New York World's Fair 1939 / '40

Envisioning a consumerist future in a transnational setting

Updated: October 24, 2012

The New York World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940 (NYWF) was a nodal point of transatlantic exchange which brought together designers and architects from around the world, including a number of European exiles and émigrés living in the United States at the time. The fair was held on a 1,216.5 acre plot in Flushing Meadows in the Borough of Queens and opened it gates to the public on May 27. The opening of the fair commemorated the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States. The fair was planned by a non-profit corporation, formed in 1935 of business and civic leaders under the guidance of Grover A. Whalen. It was financed by federal, state, municipal, and private funds. The fair’s theme in 1939 was Building the World of Tomorrow, but was changed in 1940 to For Peace and Freedom in response to the onset of World War II. While projecting a distinctly “American” vision of the future, the NYWF was a truly international and transnational affair which attracted more foreign exhibitors than any other fair before or since. In addition to the employees of participating countries that came to the U.S. to prepare these exhibits, architects and designers who had emigrated from abroad were also involved in the development and construction of several exhibitions.

Since the first World’s Fair in 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace, the character of such expositions had steadily evolved in both size and in the way in which displays were designed. Having grown out of the tradition of national exhibitions in continental Europe, the earliest World’s Fairs focused mainly on the display of technological advancements with the goal of educating visitors. These exhibits showcased not only new products, but also the cultures of the participating nations. In general, the fair was regarded as a place of peace and intercultural exchange without exceptions or exclusions. This thinking was also present in the planning of the 1939/’40 World’s Fair in New York. Despite the volatile international climate, every country worldwide was invited to participate by the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the exceptions of China and Spain, most major nations accepted the invitation and, as a result, the Fair became known for its unprecedented internationality. Germany had also planned an exhibit for the NYWF, but withdrew its entry in 1938 because of financial difficulties and, as some have suggested, because of growing anti-German sentiment among Americans, including New York’s Mayor La Guardia. Instead, a few German exiles and émigrés proposed to arrange a “Germany-in-Exile” exhibit. They failed, however, to attract enough financial sponsors to construct the “Freedom Pavilion” designed by German émigré Ferdinand Kramer

After nearly a decade of economic depression and hardship, the 1939 NYWF envisioned an American future marked by affluence and new consumer technologies. The fair departed from the traditional method of displaying technological advancements like museum pieces, in favor of more interactive exhibitions that involved and entertained the visitors – a shift that reflected the increasing importance of consumer-centered product development. People had become fascinated by the process of technology and science, and not just by the machine itself. Industrial designers had become more and more involved in the planning of new buildings and exhibitions, as could also be seen at the MoMA in New York. Many contemporary designers embraced the idea of culture by the people, for the people – a concept also championed by the Bauhaus, an early-twentieth-century German school of design which received considerable attention in the U.S. at the time. Several large American companies followed this growing new idea and tried to involve fair visitors in their exhibitions with special shows designed by architects and industrial designers such as Norman Bel Geddes’s famous show “Futurama” for General Motors. The popularity of this pavilion and seven others was not only due to their central location, but also to their successful exploitation of theatrical forms of display, their extensive use of miniaturized models of life in futuristic cities, and their portrayal of a futuristic world that exuded an air of wonder, rather than offering detailed technical explanations for its contents. Other firms that took a similar approach included General Electric, Ford, Westinghouse, AT&T, Chrysler, the American railroads, and Consolidated Edison. Not only American designers took a leading part in the new type of exposition; émigrés like Raymond Loewy from France (Chrysler), Hans Blumenfeld from Germany (GM), and Victor Gruen from Austria were also significantly involved in the design of displays. Many other emigrants were also engaged in the planning and construction of the remaining New York World’s Fair buildings, including J. André Fouilhoux from France, who helped designing the Theme Center of the fair. 

In order to integrate the theme of The World of Tomorrow into the structure of the fairgrounds, the fair was officially divided into seven zones: amusement, communication, community interests, food, government, production and distribution, and transportation. In practice, these zones could be consolidated into four main sectors: corporations, state governments, foreign nations, and an amusement zone. In the center of these sectors were the symbols of the fair: the Trylon, a 700-foot obelisk, and the Perisphere, a 200-foot globe containing the fair’s central thematic exhibit “Democracity.” Overall, the industrial exhibits dominated the fair’s landscape, pushing the more traditional educational and scientific exhibits aside. This can be seen as a result of the exclusion of scientists from the NYWF planning process and their replacement with industrial planners. This shift meant that many of the European exhibits appeared “old fashioned” and “static” in their educational manner compared to the “more dynamic and self-explanatory” American displays which were tailored to the taste of the American public.

