The 1939 NYC World’s Fair History
I first learned about the 1939 New York World’s Fair while reading Esther Williams’s autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid. Williams writes vividly about her experience swimming in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Wait. Aquacade? What’s an Aquacade?
A couple of hours of deep-dive Internet research later, I learned that Billy Rose’s Aquacade, which got its start at the 1937 Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, Ohio, was the highest-grossing attraction of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and a showcase for Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weissmuller, both celebrities of the era. Not only was I fascinated by the accounts of the Aquacade—its elaborate production, the behind-the-scenes intrigue—but I also became enchanted with the history and details of the 1939 fair itself, which was the largest, most expensive fair ever held costing $155,000,000 and covering 1,216 acres in the borough of Queens in New York City.
I immediately conjured the idea of writing a character who swam in the Aquacade, and the novel developed from there.
To research the fair, I read books, pored through websites and newspaper archives, and watched endless hours of newsreels and amateur videos of the fair. I placed order after order on eBay for souvenirs, maps, actual copies of Today at the Fair, and the official fair guidebook.
My favorite part of the research was visiting the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens and the nearby World’s Fair Visible Storage exhibit at the Queens Museum to get a feel for the scope. How extraordinary it was to actually walk the paths that my characters did, to appreciate firsthand how massive the fairgrounds were, and to see remains of the fair, though there are few.
The historic details of the 1939 New York World’s Fair are impressive—the story of its conception, the planning and construction, President Roosevelt’s personal outreach to foreign governments, the specifics of each and every pavilion and exhibit, the esteemed visitors, the strategy behind the lighting and sound… I could go on and on. It’s also critical to understand what was happening in the United States and abroad during the late 1930s to fully appreciate how the technological, scientific, and social advances celebrated at the fair were received by fairgoers and the media. I encourage you to investigate further, as discovering those particulars is most definitely worth the effort.
There are so many aspects of the fair I found fascinating that didn’t make their way into the final version of We Came Here to Shine. For instance:
An Oasis: The Fair Corporation spent $1,500,000 on landscaping and considered the endeavor a serious and important undertaking; thus, the grounds were lush with trees and flowers. Plantings around the fair’s 1,216 acres included 10,000 live trees; 400,000 pansies; 500,000 hedge plants; 250 acres of grass; and a million tulips given as a gift by Holland.
Rainbow of Colors: The colors of the buildings were part of a master plan conceived of by the fair’s Board of Design. Thus, from the Trylon & Perisphere (the only true white buildings on the grounds), the structures on each of the main thoroughfares extended in a particular color, deepening toward the darkest version of that color the further it was from the center. For example, the buildings along Constitution Mall progressed from rose to a deep burgundy. Additional colors were utilized in murals, sculptures, and other effects.
The Daily Count: The National Cash Register Company erected the world’s-largest cash register (forty-feet tall) atop a building in the Amusement Zone. It displayed the real-time attendance of the fair in giant numbers that measured two-and-a-half feet tall.
Introducing…Television: At its exhibit in the Communications and Business Systems Zone, RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, revealed television for the first time. With the assistance of RCA employees named Miss Television, fairgoers were able to participate in a demonstration which allowed them to see themselves on the screen. In addition, the first commercial television broadcast in New York was of the fair’s inaugural ceremonies on April 30, 1939.
Meet the Middletons: The Westinghouse Electric Company created an hour-long film as a clever way of advertising their exhibit at the fair. It starred the fictional Middletons of Indiana, who were meant to represent the typical American family visiting the fair, and is still available for viewing here. Today’s observers have argued that the film is a piece of corporate propaganda and an argument for Capitalism over Communism, but it serves as an important audio/visual relic of the fair in its glory.
Masterpieces of Art: This art exhibit was worth $30,000,000 and was heralded as “one of the most important exhibitions of old masters ever displayed under one roof.” There were approximately 500 paintings and sculptures spanning the years from the Middle Ages to 1800 and featuring artists such as Da Vinci, Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, and Michelangelo. Artwork was lent from museums around the world.
Do Not Open ‘Til 6939: Westinghouse buried the first time capsule on September 23, 1938 for display at the 1939 fair. More than 100 items meant to represent life at the time were inside, including: Bausch & Lomb eyeglasses, slide rule, plastic Mickey Mouse child’s cup, Elizabeth Arden makeup, Camel cigarettes, asbestos cloth, dollar bill, wheat seeds, a leather-bound rag-paper copy of the Holy Bible, and messages from noted men including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. The capsule also included a fifteen-minute newsreel containing speeches by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Howard Hughes, and Jesse Owens; clips of sporting events including a Harvard-Yale football game and the Big League All-Star baseball game of July 1938; a fashion show in Miami; and a demonstration of the United States’s military prowess from an event at Fort Benning, Georgia. Westinghouse also created a time capsule for the 1964 New York World’s Fair that was buried on October 16, 1965. A monument at the site of the time capsules still stands at its original site at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, NY.
