“Designing Tomorrow: America’s World Fairs of the 1930’s” opened at the Museum of the City of New York December 5, featuring a core traveling exhibition organized by the National Building Museum, which was then expanded and adapted by the City Museum.
New York’s celebrated World’s Fair of 1939-40, held in the newly built Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, drew millions of visitors with its promise to reveal “The World of Tomorrow.” As one of the last – and the largest – of six world’s fairs that were held in the United States in the 1930s, the New York fair was the culmination of years of planning that looked to design, science, and technology to alleviate the bleak conditions of the Depression and create a brighter future.
In addition to the collection of 1939 World’s Fair architectural drawings and paintings, postcards, and photographs the Museum holds a significant collection of ephemera that documents visitors’ experiences and provides insight into the techniques used to market the fairs both to the public and to exhibitors.
Since the ephemera is not yet digitized, and only a small selection from the collection is showcased in the exhibition, I wanted to share further examples of the types of material that visitors to the fair took home as keepsakes.
The visitor experience was a priority of the fair. Attendance exceeded over 44 million people during the course of the fair’s two seasons. In order to make those numbers, not only did the exhibits have to be interesting, but the actual experience of visiting the fair needed to be exciting and pleasurable. The brochure to the left, “See the New York World’s Fair from a Comfortable Chair,” advertising guide chair tours starting at $0.50 for fifteen minutes, is just one example of the materials held in the Museum’s collection that illustrate how the actual experience was marketed to the public.
The fair offered a vast variety of themed exhibits – international, state, technology, transportation, and business – and almost all of them provided printed literature and souvenirs to accompany the experience. Many of the international and state pavilions were hoping to inspire travel and tourism to their areas.
Business and technology pavilions used the fair to share their latest innovations and promote commercial interests.
Much of the ephemera shows how concepts such as color moving film and air travel, which we take for granted today, were novel in 1939.
Innovations in transportation were essential to visualizing “the world of tomorrow,” and the General Motors Futurama was one of the most popular exhibits.
Currently, these objects and others like them are stored in several boxes with relatively no order, and little descriptive information for providing access. In a collaborative project with the Queens Museum of Art, the Museum will soon embark on an 18-month project to make our collections from both the 1939/40 and 1964/65 New York World’s Fairs more accessible as a result of a generous Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). This project will allow the two museums to process and describe their relatively unknown and inaccessible World’s Fair collections, intellectually uniting all materials in a single finding aid, and providing object-level cataloging for selected highlights from both collections. The Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the CLIR program.