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The Other Fair

June 2024
12min read

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.

A newspaper article the other day informed me that the late 1930s are back in fashion. Historical societies are girding to protect Art Deco. The clarinet of Benny Goodman is heard on compact discs. Designers are filching illustrations and typefaces from The Saturday Evening Post. If the trend continues, we may shortly be revisited by dotted swiss housedresses, junket rennet custard, the wimple, and the Studebaker sedan.

Followers of these and other modes would be appalled to know that among such stubbornly retentive human barnacles as me, the year 1939 never has gone out of fashion. We continue to regard it with a sort of speechless awe: a year that was both terrible and wonderful, threatening and reassuring, germinal and terminal. In my own life 1939 was a fulcrum year, a portal, and, perhaps because of that, I think of 1939 as the pivot of the century. It was the year in which Billy Rose brought synchronized swimming to the New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. Mickey Rooney played the title role in a movie about Huckleberry Finn. Pabst beer had a real blue ribbon attached to the neck of every bottle. For me, it also was a year of glandular crisis, marked by the onslaught of acne, orthodontia, and dreams that I did not wish to disclose to my parents.


It is not for the minor occurrences, of course, that 1939 is remembered, but for its perplexing web of failure and fulfillment: the outbreak of World War II in Europe and the opening of two simultaneous world’s fairs on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America.

The conventional explanation of this strange concurrence of elation and despair is that Europe was trigger-happy and America was asleep. I do not remember its being that way at all. To the contrary, I, for one, was nervously wakeful, and I think there were innumerable other twelveyear-old American boys, as well as Americans of much riper age, who were alert to the likelihood that there would soon be gunfire all over the earth and that our country would be compelled to take part in it. Aloof, perhaps, we hoped to stay, but not asleep. Since the beginning of the century, empires had been falling around us like rotten trees. The Osmanli, Hapsburg, Romanov, and Manchu dynasties were gone. Although the British had not yet joined Nineveh and Tyre, and the French, the Dutch, the Belgians, and the Portuguese were hanging on to their dominions over palm and pine, people everywhere were rearranging the palace furniture and cleaning out the drawers. Just as the year began—and in the aftermath of Neville Chamberlain’s compact with the Germans at Munich—Key Pittman, the Nevada Democrat who then headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, handed out an oddly naive statement summing up his own and many Americans’ view of the world:


“1. The people of the United States [Senator Pittman declared] do not like the Government of Japan.”

“2. The people of the United States do not like the Government of Germany.”

“3. The people of the United States … are against any form of dictatorial government, Communistic or Fascistic.”

“4. The people of the United States have the right and power to enforce morality and justice in accordance with peace treaties with us. And they will. Our government does not have to use military force and will not unless necessary.”

It is hard to imagine anyone in public office nowadays making such an arrogant and unguarded pronouncement, but that, too, was characteristic of America in 1939. We still believed that it was possible to uphold great ideas, moral rectitude, and institutional superiority without being forced to do anything about them. Our two world’s fairs were redolent of idealism, an almost blind faith in the goodness, truth, and beauty of our national ethos, which had survived the demoralizing social changes of the 1920s and the unnerving economic reverses of the 1930s. The West Coast fair, which opened in San Francisco in February, styled itself “A Pageant of the Pacific” in tribute to an imaginary fusion of cultures, a nonexistent American-dominated brotherhood of nations around the rim of the Pacific. The East Coast fair, opening two months later in New York, unveiled a vision of an equally illusory “World of Tomorrow,” shaped by then-prevalent American notions of benevolent capitalism, streamlined product design, and visionary city planning.

To kids like me in northern California, the West Coast fair—officially called the Golden Gate International Exposition—was the third and most exciting in a trio of magnificent projects that seemed to cap our most ambitious dreams. For five years we had been watching the building of an impossible span across the Golden Gate and of the longest suspension bridge in the world across San Francisco Bay; and now, in celebration of those attainments (and, somewhat confusingly, in recognition of our national hegemony over the Pacific, our city fathers, with substantial help from the federal government, had built a four-hundred-acre paddy of Sierra boulders and tidal mud called Treasure Island, smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and had invited the world to gather and make merry.

In the smug little city of Oakland, where I lived, battening on Fleer’s Double-Bubble gum, Fleischmann’s yeast, Hornby’s oats, and Upjohn cod-liver oil, there was widespread indignation that New York had tried to steal our thunder. (Even in those days, Oakland was paranoid: our Chamber of Commerce called us “Treasure Island’s Mainland.”) I developed a strong dislike for a man named Grover A. Whalen, an Eastern dandy with a fussy little mustache and a white carnation in his buttonhole, who was pictured frequently in Liberty and Collier’s and Life, raving about how large and beautiful and modern the New York World’s Fair, of which he was the president, was going to be. We Westerners knew that the New York fair would actually be “modernistic” and “futuristic,” terms that were vaguely disparaging even in 1939.