Fun Facts About the Aquacade
Trudy: Another star of Billy Rose’s Aquacade was Olympic gold medalist (Paris, 1924) Gertrude Ederle. She is known as the first woman to swim across the English Channel. On August 6, 1926, she departed Cape Griz-Nez, France just after 7:00 A.M. and arrived at Kingsdown, England fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes later, beating the records of the five men who had accomplished the feat prior to her.
Brrr: May temperatures in New York City in 1939 were colder than normal, which resulted in unpleasant pool conditions for the swimmers. Thus, Billy Rose installed an expensive heating system in the pool to keep the water at seventy-five degrees. As fall weather crept in, Rose put in an additional $10,000 to increase the pool temperature to eighty-two degrees. Rose also spent around thirty dollars a day on steaming hot coffee to keep his swimmers warm.
Heading West: After its great success in New York in 1939, Billy Rose also staged the Aquacade at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. He chose seventeen-year-old Esther Williams, a champion swimmer who would become a Hollywood film star, to be the female lead, and she was joined by male lead Johnny Weissmuller. (Olympic gold medalist and film star Buster Crabbe took over Weissmuller’s role in New York to swim alongside Eleanor Holm—at that point, Mrs. Billy Rose—during the New York fair’s 1940 season.) Williams’s Aquacade audition was held at the L.A. Athletic Club pool during her lunch hour from her job at the I. Magnin department store where she earned seventy-six dollars a month. During that audition, Williams wanted to show Rose how strong she was, so she dove into the pool and handily completed 100 meters. Rose told Williams that instead of swimming fast he wanted her to “swim pretty” and offered her the job on the spot. She boarded a train to San Francisco the very next night. In her fascinating and informative autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams recounts episodes when she was seduced by both Rose and Weissmuller. She tells of confidently rebuffing them both.
Thwarted Dreams: Before swimming in the Aquacade, Eleanor Holm was a champion swimmer who had won a gold medal in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. However, in what would become a scandal of the time, while on the S.S. Manhattan en route to Berlin for the Olympics, Holm was kicked off the team after being accused of being drunk and breaking the 9:00 P.M. curfew.
Aquabelle Number One’s Salary: Esther Williams was swindled by her unethical agent while swimming in the 1940 Aquacade. She entrusted her agent with her finances and was unaware of what her salary was. Billy Rose issued Williams’s weekly $500 paychecks to this agent, but he took more than his fair share and paid her only $125 a week. Master of Ceremonies Morton Downey (another man Williams, in her autobiography, accused of harassing her) revealed that information to her. Holm apparently made $2,000 a week in the same role, but, according to Williams, this didn’t bother her as Holm was more accomplished. Williams would go on to confront her agent, and this episode became the inspiration for a storyline in We Came Here to Shine.
Still want to learn more about the fair? I highly recommend the following:
The 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair by Bill Cotter: Written by a noted World’s Fair historian, this book is a perfect introduction to the fair with a comprehensive combination of representative photos and informative text.
The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams: This is the book that piqued my interest about Billy Rose’s Aquacade. It also gives a great behind-the-scenes account of being a movie star in the middle of the last century.
The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich: This book tells the story of the discrimination suit filed against Newsweek in 1970. Though it’s set thirty years later than We Came Here To Shine, if you’re interested in the topic of women in journalism, it’s a must-read. Also, I loved the TV spinoff, Good Girls Revolt, and was disappointed that it was canceled after the first season.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson: If you love world’s fairs then check out this book that tells the stories of two men—one a famed architect, the other a serial killer—and their ties to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The World of Tomorrow: The 1939 New York World’s Fair by Larry Zim, Mel Lerner & Herbert Rolfes: I read a lot of books about the New York World’s Fair of 1939; this is the most comprehensive and has hundreds of photographs.
1939nyworldsfair.com: A breezy, enlightening, and well-organized website created by World’s Fair historian Paul M. Van Dort that contains everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the New York World’s Fair of 1939.
Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks: This book is a collection of short stories. One in particular, “The Past Is Important to Us,” is about one man’s visit to the New York World’s Fair of 1939. The story has an interesting twist and wonderful descriptions of the fairgrounds and exhibits.
- Today at the Fair: Courtesy of Paul M. Van Dort, 1939NYWorldsFair.com
- Parachute Jump: New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library
- Baby Incubators: New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library