By Donald-Brian Johnson
Eighty years ago, the specter of global conflict had yet to reach American shores. With the Great Depression receding into memory, the country looked eagerly ahead. What would the future hold?
Well, for one thing, the dazzling New York World’s Fair. Billed as the “Dawn of a New Day,” the 1939-40 Fair promised its 45 million visitors a fascinating glimpse of the “world of tomorrow.” One lucky attendee: Chicago career gal Mildred Anderson.
In September, 1939, Mildred saw an ad for an “All-Expense-Paid Eight-Day Deluxe Tour” offered by Powers Tours (“America’s Old Reliable”). For just $49 (yes, you read that right), Mildred had quite a trip in store: Niagara Falls, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon, the Cumberland Mountains, and the star attraction: the New York World’s Fair! Noted the Powers brochure, “here you will experience a world of wonders!”
Mildred agreed wholeheartedly. Her “Officially Licensed New York World’s Fair Scrap Book” is jam-packed with memory-joggers: tickets; flyers, programs, napkins, matchbooks, placemats, sugar packets, soap wrappers, stationery, maps, menus, coasters, bottle labels, pencils, and even the occasional dried leaf .
Mildred also typed out 13 single-spaced, legal-sized pages detailing her journey, from boarding the train in Chicago (“The food and accommodations are excellent; the people in the tour are high-class and friendly; everyone is in a holiday mood”) to bidding her new friends farewell eight days later (“It was all more wonderful that I had imagined, and we hadn’t a single travel anxiety. Certainly well worth the money.”)
Greeting Fair visitors were two massive structures that have become its iconic symbols: the “Trylon,” a 700-foot-high needle-like pyramid, and the “Perisphere,” an enormous globe housing the “City of Tomorrow.” Mildred was properly impressed:
“The floor on which we stood revolved, denoting the cycle of one day. As we looked below, we saw a well-laid out city, with factories and business centers in the middle, and the homes in the suburban districts. As the floor continued to revolve, the light faded, it grew darker, and the stars appeared. We heard people singing, and saw them on a screen marching happily. It was a thrilling exhibit — a perfect city, all of its people happy and contented.”
With so much to see, and only a short time to see it in, (after all, there were all those other destinations to cram into eight days), Mildred had to pick and choose. Among her Fair favorites: the Lagoon of Nations (“Oh the lights! The fireworks! The waters!”), and the Telephone Building (“I had a test made of my telephone voice!”). The IBM Pavilion prompted some wishful thinking (“Wonder if I’ll ever have one of those electric typewriters?”), while the Life Savers Parachute Jump prompted chills (“You wouldn’t catch me on that!”) Tops on Mildred’s list: the spectacular Billy Rose Aquacade, starring “Tarzan” (Johnny Weissmuller):
“This was a beautiful water carnival of swimming and stunts. In one number, the swimmers wore swim caps which must have been covered with phosphorus. When the lights were turned off, the caps glowed in the dark!”
In 1964, 25 years after the first New York World’s Fair, a second Fair blossomed in the same location, and a new “world of tomorrow” beckoned. Fair visitors again poured into New York, (although $49 tour packages were definitely a thing of the past) filling scrapbooks with their own pieces of time. And they said goodbye just as reluctantly as Mildred Anderson:
“Our stay at the Fair had been filled with fun and interesting things to do, but there was so much more to experience! We were not quite ready to leave, yet leave we must. As our bus departed, we had to stop for some little time to allow hundreds of people to pass. People just like us, eager for their visit to ‘the greatest experience on earth.’ The beauty and grandeur of the Fair will be etched forever in my memory.”
Photos courtesy of Andy Kaufman (worldsfairauction.com), unless otherwise noted.
Digital photo restoration by Hank Kuhlmann.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. He was fortunate enough to acquire “Mildred’s Scrapbook” at a garage sale. Please address inquiries to: email@example.com