- Historic Sites
The Other Fair
New Yorkers recall 1939 as the year of the great World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. But that’s just more Eastern provincialism. Take a look at what was going on in San Francisco.
May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
My search reminded me how charmed we were in 1939 by incubators for premature babies, polygraph “lie detector” machines, transparent Lucite plastic (from which imaginative manufacturers were making shoes and telephones), anklelength angora socks, and goldfish swallowing. As regards nutrition, ham loaf with scalloped potatoes and frozen green peas was sweeping the country. (At any rate, it had taken our household by storm.) A man named Clarence Birdseye had patented a process for freezing and packaging fruits and vegetables, but so far it seemed to work satisfactorily only on strawberries and green peas. Our family’s diet, as I recall, was rich in radish roses and sweet-pickle fans, graham crackers, chocolate pie, Welsh rabbit, bologna sandwiches, Waldorf salad, chicken à la king, hearts of lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, cantaloupe balls, Swiss steak, skinless frankfurters, and creamed chipped beef on toast.
These things were woven into our lives in 1939 as tightly as Calox tooth powder, Mutt and Jeff, ski wax, the U.S. Cavalry, Speed Graphic cameras, A. B. Dick mimeograph machines, nightclubs, stripteases, De Sotos, the Hays Office, Kreml hair tonic, Heinz’s pepper-pot soup, Father Coughlin’s Social Justice crusade, midget auto racing, Knox hats, Victrolas, white lead house paint, Little Lulu, Royal Crown Cola, the Vitalis sixty-second workout, the Katzenjammer Kids, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Penner, Joe Palooka, fountain pens, Dufaycolor, the Dionne quintuplets (who were going on five times five), the Cunard White Star Line, Lastex swimming suits, slack suits, “Fee Itty Fitty in a Itty Bitty Poo,” BO, halitosis, tattletale gray (and its nemesis, Fels-Naphtha soap), Trucking, Pecking and the Suzy-Q, Spud cigarettes, the radio adventures of Little Orphan Annie, isolationism, Sadie Hawkins Day, the Dies Committee (later known as HUAC), the Works Progress Administration, the Maginot Line, and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
My memories run to further trivia: grassbomb wars in vacant lots and illustrated lectures about polar bears and the Valley of a Thousand Smokes delivered at Wheeler Hall on the Berkeley campus of the University of California by Father Hubbard, the Glacier Priest. Such memories are neither literary nor historical, but juvenile, personal, and ordinary. An ordinary boy named Richard filled an ordinary Woolworth’s scrapbook called “Building the Bridges and the Fair” with cuttings from the Oakland Tribune, pasted down with a glutinous mixture of wheat flour and warm water.
With profoundly ordinary sensations of curiosity and regret, I have flipped through the pages of that scrapbook and found that my album of memories, like its owner, has become a little quaint, irrelevant, and stiff with age. Richard saved a brochure called “Be the Guest of the West in “39,” which showed pictures of a golden-domed Temple of Music that was never built, and he clipped a photograph of Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse of baseball, who was quitting the New York Yankees because of an inexplicable decline in strength. But Richard failed to document the collapse of the world: the half-million exhausted survivors of the Spanish Loyalist army fleeing into France; Italy helping itself to Albania; the Japanese making the most destructive air raid in history upon the Chinese city of Chungking. Treasure Island, alone, was the focus of his vision, his peephole to the world.
As opening day approached, the press agents tormented us with previews of coming attractions. A young woman in shorts and boots and a skull-and-crossbones hat prowled the country, posing for pictures at horse shows and apple festivals. (All of this somehow related to the piratical traditions of Treasure Island, and newspaper editors loved those bare legs.) Towns around the bay decreed a week of fiesta. Teachers and clerks were wearing sidearms and sombreros, and the playground supervisors at our school had to confiscate an unusual number of cap pistols. I was apprehensive that my father would be lynched—or, at best, imprisoned and fined—for refusing to grow a beard. My father was himself an advertising man—he made up singing commercials in the shower—and he was not easily moved by other people’s ad campaigns. He declared that the opening day of the fair would be some kind of mess. The newspapers were reporting, with shameless exaggeration, that hundreds of thousands of exposition-crazed revelers were preparing to storm the gates. We would wait a day or so, my father said, until the crowds thinned out.