World's Fairs 1933-1939

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World's Fairs 1933-1939

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics


"I welcome the celebration you are now beginning. It is timely not only because it marks a century of accomplishment, but it comes at a time when the world needs nothing so much as a better mutual understanding of the peoples of the earth." The preceding quote is an excerpt from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (served 1933–1945) message to the Chicago World's Fair on May 27, 1933.

World's Fairs are by design optimistic, celebrating what is and what may be ahead with modern technology. Beginning in London in 1851 world's fairs grew in international popularity. Their primary purpose is to showcase exhibits highlighting technological advances and advancing nationalism or, in some cases, corporate identity. They also frequently contain entertainment midways with amusement rides and other activities. Fairs represented a combination of efforts by governments, corporations, scientists, and engineers. They thus project hope and a vision of the future. This optimism was particularly critical during the Great Depression. More than ever before, many were questioning the effectiveness of the U.S. economic system driven by a free market economy and rampant industrialization.

The World's Fairs of the 1930s featured the current marvels of science, technology, and manufacturing. They sought to project or anticipate what life would be like in the future during rosier economic times. President Roosevelt, as part of his New Dealprograms created to provide economic relief and recovery to the nation held in the grips of the economic hard times of the Great Depression, also sought to demonstrate the government's concern for the economic and social welfare of Americans. With the high unemployment rates of the Depression, the fairs also provided thousands of much needed jobs around the country. Much of the architecture in the 1933 Chicago and 1939 New York fairs aspired to be "modern." Many buildings were of the Art Deco style of the 1930s with streamlined, flowing movement and minimal decoration. The Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco (1939), while constructed on a man-made island, drew upon historical architecture. Yet, in its exhibits the Golden Gate Exposition attempted to present a view, like the earlier Chicago exposition, of the "world of tomorrow."

World's Fairs were conceived, funded, developed, and offered by those with the political power and economic resources to try to celebrate and promote their vision of what a nation and the world should become. By their conception and development, each world's fair was thus a political and economic statement, a largely written editorial of special interests offering a vision of a world neither entirely realistic nor practical. For example in the early 1930s power companies displayed all electric homes, though most citizens had no access to electrical services and their homes were not even wired to receive electricity. World's Fairs displayed the visions of a selected few and enticed hundreds of thousands or millions of visitors to experience these visions.

By 1939 concerns over world conflicts were added to the economic concerns of the decade. In his remarks to 600,000 listeners at the New York World's Fair on April 30, 1939, President Roosevelt stressed the purposes of peace among nations. He said Americans had the desire to encourage peace and good will among all nations. Roosevelt's message was a common one in fairs that had participation by a number of nations. Many of the organizers of world's fairs of the twentieth century sought international cooperation and participation. They stressed themes of brotherhood, peace, trade, and common purpose.

Despite the affirmations of internationalism, however, the twentieth century was marked by two world wars and a major economic depression in between. The rise of communism and fascism tested the efforts to foster peace among nations. Increased trade barriers designed to improve national economies further divided nations. These barriers, mostly in the form of high taxes on imported goods, known as tariffs, greatly suppressed trade and international communication. The role of world's fairs in international politics and economics was uncharted territory. Would people be interest enough to attend? Would nations be interested in participating? Would the fairs inspire further technological progress and cooperation between nations? As time would show the fairs served, especially for the fairs in the United States in the 1930s, as important opportunities to bridge gaps between nations and raise people's hopes for the future during the hard times of the Great Depression.


The Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, becomes the first world's fair in the United States.
The Panama-Pacific Exposition is held in San Francisco, California, and the Panama-California Exposition is held in San Diego, California, to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
The Summer Olympic Games are held in a Roman-style coliseum in Los Angeles, California, providing another worldwide showcase.
May 27, 1933:
The World's Fair, "Century of Progress," opens in Chicago, Illinois, and runs until November 12. It operated for a second season in 1934.
The World's Fair, "Golden Gate International Exposition," opens in San Francisco in February under the theme, "A Pageant of the Pacific" and closes on October 29 with a debt of $4.1 million. The fair runs a second season in 1940.
April 30, 1939:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt opens the World's fair, "World of Tomorrow," in New York. The Fair closes October 29, six weeks early and in debt, and runs for a second season in 1940.

Issue Summary

The economic disaster of the 1930s prompted America's top businessmen and politicians to promote capitalism, materialism, and national progress. They saw fairs as a means to affirm the values in which they believed and created three world's fairs: Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago (1933), New York World's Fair (1939), and the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco (1939). High hopes of regaining civic and national pride were pinned on these expositions. President Franklin Roosevelt's administration threw its support behind them, for the goals of the fairs coincided with the vision of the New Deal and the rebuilding of America. Besides the three World's Fairs of the 1930s another key opportunity came for the United States to promote itself. In 1932 California attracted, constructed facilities, and hosted the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angles. Even though times were tough, Californians were interested in taking on big, civic projects.

In the 1930s corporations seized the opportunity to become exhibitors, especially in the three World's Fairs held in the United States. In their presentations, companies promoted the success of their research and manufacturing, with products visitors were told they needed. New foodstuffs, automobiles, chemical products, construction materials, and transportation were displayed and sold in the highly commercial pavilions.

