 1939 New York World’s Fair is, in a sense, the history of the transformation of the American sensibility, from a late-Depression-era futuristic vision to the one of apprehension and anxiety which characterized the pre-World War II period. It has served as a model for future world’s fairs, and its exhibits and the people involved with it profoundly influenced movements in design, art, architecture, advertising, marketing, urban development, and cultural studies. It was and remains a cultural icon, an encapsulation of a period of tension and possibilities in the history of American culture.

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Tour the Future

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