1940: National Uncertainty

share

Deborah Engel

Changes during the course of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair reflected a period of significant transition for the United States. At the beginning of the Fair, the country was waking up from the traumas of the First World War and the Great Depression. By the second season, it was steadily moving towards the crisis of the Second World War. The optimism of the first year yielded to a confused 1940 season, characterized by countrified amusement, patriotic countenance, devices of escapism, and reflections of war.

The planning of the 1940 season brought a new theme for the Fair: "For Peace and Freedom." The welcoming address to fairgoers was written by Harvey Gibson, who had taken charge of the Fair as Chairman of the Board (while the President of the World’s Fair Committee, Grover Whalen, retained his title, the power went to Gibson). The new season of the Fair, he wrote, afforded “in its new amusement zone, a respite from the problems which afflict the world today. Here the people of the United States will in truth find ‘Peace and Freedom’ — and a welcome which we believe will be a cherished memory throughout their lives.”

Gibson was intent on making the Fair more approachable to the so-called average American. He introduced an “everyman” named Elmer, “the man who was going to make millions for the Fair.” The portly and cheerful Elmer was portrayed on posters all over the country that read “Makes you Proud of Your Country — World’s Fair 1940, in New York. Opens May 11, Admission 50 cents — For Peace and Freedom.” New York Times reporter Sidney M. Shalett wrote, “the Fair threw open its gates ... and found itself immediately captured and converted into a democracy of Elmerania.”

A poster for the 1940 season emphasized patriotism with the American flag and George Washington's statue.

Fair President Grover Whalen (left) shakes hands with newly elected and empowered Board Chairman Harvey Gibson.

Fair President Grover Whalen (left) shakes hands with newly elected and empowered Board Chairman Harvey Gibson.

In sync with "Hello Folks," Fair Chairman Harvey Gibson introduces Elmer, the folksy mascot.

In sync with "Hello Folks," Fair Chairman Harvey Gibson introduces Elmer, the folksy mascot.

Along with fifty attractive women, Elmer welcomed the crowd and handed out lapel pins that said “Hello Folks.” The aphorism was everywhere, though most significantly, it was projected onto the Perisphere. On Elmer and the folksy campaign, Shalett remarked, “the transformation was almost totalitarian in its completeness.”
Opening day, May 11, 1940, was “dedicated to a good time for every one who comes.” Admission was reduced for the second season in the hopes of appealing to more people. In order to keep the mood spirited, the ceremonies were more casual than for the 1939 season, when both President Roosevelt and Albert Einstein had addressed the crowds. To generate fun, two parades were held featuring celebrity personalities. The Boy Scouts upheld the pointed patriotism of the day by forming a giant human American flag during their opening ceremony. The crowds filled up the entirety of the grounds in under a half-hour.
While the majority of the Fair remained intact for the 1940 season, examples of visual patriotic reminders included the display of 53 American Artists in the Gallery of Science and Art, organized by IBM’s Thomas Watson. The World of Fashion in 1940 showed “the United States can be independent of foreign fashion influence whenever it wishes, and it wishes now.” The Contemporary Arts Building was renamed American Art Today, which also emphasized the nationalist character of the exhibit.
Another injection of patriotism was the renaming of Fountain Lake, home to Billy Rose’s Aquacade, as Liberty Lake. The show during the second season concluded with “a patriotic tribute to Yankee Doodle.”

The new 1940 slogan promoting neighborly spirit was proudly displayed on lapel labels handed out on opening day.

The new 1940 slogan promoting neighborly spirit was proudly displayed on lapel labels handed out on opening day.

Come nightfall, an illuminated “Hello Folks” greeting was projected onto the Perisphere.

Come nightfall, an illuminated “Hello Folks” greeting was projected onto the Perisphere.

Fireworks light up the skies over the newly renamed Liberty Lake.

Fireworks light up the skies over the newly renamed Liberty Lake.

The most overt attempt to infuse fun into the Fair with a distinctly American propagandistic flair was a new musical event entitled American Jubilee. It was the work of prominent artists: composed by Arthur Schwartz with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Leon Leonidoff, and produced by Albert Johnson. It included over 300 performers and 40 trained horses, recreating scenes from American history on a 300 foot long stage. Characters included Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, highlighting periods that could instill pride into the American public psyche and impress the foreign visitors.
The war was a reality, regardless of how Gibson sought to overshadow it with his patriotic propaganda and escapist tactics. After a few weeks when visitor turnout was lower than predicted, he tried new techniques. Despite Elmer’s central position at the opening, Gibson fired him after two weeks. He believed that either people were not in proper spirits to attend the Fair, or people were too anxious to leave their source of news and therefore did not go to the exposition. His solution was to collaborate with a radio station to make five-minute news updates each hour from 10 am to 10 pm, and additional announcements with any worthy bulletins. After two days, however, the announcements ended when visitors of the Fair seemed indifferent. Whalen, when asked about it, remarked “just let it stand as it is and forget about it.” One restaurant had a sign asking patrons not to discuss the war at the bar. There was concern that the conversation would instigate conflict. Others did not want the war to interfere with the recreation of the Fair.