Century of Progress Exposition, 1933, Chicago, Illinois

Held during the depths of the Great Depression, the Chicago Fair emphasized technology and progress, a utopia, or perfect world, founded on democracy and manufacturing. The Chicago Fair's official guidebook conveyed a basic slogan: "Science Finds—Industry Applies—Man Conforms." The message was that science and American life were wedded. The fair delivered the message that a prosperous, secure future for the United States rested on a foundation of scientific research and its close alliance with commerce and industry. Fair exhibits attempted to convey this message with working assembly lines, rocket-shaped cars on the Sky Ride, and windowless (but cheerfully lighted) buildings. Although planning for the fair began before the Depression, by the time it opened on May 27, 1933, Chicago's businessmen and politicians clearly hoped the tourists attracted to the fair would help jump start an economic recovery for their city.

Backers of the fair began laying plans in 1928, organizing as A Century of Progress Corporation. They acquired 424 acres of land, most of it submerged, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. They unleashed architects to create a futuristic vision of America and how science and technology would shape that world. The link with science, in fact, helped open the Chicago fair. Astronomical observatories around the United States beamed light from Arcturus, a distant star, to photoelectrical cells that produced sufficient electricity to travel via Western Union lines to the fair. Reportedly, the light received from Arcturus had left the star 40 years before when the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was also in Chicago, was closing. The underlying message delivered at the fair was that science, if properly funded and respected, would serve American civilization and catapult it into a better future.

This fair differed substantially from the Columbian Exposition held in the same city in 1893. Rather than buildings heavily drawn from ancient Greek architecture, the 1933 fair was dominated by two towers—1,850 feet apart—that supported the Skyride. Rising to 628 feet, the towers were the tallest structures in the city at that time. At two hundred feet above the ground, visitors could board a rocket car suspended from a cable and cross the lagoon to the other side of the fair. Most of the buildings of the fair were only facades. The Official Guide proudly stated: "These structures are for the most part unbroken planes and surfaces of asbestos and gypsum board and plywood and other materials on light steel frames, rather than a parade of sculptured ornamentation." The guide further noted that "in construction as well as in architecture, it was intended that here should be a huge experimental laboratory, in which home builders and manufacturers can study, and from which they might borrow for their buildings of the future."

Fairgoers found themselves in a futuristic fantasyland that contrasted dramatically with the unemployment and economic misery of Chicago. Faith in progress, a faith severely shaken by the Depression, was reaffirmed for many attendees. Big business, which many Americans now blamed for the Depression, tried to improve its reputation. Businesses stressed scientific and industrial progress with exhibits of operating models of oil refineries, a radio-controlled tractor, and product-packaging demonstrations. It appeared that the Great Depression had not strongly affected American industry. Ford Motor Company built a nine hundred-foot long building for five million dollars. Inside Ford displayed an automobile assembly plant, a globe of Ford's international operations, and models of historic highways. The Ford exhibit proved to be the fair's most popular.

Although the Chicago Fair welcomed the world, the foreign exhibits were reduced to five: a Mayan Temple, an Old Heidelberg Inn, a Chinese village, a Belgian village, and a Moroccan village. Token commitments to international perspectives were made, however, with the reproduction of the "Golden Pavilion," a structure of 28,000 pieces that replicated the 1767 summer home of the Manchu emperors of China.

Some of the exhibits seemed contrived. The "Drama of Agriculture" building celebrated great advances in farming over the past 75 years. The "Dairy Building" and the "Color Organ" were bizarre. The Official Guide said:

You enter into a large lobby. Beyond is a cyclorama on which streams of color play. At an organ console, a player's hands finger the keyboard, causing the variations of color. The instrument is the Clavilux, or color organ. With the 'color music' for accompaniment, a spectacle is presented showing the bringing of the first cows to the Plymouth colony, the trek of civilizations westward, and today's organized dairy industry.

Science exhibits touted the marvels of electricity, radio, communications, and lighting. The Indian Refining Company, makers of Havoline motor oil, constructed a 200-foot high tower. On its three faces visitors viewed ten-foot high numerals of the world's largest thermometer!

Similar to the 1893 event, however, developers of this fair called the carnival or pleasure area the "Midway," an echo of what attracted the attention of so many who came to the Columbian Exposition. Games, a roller coaster, and a "freak show" were promoted attractions. With little sensitivity, the fair organizers established a "Midget Village." The Official Guide strangely associated these people with other fair events: "Turn aside to visit the Midget Village, where sixty Lilliputians live in their tiny houses, serve you food, and entertain you with theatrical performances."

The fair also included token acknowledgments of history. Beyond the midway stood the log stockade and replica of Fort Dearborn, representing the early settlement of Chicago. Another exhibit area told the story of the life of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. The black American community of Chicago lobbied hard and with ultimate success to secure mention of Jean Baptiste Pont De Saible, the first non-Indian resident of Chicago and founder of the city. Reconstruction of De Saible's cabin, after years of frustrating work by the De Saible Society, was funded by the city of Chicago.

Fair officials designated certain special days. November 8, dubbed Personal Responsibility Day, celebrated the end of Prohibition. The fair provided free beer and sandwiches to 50,000 visitors. Attendees ate approximately 200,000 sandwiches and drank one thousand barrels of beer. Two days later fair officials admitted all people on government relief roles free if they produced their identity card.

