The New York World’s Fair in Posters

Among the broad selection of Vintage Posters coming to auction on February 12 are a run of New York World’s Fair advertisements that were designed to promote the 1939-40 exhibition. Originally planned during the Great Depression as a tool for economic stimulus in New York City, the fair presented the optimistic theme “The World of Tomorrow.”

John Wenrich, New York World’s Fair 1939, 1936. 

John Wenrich’s 1936 rendering of the fair grounds shows the scope of the exposition, but does not include the two structures that would become the enduring symbols of the two-year event: the Trylon and Perisphere, immortalized in some of the best-known posters for the fair.

The Yugoslav Participation at the New York World’s Fair,
by an unknown designer, 1939.
JHR, Polish Pavilion / New York World’s Fair, 1938. 

While the NYWF was true to its themes of international exchange and innovation, and found some of its biggest cultural successes in the international pavilions hosted on the fairgrounds, it was also a business venture. Eastern Railroads promoted the “romance of transport” with a huge musical stage production, while educating a hopeful middle class on “the role transportation played in the opening and development of the vast American continent” (see catalogue entry for Leslie Ragan’s Railroads on Parade, pictured below). 

Leslie Ragan, Railroads on Parade / New York World’s Fair, 1939. 

Ultimately, the two-year run of the ’39-40 New York World’s Fair was an economic failure. When the corporation that funded the fair closed its offices in 1941, its archives were acquired by the New York Public Library. A portal on nypl.org includes extensive scholarship and digitized documents relating to the exhibition. 

“See the Fair from the Air,” Ride the AMF Monorail /
Visit the New York World’s Fair
, designer unknown, 1961. 

 

Rounding out the selection of posters are two images for the 1964/65 New York Fair. Once more looking toward the future, the mid-century exhibition combined consumerism, nostalgia and idealistic progress into spectacle. Again, though fondly remembered, it was not an economic success. 

See the Future First / General Motors Futurama New York World’s Fair, designer unknown, 1961.