The Records of the Fair Itself


Thomas G. Lannon

The Records of the New York World's Fair 1939 /1940 Corporation were deposited at The New York Public Library in 1941. A massive repository of files, the records of the Fair represent all of the paper content generated by the Corporation’s administration, which spread over five floors in the Empire State Building. As reported in The American Archivist, the journal of the Society of American Archivists, these records “amounted to ten tons and included correspondence, press clippings, signatures of distinguished guests, financial documents, photographs and other materials.” Now held in over 2,500 boxes in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at NYPL, the records comprehensively document an event that brought 45 million people to fairgrounds covering more than 1,200 acres in Corona, Queens.
Significant insofar as the records are a source of study for the Fair as a whole, perhaps their greatest importance lies in the fact that over half of the records are those maintained by the Central Files Department, the Fair’s core administrative division. Beyond painting a picture of the totality of the venture, they capture the inner workings of the World's Fair Corporation as if frozen in time, thus presenting to contemporary researchers a model of the record keeping system in a typical 20th century office place. It was an office place dominated by the file clerk, stenographer, carbon duplicator, and mimeograph machine — and, perhaps most notably, a female office manager named Katherine Brougher Gray.

The World's Fair administrative offices in the Empire State Building.

The Fair was a polycephalic beast. As early as 1934, a coalition of business executives including Grover Whalen, Percy Straus and George McAneny (of Shenley Distilleries, R. H. Macy’s Department Store, and the Title Guarantee and Trust Company, respectively), met to discuss possible economic improvement through hosting a World’s Fair in New York City. The effort was no small business venture. They quickly secured an original investment of 40 million dollars and established the New York World’s Fair Corporation. The City of New York then further appropriated a sum of 26.7 million dollars, the bulk of which went to making permanent improvements and the development of Flushing Meadows Park on the 1,216-acre site. Designed to be an instant economic catalyst, its buildings and amusements were not intended to stand the test of time and would be torn down in 1940 to make way for a new city park — part of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’s long-term agenda to improve New York City.
With McAneny as Chairman, and Whalen as President, the World’s Fair Corporation also included a Vice President as well as Legal, Press, Treasury, Personnel, and Purchasing offices. An additional 25 departments were established to help bring the world together to celebrate the future of commerce on a former ash heap in Flushing Bay. With a mandate to open by 1939 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the swearing-in of George Washington as President, the Fair’s offices surely stirred at a frenetic place.
It was into this busy atmosphere that Katherine Gray arrived early in the summer of 1936. A transplant from Texas, Gray was a champion athlete, had studied Spanish at the National University in Mexico City, and was in New York to work on an M.A. in Mexican literature at Columbia University. Perhaps in recognition of her talent, she was given the title of Office Manager and told to look after files and mail. Gray was immediately besieged by complaints, as hundreds of executives and administrators responsible for day-to-day operations were unable to retrieve files necessary to support the rapid progress of the Fair.

Fair office manager Katherine B. Gray, at a preview of the Fair for department store executives.

Fair office manager Katherine B. Gray, at a preview of the Fair for department store executives.

The Fair’s filing system had been set up initially by a single employee when the Corporation occupied a smaller office at 176 Broadway. This employee had made carbon copies of all outgoing letters and filed them with the incoming responses according to subject. An alphabetical card index, including the name of the individual and corporation of each letter, was the key to the subject file. When Fair offices moved to the huge floors 23-28 of the newly constructed Empire State Building, its files were put into an alphabetical index devised by representatives of the business machines manufacturer, and prominent Fair exhibitor, Remington-Rand, Inc. The Remington-Rand alphabetical index did not require a card file. With no additional cards to type, the files could therefore be managed by fewer staff. It called for a yellow and a pink carbon copy to be made of every typed letter. The yellow copies were to be filed in a subject file, with the pink copies filed in an alphabetical file according to the name of the person or firm addressed. Remington-Rand, however, acted only as consultant to the Fair. The five women, file clerks and indexers who staffed the Central Files, were not trained well enough to maintain the Remington-Rand system. Files thus grew disorderly.

