The Buyable Past
The 1939 World’s Fair was a showcase for modern-age marvels ranging from nylon to television. Displayed in settings devised by top architects and designers, they provided walloping doses of wish fulfillment for people just emerging from a deep economic depression. Hitler may have been reaching for the light switch in Europe, but Albert Einstein flipped the one that illuminated the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds in the New York City borough of Queens as the exposition opened. In an atmosphere heady with optimism, visitors lined up for the leading attraction, General Motors’ Futurama, which carried them through a planned urban landscape in moving chairs and sent them away with buttons that read, “I have seen the future.” Tens of millions of fair goers took home other mementos as well.
Many of these mementos picture the Trylon, a pointed, three-sided pylon that rose 610 feet above the fairgrounds, and an adjoining globe-shaped edifice called the Perisphere. Together these unusual sibling structures form a sleek motif that gives considerable visual interest to the fair memorabilia they adorn, while Art Deco, the era’s reigning de sign style, enhances their appeal.
A lot of these keepsakes are downright cheap. A charming postcard might cost $5.00, and other paper items, including maps, guidebooks, and the like, are readily available for not much more. Plates are a popular souvenir category, and a recent Web search turned up a colorful Haute Deco example 10 inches in diameter produced for the fair by Homer Laughlin; the seller was asking $200. For the same amount, you can buy an atmospheric 11-by-14-inch photograph by Harold Webber, who took numerous nocturnal shots at Flushing Meadows. His son now offers numbered limited-edition prints made from the original negatives and matted for framing. (View them at