Remembering the New York World’s Fair of 1939

Handbill from the 1939 New York World's Fair.  1939-1940 World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York

Handbill from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, 1939, in the1939-1940 World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

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.

I Have Seen the Future Pin, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

I Have Seen the Future Pin, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

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.

See the New York World's Fair from a Comfortable Chair, 1939, in the 1939-1940 World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.156.86

See the New York World’s Fair from a Comfortable Chair, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.156.86

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.

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1939, in the 1939 New York World's Fair Collection.  Museum of the City of New York. 96.156.62

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.156.62

Business and technology pavilions used the fair to share their latest innovations and promote commercial interests.

New York World's Fair: Bakelite Pin, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Collection.  Museum of the City of New York.

New York World’s Fair: Bakelite Pin, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

Mr. Peanut Bookmark, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

Mr. Peanut Bookmark, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

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.

Color Movies with 16mm Keystone, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

Color Movies with 16mm Keystone, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.291.

Excerpt from United Air Lines: Service from New York to Chicago and Everywhere West, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.67.

Innovations in transportation were essential to visualizing “the world of tomorrow,” and the General Motors Futurama was one of the most popular exhibits.

Futurama, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.17.

Futurama, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.17.

List of titles on St. Moritz Hotel envelope,  “Dream of Venus” pavilion for Amusement Zone, ca 1939.  Queens Museum of Art. Queens Museum of Art,  from the Jean Farley Levy                 Queens Museum of Art, from the Jean Farley Levy  and Julien Levy Estate, partial gift of Eric Strom (2004.2.15)

List of titles on St. Moritz Hotel envelope, “Dream of Venus” pavilion for Amusement Zone, ca 1939. Queens Museum of Art. Jean Farley Levy and Julien Levy Estate, partial gift of Eric Strom, 2004.2.15.

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.

Screen capture from a 1939 newsreel, 1939. Queens Museum of Art. Gift of Charles Locasto, 1987.1.2WF39

Screen capture from a 1939 newsreel, 1939. Queens Museum of Art. Gift of Charles Locasto, 1987.1.2WF39

8 responses to “Remembering the New York World’s Fair of 1939

  1. Very cool! Looking forward to seeing what discoveries turn up as the project moves forward…

  2. Congratulation on receiving the grant to make cataloging this collection possible! Very interesting!

  3. I have some pictures of my family ay the 1939 World’s Fair, as well as a souvenir card, with it’s envelope. When you take the card out of the envelope, quite a few “layers” drop down. There is a circular opening in the first card, and when you look through the opening, you see the whole Fair through openings in each of the following cards. This piece, and it’s envelope, are in excellent condition, except that the envelope has my first name written on it (to distinguish it from my brother’s, which has disappeared). I also have a salt and pepper shaker set, made of plastic,
    which I believe are also from the 1939 Fair. The shakers are in the shape of little towers, and they stand on a cream-colored holder. This, too, is in excellent condition. I am wondering if any of these items have any value.

  4. If you haven’t yet checked out the Museum’s 1939 Worl’ds Fair tumblr site – http://designingtomorrow1939.tumblr.com – take a look!

  5. Pingback: A visit to Sochi, 1939. | mcnyblog

  6. I have a 1939 Worlds Fair salt and pepper set brought back here to Australia by my father-in-law when, as a sailor in the Royal Australian Navy, he called in to New York during World War 2. You never think about how such cheap souvenirs travel afar, giving people happy memories for many years, and being rediscovered by another generation in another time.

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