A female employee in the World's Fair offices is instructed to "think."

An office wedding shower is held for a World's Fair employee.

As office manager, Gray was stuck between complaints from Fair staff who needed but did not receive important records from the Central Files, and from those of the file clerks who considered missing files a problem of disorganization on the part of the Fair staff. In June of 1937, Gray successfully appealed to Grover Whalen for a new system to be devised. Along with file clerk Miss Engel (whose first name is missing from the record), Gray originated a new alphabetical system with a card file system, the Master Card Index, and distributed this to all Fair secretaries to classify material sent to Central Files. The alphabetical system was basic — A for Administration, PR for Public Relations — but it worked to consistently store and recall important documents. Correspondence sent to Central Files was classified, indexed, filed by subject and then cross-referenced by name of individual and organization in the alphabetically-arranged Master Card Index. “I am convinced that salesmen for office furniture and equipment are apt to be too enthusiastic in developing methods of filing and other office procedure that will finally result in purchase of the equipment. In the salesman’s desire to sell equipment, sometimes the efficiency of the system installed is overlooked,” Whalen wrote to his staff. The approval of the President of the Fair to change the filing system improved Gray's position within the Fair Corporation. She would be one of the women Whalen could point to as occupying important roles in administering the affairs of the New York World’s Fair.

A careful watch is maintained over all material produced in the duplicating section of the Fair's offices.

A careful watch is maintained over all material produced in the duplicating section of the Fair's offices.

On August 9, 1937 President Whalen issued Executive Order No. 33, the procedure governing the filing of correspondence, to all Division and Department Heads. It read:
“Organizational Units are instructed to send to the Central Files all correspondence and Inter-Departmental Memoranda to be retained by the Corporation for reference or record purposes.... Secretaries will send to the Central Files a YELLOW CARBON copy of each outgoing letter and the Original White copy Inter-Departmental Memoranda where retained for reference or record purpose.... Secretaries are to see to it that all INCOMING letters sent to the Central Files are accompanied by the yellow carbon copy of the outgoing letter.... Secretaries are instructed to write “File” and enter their name and initials in the upper left hand corner of all papers.... Where the subject content of a letter is not apparent, secretaries are instructed to indicate in the upper left hand corner, the nature of its use to enable the assignment of the proper subject classification.”
Here was defined the filing system of the Central Files of the New York World's Fair 1939/1940 Corporation, according to which the files now held by The New York Public Library were created. Between 1939 and 1940, the Central Files added over 300 pieces of paper per day to its files from over thirty departments. Whalen himself would spend evenings and weekends in the Central Files combing through and adding to the record.

The original classification system, as set up by Gray, is available on pages 650-663 of the NYPL Finding Aid.

The original classification system, as set up by Gray, is available on pages 650-663 of the NYPL Finding Aid.

The original classification system, as set up by Gray, is available on pages 650-663 of the NYPL Finding Aid.

Gray toiled on as the Fair marched towards opening day ceremonies in 1939. As Office Manager she created a list of items required to be in stock in the Fair’s offices. Between 500 and 3,000 reams of mimeograph paper were to be on hand at any time. An additional 1,000 reams were needed in canary, blue, pink, green, and goldenrod, and at least twenty pounds of black mimeograph ink were to be at the ready. This very paper and ink now rests in the archives of the New York World's Fair at The New York Public Library. Organized according to the efficient and successful filing system of the Office Manager, the archives are a one-of-a-kind resource in the history of communications and technology.

An example of a yellow carbon copy, as filed via Gray's system.

Thomas G. Lannon has been a New Yorker since the year 2000, but still doesn't tire of taking cell phone photographs of the Empire State Building. He is thrilled to be a part of NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division.


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