It has been a half century since the last truly “great” world’s fair was held in the Flushing Meadows section of New York City near LaGuardia Airport. And for most Americans alive today, the grand international exhibitions that were popular for about a hundred or so years seems oddly quaint.
However, in the era before television, the Internet and other rapid forms of mass communications, World’s Fairs were important ways to display new inventions, new products and sometimes landmark architectural structures.
Surely the most famous of the structures was the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, where Gustave Eiffel built his 89-story tower as the fair’s entrance. Since then, it has become synonymous with the City of Light, where its 125th anniversary has been celebrated with a restoration project this year.
The first major World’s Fair was opened in 1851 in London. Famous for its “Crystal Palace,” this fair was built in Hyde Park and it was the brainchild of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert.
Though nobody knew it at the time, these international exhibits were in their waning days when I was young. They have always fascinated me. When the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair opened, I was in the second grade and we learned about it in “My Weekly Reader,” the newsmagazine for children that was distributed every week in our classroom at Greathouse School.
Like most American children in 1958, I had no expectation that I would be able to see the fair in person. But simply reading about some of its wonders and seeing a bit about it on television certainly created a hope that someday, perhaps, I might visit such a magical fair. Our nation had its own spacious pavilion in Brussels that included a color television studio and an electric computer that was programmed to provide historical facts.
Three major expositions were held in the U.S. in the 1960s. The first, in 1962, was in Seattle, where the monorail and Space Needle were the two most notable features. They have been preserved in the years since, and a few years ago I attended a convention there and rode the monorail to at luncheon atop the Space Needle. It was really cool, just as it was intended to be when it was built 52 years ago.
The fair I most hoped to see came along two years later. The New York World’s Fair of 1964-65 was something of a landmark in my youth. Its hype was amazing. One of its partners was none other than Walt Disney, whose company designed several of the pavilions and who promoted the fair repeatedly on his weekly television series, “The Wonderful World of Color.” Another partner was media titan Henry Luce, whose Time-Life publications covered the fair aggressively. So did the other glossy magazines of the era, including The Saturday Evening Post and Look.
Like many 13-year-olds, I dreamed of going to that fair. Years later, I read E.L. Doctorow’s novel “World’s Fair” (about a young boy in Brooklyn who dreamed of going to the 1939 New York World’s Fair) and his yearnings resonated with me. A couple of times I thought I had persuaded my parents to take me. Once we were in Pennsylvania, on a vacation to the Dutch County, Gettysburg and Washington. I found a copy of the Official Guidebook in the hotel gift shop, and I tuned to a New York radio station. We seemed so close, but, no, my father said, we really couldn’t afford it.
He got to go, and I was so much in awe that I couldn’t be jealous. He was there on my birthday, having received a trip as a reward from his company, General Electric. So for my birthday, all I wanted were souvenirs from the fair, and he did not disappoint. To this day, I have an official blue, orange and white pennant hanging on the bulletin board by my computer. I have a pencil sharpener with the “Unisphere” (see the illustration with this story)—which was the fair’s centerpiece, an Eiffel Tower of sorts for the ’60s—on my bureau. I have pencils in a coffee mug that says, “I had a coffee break at the New York World’s Fair.” On my birthday, my father trooped over to the Florida Showcase at NBC, where tourists used to hold signs to greet the folks back home on the “Today” show. He held a sign saying, “Happy Birthday, Keith” and I saw it live. Later that day, the Western Union man arrived at the door and provided me with a singing telegram. And I have many color postcards of the different pavilions.
The inventions that fair visitors saw included a picture telephone (which finally, through the wonders of iPhone and FaceTime,we have today). Pope Paul II sent Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” a magnificent sculpture of Mary holding the crucified body of Christ in her lap, from Rome to the Vatican pavilion. Indeed, the Pope himself came to New York to visit the fair. He also addressed the faithful at Yankee Stadium.
The fair was the brainchild of one man, Robert Moses, who was known as “The Power Broker” and was the subject of an award-winning biography by Robert A. Caro in 1975. Moses was a titan of the 20th century in New York, but he was also feared and loathed. Nevertheless, the fair may have been his greatest achievement.
Walt Disney’s contributions included the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion, which included a ride featuring small puppets who sang the catchy song, “It’s a Small World.” It proved so popular that the pavilion was permanently located in both Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida. Another popular exhibit was the Hall of Presidents, where a life-like robotic figure channeled Abraham Lincoln. Ski lifts and monorails transported people around.
Two years after the New York Fair closed another fair opened in Montreal. Expo 67—widely considered the most successful exhibition of the century—drew over a half-million visitors on the third day after its opening. I actually almost made it to that fair, sort of. My family received in 1966 a wonderful trip to Canada, again courtesy of General Electric, and we stayed part of the time in a ski resort at Mont Gabriel in the Laurentian Mountains, and part of the time in Montreal. We were taken to the construction site of the fair and treated to a beautiful luncheon in one of the first pavilions to be completed.
By the ’70s, world’s fairs were on the decline. The last big American fair was in Knoxville, Tennessee, of all places, in 1962. It became known as one of the most corrupt boondoggles in American history, thanks to the financial shenanigans of one of its main boosters, Jake Butcher, whose United American Bank failed the year after the fair closed. This fair was close enough that my wife and I were able to visit it on an October afternoon. Knoxville is a nice city (I spent a year of my childhood there in the late 1950s) but it was ill-equipped for such an undertaking. My main memories are that it was hot and crowded and we were glad to see it and go home.
Three other fairs to remember: St. Louis hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, which remains familiar to many of us 110 years later because of the 1944 film musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland. That was where Puffed Rice cereal, waffle style ice-cream cones and Dr Pepper were introduced. “Meet Me in St. Louis” became the nation’s most popular melody.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago was the site of the White City, a dazzling architectural display by the noted firm of McKim, Mead and White. The fair commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Recently, Erik Larsen’s best-selling book “The Devil in the White City” was set at that fair. Visitors were able to taste for the first time Cream of Wheat and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. They also saw demonstrations of dishwashers and fluorescent light. And they stood in line to ride the first Ferris Wheel.
But then there was the great 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Robert Moses cut his teeth on this one, but the primary mover was a man known as New York’s official greeter, Grover Whelan. It was designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Washington’s first inauguration, and addition to a grand statue of the first president, the fair boasted two remarkable structures, the giant globe, Perisphere, and the even taller Pyramid-shaped Trylon. Like structures at past and subsequent fairs, these were designed to be temporary, with steel frames and plaster board facades. After the fair closed in the fall of 1940, they were razed and their pieces used for World War II armaments.
This fair opened only months before Hitler invaded Poland, and among its most poignant events was the visit of the young King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth. They spent a day at the fair and then went up the Hudson to Hyde Park for a picnic with President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. There are many good books and documentaries about this fair, none better than the 1984 film “The World of Tomorrow.”
By all means, if I were able to time-travel, that’s the place where I would go.