In 1939, the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in New York City, the nation’s first capital, coincided with the opening of the New York World’s Fair. It was the second-most expensive and largest American world’s fair of all time, exceeded only by St. Louis’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Developers were permitted to develop 1,200 acres in Queens, the site of a former ash dump. Governments, corporations, civic groups, and smaller organizations worldwide set up pavilions and exhibitions in great numbers. They housed a diorama of a utopian city, Democity, which became the symbol of the entire Fair. A total of 206,000 people attended the Fair’s first day, even though some pavilions were still under construction. A total of 44 million people attended the Fair over two seasons, taking in marionette shows, thrill rides, girlie shows, and aquatic extravaganzas. Approximately 1,000 visitors watched the opening speech on 200 televisions throughout the Fair President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his opening speech.
Five of the seven zones had “Focal Exhibits,” with two Focal Exhibits housed in their buildings. Many structures were built on the fairgrounds, and many of them were experimental in many ways. Corporate or government sponsors encouraged architects to be creative, energetic, and innovative. Building designs, materials, and furnishings were innovative. Several of the zones were arranged in a semicircular pattern, centered on the Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz-designed Theme Center, which consisted of two all-white, landmark monumental buildings, the Trylon and the Perisphere, both of which can be accessed through moving stairs and exited via a curved walkway called the Heliline. Many exhibits were affected when World War II broke out four months into the 1939 World’s Fair, especially those in the Axis-occupied pavilions. In 1940, many of the Fair’s exhibits were demolished or removed, though some buildings were preserved for the 1964–1965 fair.
The Westinghouse Time Capsule was one of the first exhibits to attract attention, which wasn’t planned to be opened until 6939 (five millennia). There were many other items in the time capsule, including a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette safety razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and more. Additionally, the capsule contained seeds from common foods used at the time: alfalfa, barley, carrots, corn, cotton, flax, oats, rice, soybeans, sugar beets, tobacco, and wheat. The Fair hosted “Superman Day” on July 3, 1940. The event featured an athletic contest and a public appearance by Superman, played by an unknown actor. Although Ray Middleton, a judge for the contest, is often credited with wearing the Superman costume on Superman Day, he did not; however, he may have played Superman during a live radio broadcast.
In covering their first story by television, New York reporters got a foretaste of the future when the dedication ceromonies of the RCA Building at the New York World's Fair of 1939 were flashed eight miles through the air and reproduced in receivers at Radio City. This is an unretouched photograph of the building as it appeared on TV screens in Manhattan.