The fair operated from May 27 to November 12, 1933. It returned for a second season from May 26 to October 31, 1934, to try to pay off its debts. At its close the fair managed a tiny profit. The fair had been popular, with 22.5 million tickets sold in 1933 and 16.4 million in 1934. Plans, however, to retain the structures as a permanent exhibition and amusement park failed. Chicago was in too much financial difficulty stemming from the Great Depression to be able to fund such a project. In the end, Chicago's Depression woes had not been alleviated by the fair as had been hoped.

Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939, Treasure Island, San Francisco, California

Residents of California remembered fondly and with nostalgia, two earlier fairs both held in 1915: the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. Both events heralded the completion of the Panama Canal and the anticipated boom in trade and commerce for the West Coast of the United States. Architect Bertram Goodhue developed both temporary and permanent exposition buildings for San Diego's Balboa Park. He drew on Spanish Renaissance and Spanish colonial architecture for his designs. The San Francisco fair of 1915 was located on the edge of Golden Gate Park and included several grand buildings in the Beaux Arts Style, drawing from European designs. The success of these fairs and their association with prosperity encouraged Californians, in spite of the Great Depression, to embark on a major fair in San Francisco in the late 1930s.

Three completed major construction projects, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and Treasure Island enabled the undertaking of a fair in San Francisco. In large part, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) backed all the three construction projects. These were New Deal ventures designed to employ workers and rekindle the economy. The impressive construction projects connected Highway 101 across the harbor entrance, joined the east side of the bay to the west, and created an artificial island in San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, then the world's longest cable suspension bridge, took five years and the latest engineering skills to complete in 1937. The Bay Bridge—which was actually three bridges and a tunnel—connected both sides of the bay in 1936. The ferries, once common features of life on the harbor, diminished rapidly in importance.

The third huge project, undertaken with no regard to its environmental impacts, created an artificial island. Treasure Island was built in the middle of the bay between San Francisco and Oakland. Dumping millions of tons of boulders and pumping up dredged materials from the harbor, engineers constructed the 400-acre island. Reportedly, the mud used to build the island was laden with particles of gold that had washed out of the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains. The next great venture for the island was to construct a World's Fair on it and market its attractions to viewers. The purpose of the fair was not only to attract tourists to spark the San Francisco economy but to provide jobs for the unemployed. South from a sharp spire which rose 400 feet above the island called the Tower of the Sun was a rectangular pool, the Court of the Moon. East of the Tower was the Court of Reflection. North from the Tower was the Court of Seven Seas which ended in the Court of Pacifica. Dominating the court was an 80-foot statue, Pacifica, by Ralph Stackpole, representing peace. The island's anticipated future use was ultimately as both a military base and an airport.

The fair was conceived as "A Pageant of the Pacific," but was officially known as the Golden Gate International Exposition. The primary buildings were designed in a style invented by the architects. They called it "Pacific Basin" and used ancient building designs of the Mayan, Incan, Malayan, and Cambodian civilizations to inspire the structures they conceived for Treasure Island. The chief symbol of the fair was the Tower of the Sun, which worked as the graphic logo on much of the fair's literature and souvenirs. Architects involved in the designs included Arthur Brown, Jr., George Kelham, Timothy L. Pleuger, Bernard Maybeck, William Merchant, and Lewis Hobart. Arthur Brown, Jr., designer of the San Francisco City Hall, gained the commission for the fair's symbol, the Tower of the Sun, and the Court of Honor. The "Elephant Towers" flanking the Tower of the Sun were the work of Donald Macky. Ernest E. Weihe designed the Portals of the Pacific entryway.

The fair touted the United States's power and influence around the world. The grounds represented regions of the world where American military and economic control was most pronounced: a Latin American Court (featuring Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Panama, Chile, Ecuador, but not Brazil or Argentina), and a Pacific Basin Area (spotlighting Hawaii and the Philippines).

In keeping with New Deal programs of involving the public in art, the fair celebrated fine arts from the western tradition. Its borrowed exhibits exposed hundreds of thousands of visitors for the first time to the works of the "old masters" as well as American artists. The art show was borrowed from Italy, France, Britain, and the Netherlands.

More About… William Gordon Huff, Sculptor

Sculpture often served to fix images or establish messages for World's Fairs. William Gordon Huff (1903–1993), a California sculptor, created some of the major artworks for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939–1940. Huff was born in Fresno, California, and studied at the California School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the New York Art Student's League, and the Ecole Grande Chaumiere in Paris.

Huff created four massive sculptures surrounding the "Tower of the Sun," the central icon of the fair. The statues represented Science, Agriculture, Industry, and Art. These works towered over visitors and drew heavily from classical themes. The naked female figure for Art, for example, carried an ancient Greek theatrical mask. Huff's works for the fair included several large columns of carved human figures that flanked entrances of buildings. In addition to the public space sculptures, Huff crafted several relief panels and freestanding sculptures of prehistoric animals. These were used in the interpretive exhibits at the fair for the University of California's Museum of Paleontology. The animals included Pleistocene species recovered from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

Huff's commissions for these projects were representative of public commissions to artists during the Great Depression. In spite of economic hard times, world's fair commissions and city, state, and federal government officials sought to encourage the arts and public appreciation for sculpture, painting, etching, and other genres.