“Abraham Lincoln” in his dressing room backstage.

The “Bicycle” number during the American Jubilee.

The war, however, forcefully intruded into the international pavilions. At the beginning of the 1939 Fair, only Czechoslovakia had been overtaken by Hitler. By the 1940 season, several countries had fallen and the rest of the continent was sinking into the conflict.
The war most violently arrived at the Fair on July 4, 1940, when a bomb was found in the British Pavilion. The British Pavilion was popular because the country was considered a last holdout against Germany. There were even more people interested in it that day, the date of American independence from Britain. Although two police officers lost their lives, the Fair was not significantly impacted. For either financial concern or fear of mass panic, the Fair was kept open and the pavilions were all opened the next day on time.
As an example of the unforeseen juxtaposition of Fair and war, by the summer of 1940, it had been reported that the army’s military troops were going to start training on towers that resembled the Parachute Jump. This innocent thrill ride would take on a new level of meaning. It was a symbol of what could be to come, presumably anxiety-inducing for young men of military age.
The country was progressively edging towards war, and the Fair held activities to avoid, commemorate, and prepare for it. October 15 was titled "I Am an American Day," with 500 people reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the Court of Peace. The last night of the Fair, October 27, 1940, ended with a lavish fireworks display over the Lagoon of Nations. Dedicated to “The Spirit of George Washington,” the finale was especially poignant when the lights ultimately fell on the Court of Peace and the foreign pavilions. The crowd was brought to silence until the band broke into "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The 1940 season of the New York World’s Fair was set against a backdrop of a world deteriorating. The sometimes aggressive patriotic displays served to comfort the masses while reassuring them of their own prominence. The disregard for the calculated aesthetic themes of the first season were a reflection of the change from Whalen to Gibson, but ultimately influenced the way visitors were to experience the Fair. This season at the Fair embodied the chaotic temperament of a nation heading to war.

Thousands participated in the mass Pledge of Allegiance during "I Am an American Day."

Thousands participated in the mass Pledge of Allegiance during "I Am an American Day."

Sources Cited

“Big Foreign Area Assured for Fair; 49 Exhibitors Due.” The New York Times. February 27, 1940.

Bird, Robert S. “Cheers at Fair Give Poll on Nominees.” The New York Times. July 20, 1940.

Bracket, Milton. “War Broadcasts Ended By the Fair.” The New York Times. May 22, 1940.

Cotter, Bill. The 1939-1940 New York World's Fair. Charleston: Arcadia, 2009.

“Fair Will Open at 10 A.M. With Balmy Day Forecast.” New York Times. May 11, 1940.

“Fair Will Stage Gigantic Musical.” The New York Times. Feb 15, 1940.

“Gas Wonderland Will Rise At Fair.” The New York Times. March 11, 1940.

Gelernter, David. 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. New York: Free Press. 1995.

Mauro, James. Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World's Fair on the Brink of War. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.

New York Public Library Archives. http://www.nypl.org/archives/3873.

New York World’s Fair Official Guidebook of the 1940 Season. New York: Rogers, Kellog, Stillson, Inc., 1940.

Shalett, Sidney M. “Fair to Broadcast Hourly War News.” The New York Times. May 18, 1940.

Shalett, Sidney M. “Folksy World’s Fair Off to a Good Start.” The New York Times. May 19, 1940.

Shalett, Sidney M. “‘Hello Folks’ Is the Watchword as Elmer Takes Over the Fair.” New York Times, May 12, 1940.

Shalett, Sidney M. “War Theme Holds Attention at Fair.” The New York Times. June 7, 1940.

“Synthetic ‘Elmer’ 1940 Fair Greeter.” New York Times. April 13, 1940.

Wood, Andrew F. New York’s 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Postcard history series. Charleston: Arcadia, 2004.

Zim, Larry, Mel Lerner, and Herbert Rolfes. The World of Tomorrow: The 1939 New York World's Fair. New York: Harper & Row. 1988.

Deborah Engel is a Master’s candidate in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Parsons, The New School for Design. She worked for six and a half years at Tepper Galleries in New York City as a 20th-century design specialist after graduating summa cum laude from The George Washington University with a BA in Art History.

 

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options