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Welcome to the Fair! The 1939 and 1964 New York World's Fairs

1939 World's fair logo

July-August 2014

The New York State Library's summer exhibit commemorates both the 75th anniversary of the 1939 New York World's Fair and the 50th anniversary of the 1964 one. Both were held at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. With the participation of many states and foreign countries, big and small businesses, and various cultural, religious, and scientific bodies, the focus was firmly on the future.

The 1939 fair employed the hopeful slogan "Dawn of a New Day." Its unifying theme was "The World of Tomorrow," which in 1940 became "For Peace and Freedom" as tensions mounted in Europe.


1964 World's Fair logo

The 1964 fair boasted the still-standing Unisphere and United States Space Park, pledging "Peace through Understanding." It was dominated by futuristic, so-called "Googie" architecture and fantastic fairway rides and attractions. Forward-looking entities such as NASA, IBM, GE, Ford, GM, Bell System, and RCA provided the fair with some of its most memorable exhibits. In a typically oversized but uncharacteristic backward glance, Sinclair Oil sponsored Dinoland, complete with life-size replicas of nine different dinosaurs. Other nods to bygone days included an animatronic Abraham Lincoln delivering oratory at the Illinois Pavilion and an eleven-foot statue of George Washington dressed in Masonic regalia. A bust of the recently slain John F. Kennedy graced the entrance to the United States Pavilion.

Television was the big reveal in 1939, broadcasting speeches by Albert Einstein and then-president FDR—along with color photography, air conditioning, nylon, Formica, and fluorescent lighting. Computers (along with more fanciful not-quite-inventions like "jet packs") were introduced to the public in 1964.

Cover of a guide to the 1939 World's Fair

Both fairs were plagued with problems from the start. They were financial disasters and chose to run for two years instead of the usual one. After flouting a number of other regulations as well, neither fair received the endorsement of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE). (The principal reason in 1964 was that the Seattle World's Fair had taken place just two years earlier and BIE rules forbid another one so soon.)

New York City "master builder" and long-time parks commissioner Robert Moses—who had arranged for a "vast ash dump in Queens" to be transformed into what would become the 1939 fairgrounds and saw the later fair as his chance to create a permanent park there—proved to be a contentious figure throughout. The upshot was that the 1964 fair was boycotted by Canada, Australia, the USSR, and most of the larger European nations. As a consequence, smaller countries played a much bigger role in it (the refreshingly retro Belgian Pavilion with its "Bel-Gem Brussels Waffle" and the Vatican Pavilion containing Michelangelo's Pietà were definite crowd pleasers) and corporate influence was rife.

These fairs drew over 96 million visitors and left a lasting impression in the minds of all who witnessed them at two very pivotal times in our world's history. This exhibit shows some of the New York State Library's many books, magazines, documents, and ephemera about the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs.

Right exhibit case

On Exhibit at the World's Fair (1939)

Conceived in 1935, with hopes of helping to lift New York City and the U.S. out of the Depression, four years went into planning, building and promoting the 1939-40 World's Fair. Items in one display case provided a glimpse of what went on "behind the scenes":

  • Images from the New York World's Fair Bulletin show the construction of two iconic symbols of the Fair, the Trylon and Perisphere (both of which were later melted down to make bombs for World War II).
  • A trio of promotional photographs from the Diorama Corporation of America (MSC Collection: PRI 5643) shows some of the extensive three-dimensional exhibits the company created for the 1939 World's Fair.
  • A related article in the May 1939 issue of Popular Mechanics (Call number: 605 P83 V.71 1939), written by the President of the Diorama Corporation, includes a diagram of the Victoria Falls diorama, complete with a working waterfall, that was a popular attraction at the 1939 World's Fair.
  • State documents from the Fair Commission, report on their work before and after the World's Fair.

The theme for the 1939 New York World's Fair was "The World of Tomorrow." However, the intent was not so much to predict what the future might hold, but rather, as one pamphlet proclaimed, to present "a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow." Displays at the Fair covered a wide variety of topics, from cultural subjects such as art, history, and religion; to food, health, and medicine; to business, industry, and agriculture. Many states and foreign countries also had exhibit pavilions. Items on display included:

