April 30, 1939: The 1939 World’s Fair Opens In New York

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In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of New York City businessmen decided to create an international exposition to lift the city and the country out of its economic woes.

Over the next four years, the committee planned, built, and organized the fair and its exhibits, with countries around the world taking part in creating the biggest international event since World War I. In contrast to the typically neoclassical fairs of the nineteenth century, the 1939 fair favored modernist industrial architecture. The iconic Trylon and Perisphere structures became the symbols of the entire fair; they housed a diorama called "Democracity," a utopian city of the future.

On April 30, 1939, the opening ceremony and President Roosevelt's speech were seen on black and white television sets across America. After Albert Einstein gave a speech that discussed cosmic rays, the fair's lights were ceremonially lit. 

One of the first exhibits to receive attention was the Westinghouse Time Capsule, which is not to be opened for 5 millenniums (the year 6939). The time capsule was a tube containing writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette safety razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and much more.

Although the United States did not enter World War II until the end of 1941, the fairgrounds served as a window into troubles overseas. When World War II began six months into the 1939 World's Fair, many exhibits were affected, especially those on display in the pavilions of countries under Axis occupation.

While the 1939 World’s Fair was not a financial success and the fair corporation filed for bankruptcy–mainly because bondholders lost money on their investment–in broader terms it accomplished many of its organizers’ goals. It was a hugely popular local and regional attraction, drawing about 45 million visitors over its two-year run.

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