Two important muralists associated with the fair were Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias, both Mexicans. Ironically at the time the United States, and California in particular, was sending thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans back to Mexico due to the bad economic conditions in the United States. Rivera designed and executed huge murals in the Palace of Fine Arts drawing on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere including American Indians, Mexicans, and Eskimoes.

The fair was assertive about the role of women in modern America. This statement fell largely under the control of a Women's Board with officials from the Girl Scouts and other organizations. The Women's Board played an important role in planning the expositions related to women, mostly in their roles as housewives. The features where women had a voice were related to serving as hostesses and in "beautifying" the city of San Francisco for the benefit of fair visitors.

Entertainment venues included the "Cavalcade of the Golden West," an outdoor pageant held on a stage nearly the size of a football field, which had a curtain of water from 2,500 jets spewing water into the air and lighted with color. The pageant introduced visitors to selected elements of western history: conquistadors, Indians on horseback, steam engines, and stage coaches. Other options included plane rides, puppet shows, and a visit to a model gold mine. The fair had an almost carnival-like atmosphere in some respects, for visitors found vendors who guessed people's weight, sold caramel-corn and fried-potatoes, or offered to take them around the grounds in a rickshaw, on an "Elephant Train," or on chairs with rollers.

Many visitors to the fair traveled on the harbor ferries where the loudspeakers played "I Sailed Away to Treasure Island," a tune celebrating the fair. Richard Reinhardt, a visitor to the fair, recalled vividly a number of the special attractions: the fan dancer, Sally Rand; Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" (a painting on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy); a B-314 Clipper floating on a lagoon; free samples of vegetable beef soup; and a crane that hoisted visitors some 200 feet into the sky. Reinhardt also remembered, "the Guatemalan marimba band, the Australian wallaroos, the giant cash register that showed the day's attendance, the electronic voice called Voder, the transparent car, [and] the mule-faced lady at Ripley's Odditorium" quoted in American Heritage, 53.

Light and lighting features, especially the use of color and nighttime events, shaped the impressions of many fair visitors. Arches of water crisscrossed over pools and at night; lights turned the arches, set against the indigo pool and rose-colored walls, golden. Jesse Stanton and A. F. Dickerson were involved in the design of these theatrical-like effects. Lights were a major feature of the fair's landscape design.

The Golden Gate International Exposition had opened on February 18, 1939, and closed September 29, 1940 with a six-month closure in between. In spite of over 17 million visitors, the fair left a $559,423 debt, dashing the hopes of an economic watershed. The U.S. Navy took over the site. Structures were quickly torn down, the 80-foot symbol of peace, Pacifica, was pulled over and broken into pieces.

New York World's Fair, Flushing Meadows, New York City, 1939

Billed as the "World of Tomorrow," this world's fair opened on April 1, 1939, on top of the former Corona Garbage Dump in Queens, a sprawling site of 1,200 acres. Like the Chicago, fair, directors planned the fair as a direct attempt to improve New York City's Depression-laden economy. Promoters of the fair touted it as a city of visionary planning, a place to celebrate the wonders of streamlined design and the potentials of American capitalism. Major corporations exhibiting included RCA, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), General Electric, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, Kodak, Firestone, Heinz, General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. International exhibits included an English pub, the Bendix Lama Temple, and Cuban and English villages; a Seminole village was also an attraction. "Democracity" was a diorama of the city of the future. The underlying theme of democracy ruled out participation by the fascist governments of Germany and Spain. National exhibits included those of Russia, Italy, and Great Britain.

Supposedly the New York World's Fair was held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the nation's first president. Larger icons and statues celebrating the "Four Freedoms," however, overshadowed the towering statue of Washington. The modernism of the fair, echoed in the Art Deco designs of the 1930s, was not that of the fine-lined European designs. Historian Paul Greenhalgh has, instead, referred to it in terms of the stage sets for "Flash Gordon," a science fiction character in movie serials of the 1930s, or for the film "Metropolis." The Trylon and Perisphere structures, symbolic logos of the fair, met this characterization well. The impractical but distinctive Trylon towered seven hundred feet above the grounds; its companion, the Perisphere, was 18 stories high and a block-wide.

Four industrial designers played major roles in shaping the appearance of the fair. Having embraced streamlined design—sleek, modern, and technological—Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Henry Dreyfus shared their vision of America of tomorrow with visitors. Accompanied by the music of the official theme song, "Dawn of a New Day" by Ira and George Gershwin, visitors walked through exhibits, buildings, and landscapes where they met "Mr. Peanut," "Moto-Man" (a robot), and viewed new consumer products.

Visitors to the "World of Tomorrow" had several encounters with America's imagined future. The most popular exhibit at the fair was Futurama, a model of the world in 1960, designed by Norman Bel Geddes. Strapped into moving armchairs, visitors were fascinated as they passed by an American city of the future with superhighways. In the Perisphere a conveyor to a vista lifted visitors 50 feet above a model of the Democracity. Democracity was a proposed community for a million Americans residing in a democratic garden city, free from the hold of European fascism or the limitations of a great economic depression. In contrast to Democracity, Italy constructed an exhibit gallery that featured a large statue of Il Duce, dictator Benito Mussolini, and a map of the Italian empire. The Russian exhibit included a statue of a worker, 79 feet tall, made of stainless steel and examples of daily life, transportation, and Russian arts and crafts. Democracy had to compete, to a degree, with Italian fascism and Russian communism in the international exhibit galleries.

