1939 New York Fair

//1939 New York Fair
1939 New York Fair 2015-07-17T10:16:53+00:00

The World of Tomorrow: 1939 New York World’s Fair

Carolyn Clark

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (39NYWF) was a momentous event in many ways.  It bridged the decade of depression to the years of global warfare, providing a brief respite of how the world might look.  60 of the 200 odd buildings were from Nations, ringing a "Court of Peace".  When Czechoslovakia was invaded by Germany, volunteers kept their Pavilion open as a clear protest. 

Devised during the height of the Art Deco years, the designs for this event, from the architecture and street furniture to the products on show and souvenirs, stand out as a deco beacon.  Set in 1,216 acres at Flushing Meadows in Queen’s, New York, the fair attracted 50 million visitors: the day’s figures were displayed on a giant cash register on top of the National Cash Register Co’s building.  The scale and innovation of the 39NYWF were a major influence on Disney’s, leading to Disneyland.  

This was the Fair that celebrated the marvels of technology. There were new ideas for travel and production, and even robots and Sparko, the electric dog.   The potential of newly evolving plastics were also fully exploited.   At the 1939 NYWF, people saw the first use of nylon, Lucite and Plexiglas.  Kodak also launched Kodachrome transparencies and there were colour home movies and 3D film using Polaroid glasses.

The trylon and perisphere buildings stood on a lake at the heart of the fair, and provided the evocative logo.  This photograph shows a cast phenolic resin image of the trylon and perisphere as a pencil sharpener.  This moulding was also made with a thermometer on the trylon, and comes in a range of colours.  The perisphere itself had a diameter of 180 feet and rose 18 storeys high.  The Trylon was 610 feet high.  Inside the perisphere, people visited "Democracity, a perfect model of a perfect world to come in 2039.  And if that was a tall order, it was at least a perfect showcase for the modeller’s art.

The inventiveness of the fair is reflected in the souvenirs.  A huge range is available, many using plastic.  These include celluloid badges, powder compacts and pen knives, a plastic cruet made by Emeloid Co. in blue or orange (the colours of the fair), joined, and shaken one way or the other depending on whether you want salt or pepper.  Remington produced a special bakelite electric razor with the Fair logo on.  There are also bakelite ashtrays, book marks, pens, pencils, coasters and beakers etc.  Many souvenirs were made from "Syrocowood".  This is a thermoset material which is 90% wood produced by the Syroco company in New York.  This material looks like wood and is moulded to make things like dishes, bookends, backing for thermometers or brooches and even radio surrounds. This illustration is of a Bakelite letter opener, button and badge from the Mobil Gas pavilion.

Jewellery abounds: a completely plastic chain bracelet has tiny plastic images of the Fair’s buildings as charms.  There’s also a brass ring with a neon green ‘stone’ moulded as the trylon and perisphere.  Below is a celluloid covered powder compact and there are numerous brooches, buttons and gizmos (my favourite is the Pocket Sun Dial, but the everlasting match with a little phenolic ball on the top comes close second). 

 Catalin or phenolic resin brings a host of items, including a napkin ring of the trylon and perisphere.  A scent bottle combines materials with a green or amber phenolic resin base, metal Trylon spike and a glass perisphere holding the perfume with rubber stopper and paper label. 

Little remains of the site today, but the Queens Museum of Art, in the original New York City Building, has a permanent exhibition of the Fair.  I can recommend that you visit www.websyte.com/alan/nywf.htm whilst searching on Ebay under 1939 New York World fair will identify dozens of chances to own a piece of history.  The best books are "The New York World Fair 1939/40" by Richard Wurts, published by Dover and ‘Trylon  and  Perisphere’  by  Cohen,  Heller, Chwast published by Abrams.