Another thing that set this World’s Fair apart from its predecessors was that corporations were now able to buy the rights to create their own buildings – something only foreign countries had done in the past. The 1939 fair organizers attempted to control the individuality of foreign nations in designing buildings by providing them with uniform exhibit halls around the “Court of Peace.” Only wealthier countries, like the European nations and Japan, were able to afford the construction their own buildings, designed to impress visitors with the individuality of their architecture. Nonetheless, most of the nations that elected to design their own buildings accepted the architectural guidelines that aimed to create a consistent modern style across the fair – the notable exception being the Italian hall which was much more historical in its design.

Originally, the fair was planned to last a year, but attendance and profit levels were lower than expected. As a result, the corporation decided to open the fair again in 1940, this time under the leadership of Harvey D. Gibson, chair of the fair’s finance committee. With a reduced admission fee (now 50 cents, compared to 75 cents in 1939), an increased focus on entertainment, and a change of overall theme, the fair’s organizers tried to attract more visitors, especially Americans from the countryside. Compared to the farsighted, optimistic vision of the future that was central to the fair’s first year, the new theme – For Peace and Freedom – reflected the American public’s concerns for their immediate, uncertain future. As the war escalated, affecting more and more nations, many countries withdrew from the exposition. One result of the removal of some of the original exhibits was that the now vacant spaces could be used by other nations, e.g. from Latin America, which had been underrepresented before. Nevertheless, the foreign participation in 1940 was considerably reduced and, as a result, the fair increasingly became an American affair. 

Inadvertently, the fair contributed to a migration of European professionals to the United States that was in some cases temporary, but in other cases permanent.  Despite the outbreak of World War II, the New York World’s Fair 1939/1940 managed to gather a remarkable amount of participating foreign nations. Yet, because of that war, over 360 European employees found themselves unable to return to their home countries after the closure of the fairgrounds. As a result, Congress authorized permission for individuals who were personally affected by the ongoing war to remain in the U.S., being counted as part of the regular immigration quota. Jean Carlu, a French graphic designer who specialized in poster design, is only one example of the many stranded European fair employees who stayed in the U.S. after the NYWF ended. He had been engaged at the French exhibition, but couldn’t return to France because of the Nazi occupation of his country. 

Ultimately, when the NYWF closed its doors on October 27, 1940, the fairgrounds were renamed Flushing Meadows and the dismantling of the structures began. Although attendance in 1940 lagged behind that of the 1939 season, the profits of the 1940 season did exceed expenses. Still, this wasn’t enough to cover the debts of the previous year. Even though the fair was a financial failure, it proved itself to be a groundbreaking, future orientated exposition. The New York World’s Fair 1939/40 was significant not only because of its futuristic theme and its portrayal of a changing society, but first and foremost because it brought together the largest amount of exhibiting foreign nations a World’s Fair had ever seen. Aside from developing new ways of presenting technological advancements, it upheld the traditional role of the World’s Fair as a peaceful stage for transnational and transatlantic exchanges. 

Selected Publications

New York World’s Fair (1939-1940). Official guide book of the New York World’s Fair, 1939. Building the World of Tomorrow. New York: Exposition Publications, 1939.

New York World’s Fair (1939-1940). Official guide book: The World’s Fair of 1940 in New York. For Peace and Freedom. New York: Rogers-Kellogg-Stillson Inc., 1940.

Selected Bibliography

Duranti, Marco. "Utopia, Nostalgia and World War at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair." Journal of Contemporary History 41, no. 4 (October, 2006): 663-683.

Harrison, Helen A., ed. Dawn of a New Day: The New York World’s Fair, 1939/40. New York: NYU 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, no. 3 (September, 1994): 341-373.

N.N. "Exiles from Reich Plan Fair Exhibit: Show would Interpret the ‘Old Culture of True Germany,’ According to Sponsors." New York Times, May 1, 1938, p. 41.

N.N. "Reich Withdraws from World’s Fair: Envoy Says Decision is Based on Financial Burden – Helium Reprisal Hinted in Berlin." New York Times, April 27, 1938, pp. 1, 17.

N.N. "U.S. Studies Plight of Aliens at Fair: Immigration Officials Will Not Force those of Nations at War to Leave." New York Times, October 30, 1940, p. 25.

Nye, David E. "European Self-representations at the New York World’s Fair of 1939." In: Cultural Transmissions and Receptions: American Mass Culture in Europe , edited by R. Kroes, R.W. Rydell, and D.F.J. Bosscher, 47-64. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1993.

Susman, Warren I. Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Tyng, Ed. Making a World’s Fair: Organization, Promotion, Financing, and Problems with Particular Reference to the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. New York: Vantage Press, 1958.

Archival Collections

New York World's Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records 1935-1945 (MssCol 2233 ), New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York, NY.

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