The British used the World's Fair as a desperate gamble to try to lure Americans out of isolation and into support of their nation as a bulwark against European totalitarianism and fascism. To find a subject appealing to the U.S. audience, the British focused their exhibit on the Magna Carta, bringing a copy to the United States and featuring it in "Magna Carta Hall." The Magna Carta was a charter of English personal liberties granted by King John in 1215 and became a symbol for the fight against government oppression. The exhibit literature celebrated the document as a statement for liberty and freedom. The designers conveniently placed it close to the genealogy of George Washington that affirmed his English ancestry. Through a twist of historical interpretation, the British linked the Magna Carta to the American Revolution. Without this important document, the British asserted, the American colonists' fight for independence would have been hopeless.

The New York Fair addressed the American housewife and, while it proposed to continue to confine her to domestic duties, suggested liberation of a sort through laborsaving devices. "Mrs. Modern" was to surpass "Mrs. Drudge" because she had a dishwasher. Other marvels included new types of vacuum cleaners, clothes washers, and appliances. The fair also featured new products such as Lucite, air conditioning, color film, and nylon stockings—products that had largely been out of reach for most families during the Great Depression.

Entertainment varied with the interests and tastes of visitors. The fair's entertainment guide identified more than one hundred shows and rides. These were variously named, suggesting either a locale or exotic experience. They included: "Auto Dodgem," "Skyride," "Living Magazine Covers," "Snapper," "Laff Land," "Admiral Byrd's Penguin Land," "Strange As It May Seem," "No-man's Land," "Arctic Girl's Tomb of Ice," and "Frank Buck's Jungleland." Among the events that were clearly shows were "Salvador Dali's Living Pictures," which included a tank filled with water inhabited by 'living liquid ladies' who swam among sculptures of Dali's artistic works. The fair also included Norman Bel Geddes "Mirror Show" in the "Crystal Gazing Palace," where a single dancer performed on a stage with so many mirrors that it gave the effect of viewing a chorus of dancers.

One of the most popular attractions of the fair was the introduction of synchronized swimming, a program orchestrated by Broadway musical producer Billy Rose. The success of this program, the "Aquacade," led to its relocation in 1940 to Treasure Island, the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco Bay. Viewers watched "Aquabelles" and "Aquabeux," wearing fluorescent bathing caps, perform to music. The stars of the show included Esther Williams, Johnny Weissmuller (who later played Tarzan in numerous movies), and Morton Downey. Admission to the show cost 40 cents.

The fair ultimately lost $18.7 million even after a second season in 1940. The New York fair failed to cure Depression economic ills, just as the Chicago and San Francisco fairs had failed in the past. The Great Depression not only frustrated efforts by promoters to make profits at the fairs that were realized, it also interrupted plans for at least one other world's fair in the United States. In 1925 an exposition company was formed to hold a fair in Portland, Oregon. The fair was to be called the Pacific American International Exposition. The company, however, was unable to raise sufficient funds and planning was halted in 1930. The company was dissolved in 1945.Despite the problems of World's Fairs realized, and the problems of those that never were, such as the Pacific American International Exposition, the New York World's Fair is remembered as one of the most popular fairs of the century. It caught the imagination of the public and had them looking to the future. World War II would soon shatter the new optimism created by the fair.

Scientists Seek to Justify Their Labors and Funding

One of the most interesting stories of the World's Fairs of the 1930s was the close relationship between fair planners and scientists. Historian Robert Rydell has pointed out that the fairs, especially the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933, were cooperative ventures where America's leading scientists joined with corporate sponsors out of self-interest. Rydell has argued that scientists consciously sought to popularize science and to shape an American culture with scientific values. Their investment grew all the more important with the anti-scientific attitudes of the 1920s. In that decade the famous "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, led to the conviction of school teacher John Scopes for violating state law by teaching the theory of evolution. Fearing further rejection of science, a number of leading scientists jumped at the opportunity to celebrate the positive contributions of science to American life. World's Fairs became an opportunity for getting out their message.

The National Research Council (NRC) founded in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson to encourage the use of science to strengthen the nation moved to the center of support for the Chicago World's Fair. Leaders of the NRC met regularly after 1927 with fair developers. In time a Science Advisory Committee (SAC), made up of 32 scientists and engineers, began advising on exhibits and fair content. By 1930 this SAC had 34 subcommittees and drew upon the ideas of more than 400 science advisers. Before the fair opened in 1933 these sub-committees had held more than 70 sessions to envision the contents of the Hall of Science and other science-related exhibits. In 1930–1931 the SAC scripted and narrated 30 nationwide radio broadcasts, each 15 minutes in length, to promote science and the science-related content of the fair. These were broadcast in schoolrooms and colleges nationally.

Scientists thus helped plan the Chicago Fair, more than any other group, hoping to turn opinion in favor of their labors and to illustrate how science could shape a better American future. Scientists generally found frustration in trying to upgrade science education and the role of science in American life in the New York and San Francisco Fairs of 1939.