Left exhibit case
  • "Masterpieces of Art" broadside (MSC Collection: BRO5503+)
  • For All Who Worship God and Prize Religious Freedom booklet from the
    Temple of Religion (Call Number: 200.74 qF692 96-19267)
  • Polish Week commemorative souvenir program (Call Number: 607.34 097471 qN532 97-13614)
  • Directory and catalogue of exhibits at the Japanese Pavilion (Call Number: 709.52 D598 97-11380)
  • Man and His Health, a guide to medical and health-related exhibits at the World's Fair (MSC collection: QC16514)
  • Photos of the exhibits of George Washington's Farewell Address and Abraham Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (MSC collection: QC16514)
  • Songs of the World's Fair, John Black, 1939 (Call Number: 811.5 B6274)
  • The book of record of the time capsule of cupaloy, deemed capable of resisting the effects of time for five thousand years, preserving an account of universal achievements, embedded in the grounds of the New York World's Fair, 1939, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, 1938 (Call Number: 901 W526 87-056773)


Center exhibit case

The 1939 World's Fair opened on April 30, a date that coincided with the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration as President, which also took place in New York City. The center display case looked at the event from the perspective of a visitor to the Fair, displaying a variety of items that fairgoers might have collected as souvenirs of the experience, including postcards, maps, brochures, and guide books. The photograph album, compiled by an anonymous visitor to the World's Fair, includes snapshots of the exhibits as well as postcards, brochures, and news clippings (MSC Collection: SC23155). In addition, it also included some books that used the World's Fair as their setting.

Many items are from the Library's "Exposition and Fair Ephemera" collection (QC16514). Books on display included:

  • Fun at the Fair: A Trip to the New York World's Fair of 1940 with Bobby and Betty, Elsie Jean Stern, 1940 (Call number: 606 S839)
  • New York, Fair or No Fair: A Guide for the Woman Vacationist, Marjorie Hillis Roulston, 1939 (Call number: 917.471 H654)
  • Official guide book of the New York World's Fair, 1939 (Call number: 606 N5o)
  • World's Fair, E.L. Doctorow, 1985 (Call number: 813.54 D637 88-21534)

Back to the Future: New York at the Fair (1964)

Souvenir book from the 1964 World's fair.

The smaller cases by the elevator focused on the 1964 World's Fair, which coincided with the 300th anniversary of the City of New York. The New York City Building was created to house its pavilion in 1939 and is currently the only building that survives from that fair. Its architect, Aymar Embury III, also designed the Central Park Zoo and Triborough Bridge. The building was renovated and used for the New York City Pavilion in 1964 as well. It currently serves as the Queens Museum of Art and contains a model of the 1964 World's Fair, along with a small collection of fair memorabilia. The museum also includes "The Panorama of the City of New York," which was originally conceived as a city planning tool and was displayed at the 1964 World's Fair. The United Nations met in the Queens Museum of Art building from 1946 to 1950.


Artist's rendering of the NY Pavilion, from the NYS Vacationlands brochure.

In April 2014, the New York State Pavilion, one of the few remaining vestiges of either fair, was deemed a "National Treasure" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Architect Philip Johnson had been inspired by the "allure of putting a man on the moon" and had envisioned the pavilion as an "emblem for space age enthusiasm." The pavilion comprised three structures: the Observation Towers, Theaterama, and the Tent of Tomorrow. The latter was especially impressive. It had a fiberglass roof in brilliant colors and a gigantic Texaco map of New York State composed of over 500 terrazzo mosaic panels. Efforts are now underway to restore this badly deteriorating structure. After the 1964 World's Fair closed, many other pavilions were removed and reinstalled elsewhere.


Pamphlets from pavilions at the 1964-65 World's Fair

items on display in these cases included:

  • Pamphlets from various state and national pavilions and exhibits
  • New York World's Fair 1964–1965: 588 Days to Opening (Call number: 606.4 qN559)
  • Final Report: New York World's Fair 1964-1965, 1972 (Call number: 606.4 N532 74-8744)
  • New York World's Fair 1964–1965: 454 Days to Opening (Call number: 606.4 qN559)
  • New York State Vacationlands, World's Fair Edition, 1964, NYS Department of Commerce, 1964 (Call number: COM 255-3 NYSVA 72-5417)
  • A selection of magazines featuring cover stories about the 1964-65 World's Fair

Time Capsules

Westinghouse donated two "time capsules" to the New York World's Fairs. They were both meant to be opened after 5,000 years, in the year 6939—a rather, if not wildly, optimistic notion that seems to have reflected the fairs' overall world view. They were made of a non-ferrous alloy called "Cupaloy" and the vast time frame was probably meant to reflect an undying faith in the company's product. The 1939 capsule contained things like a child's Mickey Mouse cup, a Kewpie doll, a Gillette safety razor, a pack of Camels, a Sears Roebuck catalog, a copy of Life Magazine, a dictionary, an RKO newsreel, a dictionary, millions of words of text on microfilm, and more. The 1964 capsule held eighty-plus items, including an electric toothbrush, filtered cigarettes, a 50-star U.S. flag, irradiated seeds, a bikini, a Beatles record, a plastic heart valve, some credit cards, and a rechargeable flashlight.