To me it was self-evident that our fair, so ingeniously constructed, so stylishly designed by the very team of San Francisco architects who had created the much-admired Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, would be nothing less than the climax of American civilization. Through the efforts of innumerable press agents, we knew a great deal about the fair even before it opened. We knew, for example, that the sands of Treasure Island harbored precious metals: Clyde Vandeburg, the publicist who had named the island, invited the former President Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer, to check the soil, and Mr. Hoover, who was not known for overstatement, found flecks of gold that he reckoned had washed into the bay from inland dredging. We knew, as well, that the fair would have a unique architecture, borrowed from Mayan, Incan, Malayan, and Cambodian archeology. Its inventors called the style Pacific Basin. That this style turned out to be simply a form of decoration, laid over the slats and plaster of temporary exhibit halls, never troubled us. There was a certain dignity about the Beaux-Arts ground plan of courtyards and vistas that stirred wistful memories of the 1915 fair, and our Tower of the Sun, although it was as spindly as a gutted herring and certainly was not Cambodian, at least was not obscene, like New York’s Trylon and Perisphere.


Our fair would offer puppet shows, plane rides, and model gold mines. On an outdoor stage twothirds as long as a football field, there would be a pageant called “Cavalcade of the Golden West,” with conquistadors, stagecoaches, steam engines, and Indians on horseback. The curtain would consist of twenty-five hundred jets of water, sparkling with colored lights.

Months before the muds of Treasure Island had jelled beneath the pilings of a single building, our neighborhood drugstore began selling colored postcards that showed an enormous island, floating like Venice in a milky blue lagoon, surmounted by towers that dwarfed the downtown office buildings of San Francisco. Inflamed by this vision, Skip Johnson and I constructed an island in Trestle Glen Creek and laid out an international exposition. It had an illuminated theme building of coffee cans and candle stubs and an amusement zone devoted to rope swinging, stepping-stone leaps, and upstream wading.


Many of my memories of 1939 are of this childish stuff. My literary tastes in those days ran to S. S. Van Dine, E. Nesbit, and Arthur Ransome, and everyone I knew was following Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, week after week, in The Saturday Evening Post. My world was peopled by celebrities I read about in Life. Shirley Temple, who was a year younger than I, had led the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Jane Withers threw a slam-bang thirteenth-birthday party in Hollywood. Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck got married. The Selznick studio, after an extravagantly publicized search that went on for two years, chose an English actress named Vivien Leigh to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone with the Wind. The Grand Lake Theater was showing Gunga Din.


Research, not recollection, allows me to embellish this glamorous picture with a few statistics. The population of the forty-eight United States was 131 million, and the birthrate was falling. The U.S. Census Bureau predicted that by 1980 our nation would have topped out at 150 million and begun to shrink. The Depression of the thirties was still with us; 10 million were unemployed. Ice-cream cups sold for five cents. One could buy a new Hudson sedan, f.o.b. Detroit, for $695, and eat dinner en route on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s all-coach Trail Blazer, New York to Chicago, for seventy-five cents. In Baldwin Manor, a suburb of Pittsburgh, developers opened a twelve-room, three-story, whitewashed-brick house designed by the architect Royal Barry Wills to meet the budget limitations of a family with a yearly income of $5,000. A federal relief check, typically, was $29 a month.

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.

It turned out that thousands of others, envisioning mob fury in the style of Cecil B. De Mille, decided to eat their sandwiches at home and listen to the madness on the radio. Only 130,000 passed the turnstiles, about half as many as the management had anticipated. Those who had the fortitude to reach the island found caramelcorn and fried-potato vendors, rickshaw pullers, weight guessers, and Hum-a-Tune sellers anxiously waiting to serve them. College men in blue and gold uniforms rushed out, offering rides in rolling chairs and round-the-island tours on Elephant Trains. Loudspeakers serenaded the crowd with “The Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” and “Ferdinand, the Bull with the Delicate Ego.” In music, as in architecture, the exposition was conservative. The ferries broadcast “I Sailed Away to Treasure Island” with ceremonial regularity. The governor of California, Culbert Olson, was on hand to turn a jeweled key, and President Roosevelt spoke by radio from Key West, Florida. The President, whose mind was evidently on matters of state, said it was a fine thing when a country could acquire a new island without military aggression.