Contributing Forces

The Social and Economic Roles of World's Fairs

World's Fairs became an international event following the successful mounting of the Crystal Palace Exposition in London in 1851. More and more nations became involved in putting together events to celebrate "progress," technology, and agendas of peace, capitalism, and visions of the future. These fairs had historical foundations in exhibitions held in numerous cities in Western Europe between 1818 and 1844.

The fairs evolved over time. The first exposition in London in 1851 was housed in a single building, a giant greenhouse or "crystal palace." Its construction and appearance was an architectural marvel. In a real sense, the building became the primary icon of the event. Subsequent fairs also sought distinctive architecture, symbols or icons, and themes, not always successfully. The Eiffel Tower, erected in 1889 for the exposition (another term for fair) in Paris, is one of the most famous fair symbols. Designers have experimented with new styles and have copied old ones. Over time the grounds of the fairs expanded from a few acres to hundreds. The landscapes of the fairs evoked gracious lifestyles and control of nature; they featured calculated placement of buildings, vegetation, plazas, and pedestrian walkways.

Philadelphia held the first World's Fair in the United States in 1876, the Centennial International Exhibition. The event celebrated the nation's one-hundredth birthday. In 1884 and 1885 residents of New Orleans showcased their vision of an industrialized America in the New Orleans World's Industrial Cotton Centennial Exposition. The one-hundred-year intervals played an important role in the rationale for fairs. Thus in 1893 residents of Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exhibition, a celebration of achievements in the four hundred years since Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas.

At a Glance Quick Facts on World's Fairs

On April 30, 1939, a crowd estimated at 600,000 people listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicate the New York World's Fair.

The Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, closed on October 29, 1939, six weeks early and was $4.1 million in debt.

An estimated 28,000 visitors per day toured the General Motor's "Futurama" exhibit at the New York World's Fair, 1939.

An estimated 45 million visitors attended the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940.

Between 1895 and 1916 ten cities hosted world's fairs or expositions in the United States. Two fairs that had especially captured national pride were the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis and the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. World's Fairs cost millions of dollars that were generally raised by private investors and governments. Planning took years. Unlike smaller state fairs, World's Fairs lasted for months, attracting millions of people from across the country.

A common goal was to try to firm up the image of the nation as cohesive, powerful, innovative, and industrial. Most of these fairs—ignoring the treatment of black Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians—stressed the themes of unity and social harmony in the United States. The fairs placed considerable emphasis on the expansion of economic, political, and military might of the United States abroad. The Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, in 1905, for example, had as its logo the two explorers on either side of "Liberty" (a female figure) marching toward the setting sun-presumably an American empire beyond the Pacific Ocean. Either consciously or without realization, these fairs celebrated American success founded on overseas conquest of new economic markets and the nation's economic subjugation of people of color. Subjugation means to bring a person or group of persons under control and governance.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century and early-twentieth century, fairs contained theme buildings that displayed objects of fine arts, food products, primitive cultures (often with "living exhibits" of native people in customary garb engaged in traditional activities), and manufactured goods. The "goods" were a statement of design, technological prowess, and manufacturing capability. Goods celebrated progress. In addition other nations were invited to construct their own buildings where they could display their products, cultures, and virtues. If the fair was more local, then counties or other states might construct and fill their own "national" buildings with wares or even photographs of people and places.


The Everyday American

Because of the Great Depression, millions of Americans could not afford to go to the World's Fairs. They did not have the income to travel or to stay in Chicago, San Francisco, or New York and to spend hours or days visiting exhibits, amusement parks, or pageants. For the millions that could go they generally marveled at the scientific and industrial advances. They came away with renewed hope and excitement about the future. On the other hand there was a disturbing aspect to all the progress. Many factory workers were keenly aware that the new machines were putting people out of work. There was a widely held fear that machines would take over the jobs of people.

Despite the promises of a better future, not all was bright for these large events held during a time of worldwide economic strife. Fair promoters hoped to advance the prospects of their cities and special industries. But immediate returns on their investments into the exhibits were limited due to the poor economy. Also, while the fairs drew millions of visitors, none of the fairs proved profitable. Each had to open for a second season to try to pay off debts.

Preaching Science

The 1920s and 1930s were decades when many Americans expressed doubts about science and teaching of science in the schools. A number of scientists decided that they needed to get out the message about the unity of science, technology, and American values. The vehicle they selected and promoted was to use world's fairs as great classrooms for instructing millions of viewers with the marvels they could tap and control. Light shows, new products—color film, television, cellophane, nylon—and industrial exhibits emphasizing the role of scientific research and its link to a healthy economy became consistent messages at the fairs.

Issues arose: Were the presentations honest? Were science and technology linked to America's future? Some leading scientists tried hard to make their cases. Benjamin Gruenberg, a prominent educator, wrote Science and the Public Mind (1935) to try to improve scientific competence in America. Unlike the close alliance between scientists and planners for the Chicago World's Fair, the promoters of the fairs in San Francisco and New York in 1939 were far less interested in science and cooperation. Gerald Wendt, director of the American Institute of New York City, tried but largely failed to interject good science into the New York Fair. Wendt published Science for the World of Tomorrow (1939) to try to integrate science into American life. He claimed science had far more value than just its inventions and products serving as useful commodities.


The World's Fairs of the 1930s had several important impacts on the United States. Not all impacts were anticipated by the fair promoters who had hoped for profits and the conveying of messages they had carefully tried to develop.