A selections of magazines and newspaper insets featuring the 1964-65 World's Fair.

Controversies at the Fairs

Protesting the 1964 World's Fair

The 1964 fair was a showcase for Walt Disney (exhibits like "It's a Small World" went on to become permanent fixtures at Disneyland and elsewhere), as well as a proving ground for independent filmmakers. The Protestant Pavilion created a stir with a 22-minute silent film called Parable, which depicted mankind as a traveling circus and Jesus Christ as a clown. Two pavilion organizers resigned in protest and one minister threatened to shoot up the screen if it continued to be shown. Some people claimed the film was sacrilegious; that its director, Rolf Forsberg, was a Buddhist; and that it ended with a death, but not with resurrection. Robert Moses obligingly sought to have the film withdrawn. However, Parable, which inspired the making of Godspell less than a decade later, was overwhelmingly popular with both critics and viewers and was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.

A flap ensued in the wake of a "racially integrated minstrel show, intended to be satirical anti-bigotry." The NAACP reluctantly approved it as parody, but fairgoers were apparently put off by the "minstrelsy" tag and the whiff of racial politics—for whatever reason, the show lasted for only two performances. Robert Moses, who according to Smithsonian Magazine was "never a friend to minorities," endeavored to make the second fair more family-friendly than the first one (with its occasional appeals to prurient interest) had been, but at the height of the civil rights movement and just months after the death of JFK, the issue of race was impossible to ignore. The Congress of Racial Equality picketed the fair on opening day and interrupted LBJ's opening address, shouting "Freedom Now!" and "Jim Crow Must Go!" The "minstrel show" America, Be Seated! may have been a theatrical flop, but it kept the discussion of bigotry and discrimination front and center.

Another controversy erupted on the second day of the fair over a mural in the Jordan Pavilion. It included a poem on behalf of Palestinian refugees and caused consternation among segments of the Jewish community and the American-Israel World's Fair Corporation. Moses gamely attempted to stick to his motto of "peace through understanding" and struggled unsuccessfully to quell the unease and keep "politics" out of the fair. The Queens Criminal Court (which had seen hundreds of cases of arrested activists, including members of CORE and the NAACP) finally ruled in April 1965 that protestors could pass out handbills, but not picket in such a way as to block visitors' access. This conflict seemed to escalate for a couple of months, but then calmed down. The mural and poem remained and "the only thing ever removed from the Jordan Pavilion was an unauthorized vending machine." ("War Through Misunderstanding: the Jordan Pavilion Controversy," by Sharyn Elise Jackson)

Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1939

The 1939 World's Fair had had its share of controversy as well. Disputes between the scientific community and other more mercantile interests over the direction of the fair eventuated in a kind of hybrid perhaps best described as "infotainment." The Amusements Area consisted of a variety of carnival rides and circus acts, such as Frank Buck's Jungleland and the Billy Rose Aquacade. It also featured several "girlie shows" (one of them designed by Salvatore Dali was called "20,000 Legs Under the Sea") that were raided by the New York City vice squad.

In a mystifying scandal of another sort, Albany-born artist Louis Slobodkin arrived on opening day to find that his fifteen-foot steel and plaster sculpture of a young Abe Lincoln had been summarily destroyed on order of the U.S. Commissioner General for the fair, Edward Flynn, and for reasons that remain murky. (It was "too tall," according to one account and not in "good taste," in the opinion of a female friend of Flynn's.) Slobodkin was not appeased, the case was adjudicated in court, and the statue was eventually recast in bronze and given a permanent home at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.

And on July 4, 1940, in what many mistook at first to be fireworks, a "ticking suitcase" bombing occurred at the British Pavilion, which took the lives of two policemen and wounded five others. Detectives Joseph Lynch and Ferdinand Socha were killed as they tried to open a canvas bag that had been left inside the pavilion. This case was never solved (although Nazis, whom Britain was at that time engaged in fighting, were suspected) and there is still a $26,000 reward offered for any information about it.

Items on display in these cases included:

  • The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, Bill Cotter and Bill Young, 2004
    (Call number: 974.7243 F647 206-5569)
  • New York's 1939–1940 World's Fair, Andrew F. Wood, 2004
    (Call number: 607.34 W873 206-6730)
  • Articles from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010)
  • Pamphlet from the British Pavilion, 1939 New York World's Fair

Exhibit curated by Carol Reid and Diane Madrigal

Last Updated: November 2, 2021