My classmates brought back tantalizing reports: Sally Rand, the fan dancer, had this “Nude Ranch” where the women wore nothing but gun belts and bandannas, and children couldn’t go in. The Uffizi Gallery of Florence had sent a painting of a naked woman standing on a shell, called Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. A Pan American B-314 Clipper that flew to China was floating in the south lagoon, and you could watch them working on it at the Aviation Building. Rancho Soup was giving out free samples of vegetable beef. At the Gayway they had this giant crane that took you up a couple of hundred feet, but the wind would freeze your butt off; and they had this Diving Bell where you went down to the bottom of a tank and a giant octopus wrapped its arms around the windows.


Before long I, too, had seen it all, or was on my way to doing so. The wonderful exposition that had been growing in my mind ripened suddenly into a multitude of sensations: the smell of corn on the cob and cotton candy, the sound of Goldman’s marching band, the taste of salt wind. I made repeated assaults on Sally Rand’s ranch and was repeatedly denied admission. I saw with my own eyes the Navajo sand painters, the Raphael Madonna, and the Hills Brothers movie about coffee beans.

World’s fairs, I have learned, have no continuity, no climax. They have a beginning and an end, but the middle does not move. This peculiarity showed up recently in a book of transcribed interviews with fifty veterans of Treasure Island (The San Francisco Fair: Treasure Island, 1939–1940, Scottwall Associates, San Francisco, 1989). Two or three had met adventure at the fair. Dorothy Takata, while dancing at the Japanese Pavilion, had been allowed her first glimpse of the husband her parents had selected for her. Jerry Bundsen had slipped into the costume of an Indian scout and died defending General Custer from the Sioux at the “Cavalcade.” And Joe Sprinz, who was the catcher on the San Francisco Seals baseball team, gained agonizing celebrity when a ball that was dropped from a blimp eight hundred feet above slipped through his glove and smashed into his face.

But for the most part our impressions (I was among those interviewed) were just that: little dents in the brain, left by the sight of a celebrity, a flicker of colored light across the water, or something sweet and buttery to eat—the Dutch pancakes, the scones with jam, the creamed tuna in a patty shell. We remembered the Guatemalan marimba band, the Australian wallaroos, the giant cash register that showed the day’s attendance, the electronic voice called Voder, the transparent car, the mule-faced lady at Ripley’s Odditorium.

So it is that one goes elsewhere for chronology. On March 15, while Treasure Island was celebrating San Francisco Architectural Club Day, Adolf Hitler completed his protective arrangements with President Emil Hàcha of Czechoslovakia and sent German soldiers into Prague. In May the maharajah of Karputhala came to Treasure Island, wearing a turban and gripping a goldheaded cane. On August 23 Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship and alliance, and on September 3 the Allied nations declared war on Germany.

The seamless pattern ended on October 29. The exposition closed, six weeks early and $4,166,000 in debt. New York was even worse in debt, and the world had clearly gone to hell.


Too suddenly, the unforgettable, primogenous 1939 had joined the other dead, departed years, and for the moment it appeared that it had not been special after all. The war in Europe settled into a deceptive lull. The two world’s fairs announced that they would run another season, with louder music, brighter colors, and bolder showgirls. I remember my exhilaration, entering a new decade. The thirties had been all that I had known. The forties, I was certain, would be an improvement.


In May, Treasure Island was with us again—repainted, replanted, and furnished with swing bands in person, artists in action, and a new “Cavalcade.” This time the opening coincided, more or less, with the German army’s major push through the valley of the Somme toward Paris. Billy Rose’s “Aquacade,” the most profitable attraction of the New York fair, came west, took over a barny auditorium on Treasure Island, and turned a few more millions. (Louella Parsons, the Hollywood columnist, reported: “Johnny Weissmuller, Esther Williams and Morton Downey are the biggest 40 cents worth of entertainment I ever saw.”) Bewitched by the water ballet of “Aquabelles” and “Aquabeaux” in fluorescent bathing caps, I took up windmill swimming and comic diving. The warring world receded.

As in New York, the second year’s run allowed the investors to recapture a little of their lost money and self-respect. It also permitted us Americans to continue our defiant whistling in the dark. When the time came to dim the lights at the end of the last evening, Marshall Dill, the president of the exposition, acknowledged that our escapade was over: “We have been joyously tending our garden while all around us the world has been bent on destruction. I like to think that all the peaceful legions that have trooped through this fair have had their spiritual wells deepened and are now prepared for whatever Fate may have in store. … ‘The feast is over and the lamps expire.’”

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