World's Fairs offered Americans the view of a promising future. Given the long-lasting Great Depression, the world of tomorrow shown in these fairs appeared to have considerably more promise than the reality of the 1930s. The vision included planned cities, laborsaving gadgets, efficient transportation systems, and streamlined designs. Americans also saw the potentials of science and technology, mostly presented in science fiction-like "futuramas." Such wonders as color film, nylon, and television—popularized at the fairs—became important elements of life in the future.

Other exhibits existed at the fairs besides technology and science. The fairs introduced millions of Americans to fine arts: murals, paintings, sculptures, and landscape design. While the buildings of the fairs were temporary, the cultural experiences of those who attended the fairs were highly educational.

Besides the focus on science and technology there were social implications foreshadowing future race relations. In spite of their high objectives each fair reflected some of the narrow mindedness and racism of the 1930s. Minorities were often included only as "oddities" or were depicted as contrasts to the presumed "civilization" of those sponsoring and planning the fairs. This perspective was in keeping with the difficult times that seemed to accentuate racial hatred. Unknowingly, it also anticipated the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s in which these racial prejudices came to the forefront.

Following the interruption of world's fair events by World War II, they resumed in 1949. In the United States, world's fairs were held in Seattle (1962), New York (1964–1965), San Antonio (1968), Spokane, Washington (1974), Knoxville, Tennessee (1982), and New Orleans (1984). With several of the later American fairs losing money, no others were held in the United States following 1984. Eight fairs were held elsewhere since 1984 however including Japan (1985), Canada (1986), Australia (1988), Spain and Italy in 1992, South Korea (1993), Portugal (1998), and Germany (2000). The selection and organization of the fairs is provided by the Bureau of International Expositions, headquartered in Paris, France, and established in 1928. Fairs scheduled for the early twenty-first century included France (2004) and Japan (2005) with others being proposed through 2020.

Notable People

Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958). Bel Geddes published Horizons (1932), a visionary concept of what he thought would be the future of America. An innovator in lighting, set and theater design, and industrial design, Bel Geddes designed more than 200 theatrical productions with innovation and quality. In 1926 he founded an industrial design company and sought to improve the appearance of mass-produced objects. He served as an architectural consultant for the 1933 World of Tomorrow World's Fair in Chicago. Because of the lack of funding support available due to the economic effects of the Great Depression, none of his designs and exhibits was actually built. General Motors, however, hired Bel Geddes to develop the "Futurama" exhibit for its pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, one of the most popular attractions. Bel Geddes also designed a "Gnome Village" and a "South Sea Island" display—both reflective of his fascination with eugenics, which is the improvement of the human species through genetic selection. Neither of these projects was built due to limited funding. Later Bel Geddes' vision helped shape the commitment of the United States in the 1950s to construct an interstate freeway system.

Media Depictions

Two videocassettes are available concerning the World's Fairs of the 1930s.

  • The World of Tomorrow, videotape produced and directed by Tom Johnson and Lance Bird; narrated by Jason Robards, 1984. 83 minutes.
  • Wonderful Treasure Island: Golden Gate International Exposition (1939–1940) Videocassette, color, 1988. 63 minutes. AV #82832.

Gordon W. Gilkey (1912–2000). Gilkey was a talented artist, teacher, and master of etching. Gilkey was employed to capture in sketches the construction sequences of the New York World's Fair. Educated at Albany College (later Lewis & Clark College), Gilkey took on his assignment with enthusiasm. The Board of the New York World's Fair was so pleased with his artwork that it enlisted Gilkey to write and illustrate Etchings: New York World's Fair "Building the World of Tomorrow (1939). Gilkey went on to a distinguished career as an arts educator in Oregon and, during his long "retirement," was curator of the Gordon and Vivian Gilkey Center for the Graphic Arts of the Portland Art Museum.

Grover A. Whalen (1886–1962). Whalen served as president of the 1939 New York World's Fair. A businessman, promoter, and champion of the City of New York, Whalen had earlier worked at Wanamaker's Department Store for a decade before becoming private secretary to the mayor of New York in 1917. From 1919 to 1953 Whalen served as the city's official greeter. Between 1924 and 1934 Whalen was general manager of Wanamaker's, though, for a time, he also served as police commissioner. Between 1934 and 1937 Whalen was chairman of the board of the Schenley Distilling Corporation. Whalen fine-tuned the ticker-tape parades and massive gatherings of people who gathered to see Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and General Douglas MacArthur in 1951. Whalen had proposed the hosting of the New York World's Fair and then served as the head of the corporation that planned it. He helped raise $155 million to transform the Corona Dumps into the fairgrounds. In 1941 Whalen became chairman of Coty, a cosmetic manufacturer, and in 1956 became president of a Detroit hardware company. He died in 1962.

Primary Sources

The Progressiveness of Fairs

Norman Bel Geddes, visionary and exhibit designer including "Futurama" at the New York World's Fair in 1939, offered the following observations of the future of America in his 1932 book Horizons. The statement reflects the still progressive forces at work in America even at a time of great economic strife of the Great Depression.

There is said to be a law that higher forms must, before maturity, pass through all the stages of evolution of their predecessors. This seems to hold true for the modern art of building. Mankind has had to re-experience the architectural development of the Egyptians, the Greeks, through the Gothic, the Renaissance and the Baroque, before it could express its own time in its own terms … We are too much inclined to believe, because things have long been done a certain way, that that is the best way to do them. Following old grooves of thought is one method of playing safe. But it deprives one of initiative and takes too long. It sacrifices the value of the element of surprise. At times, the only thing to do is to cut loose and do the unexpected! It takes more even than imagination to be progressive. It takes vision and courage.

Science in Chicago

The theme of the Century of Progress, Chicago World's Fair was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms." With ever-optimistic advertising for the fair being held at the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, the Official Guide Book of the Fair 1933 offered the following invitation (cited June 9, 2001, available from the World Wide Web at

As two partners might clasp hands, Chicago's growth and the growth of science and industry have been united during this most amazing century. Chicago's corporate birth as a village, and the dawn of an unprecedented era of discovery, invention, and development of things to effect the comfort, convenience, and welfare of mankind, are strikingly associated.

Chicago, therefore, asked the world to join her in celebrating a century of the growth of science, and the dependence of industry on scientific research.

Other expositions have shown, most often in settings of splendor, the achievements of man as exemplified in the finished products of general use. But when the plans were in the making for the exposition of 1933, the thought came that Chicago's Centennial celebration should be used to help the American people to understand themselves, and to make clear to the coming generation the forces which have built this nation.

The result is that A Century of Progress is not merely an exhibit of the products of industry. Exhibitors willingly have subordinated their showing of finished products to a dynamic presentation of actual processes. They are telling a story of the ways that they utilize the discoveries of the basic sciences.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Identify, compare, and contrast the primary icons (popular images such as key structures) of the Chicago, New York and San Francisco World's Fairs of the 1930s and explain how these objects attempted to convey the messages of the fair sponsors.
  • Examine the claims of the three world's fairs of the 1930s to speak to the future of America and assess the success of these events in anticipating the United States of the latter half of the twentieth century.
  • Using books and websites for research, identify the types of souvenirs or promotional items associated with the World's Fairs of the 1930s and discuss what these objects suggest about the themes or content of the fairs.
  • Examine the architecture of the principal buildings and public spaces of the World's Fairs of the 1930s and discuss the messages conveyed by the uses of materials, sculpture, open spaces, water, landscape plantings, and building styles.



Barrington, Thomas M. A Vision of a Modern Future: A Fantasy Theme and Rhetorical Vision Analysis of the New York World's Fair of 1939. Ph.D. Dissertation, 1992, Southwest Texas State University.

Bel Geddes, Norman. Horizons. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1932.

Benedict, Burton, et al. The Anthropology of the World's Fairs: San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Berkeley, CA: Lowie Museum of Anthropology and Scholar Press, 1983.

Cogdell, Christina. "The Futurama Recontextualized: Norman Bel Geddes's Eugenic 'World of Tomorrow.'" American Quarterly 52(2)[June, 2000]: 193–245.

Cull, Nicholas J. "Overture to an Alliance: British Propaganda at the New York World's Fair, 1939–1940." Journal of British Studies 36(1)[July, 1997): 325–354.

Harrison, Helen A. and Joseph P. Cusker, eds. Dawn of a New Day: The New York World's Fair, 1939/40. Flushing, NY: Queens Museum and New York University Press, 1980.

Kuznick, Peter J. "Losing the World of Tomorrow: The Battle Over the Presentation of Science at the 1939 New York World's Fair." American Quarterly 46(3)[September, 1994]: 341–373.

Neuhaus, E. The Art of Treasure Island: First-hand Impressions of the Architecture, Sculpture, Landscape Design, Color Effects, Mural Decorations, Illumination, and other Artistic Aspects of the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1939.

Reed, Christopher R. "'In the Shadow of Fort Dearborn': Honoring De Saible at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933–1934." Journal of Black Studies, 21(4)[June, 1991]: 398–413.

Reinhardt, Richard. "The Other Fair," American Heritage, 40(4)[1989]: 42–53.

Rydell, Robert W. "The Fan Dance of Science: America's World Fairs in the Great Depression," ISIS 76(284)[December, 1985]: 525–541.

——. "Selling the World of Tomorrow: New York's 1939 World's Fair." The Journal of American History 77(3)[December, 1990]: 966–970.

The World of Tomorrow, Produced and directed by Tom Johnson and Lance Bird. 83 min. 1984. Videocassette.

Further Reading

Carpenter, P. F. and P. Totah. The San Francisco Fair: Treasure Island 1939–1940. San Francisco, CA: Scottwall Associates, 1989.

Cohen, Barbara, Steven Haller, and Seymour Chwast. Trylon and Perisphere: The 1939 New York World's Fair. New York: Abrams, 1989.

ExpoMuseum: World's Fair History, Architecture, and Memorabilia. Website:

Findling, John, ed. Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions, 1851–1988. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Gelernter, David. 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Gilkey, Gordon W. Etchings: New York World's Fair: 'Building the World of Tomorrow. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939.

Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universalles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Hiton, Suzanne. Here Today and Gone Tomorrow—The Story of World's Fairs and Expositions. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1978.

Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

"Voices from the 1933 Chicago World's Fair," available from the World Wide Web at

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World's Fairs 1933-1939

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