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The World's Fair and World War in the National Numismatic Collection

As an intern in the National Numismatic Collection, Scott St. Louis has been working on a cataloging project for a collection of coins and medals from various World's Fairs, including the pivotal New York World's Fair of 1939–40. The pieces from the New York fair illustrate a striking transition. Originally looking to the future with a theme entitled "The World of Tomorrow" in 1939, the fair changed its tune in the 1940 season, offering instead a wistful yearning for a world of "Peace and Freedom" following the advent of the Second World War in September 1939.

With these words, President Franklin Roosevelt opened one of the 20th century's great celebrations of democracy and the future: the New York World's Fair of 1939–40:

"All who come to this World's Fair in New York . . . will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future. Yes, our wagon is still hitched to a star . . . of progress for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship . . . and, above all, a star of peace. May the months to come carry us forward in the rays of that eternal hope."

This momentous event commemorated the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration while offering visitors a utopian vision of a society liberated from want and conflict by consumerism and technology.

In this video, you can see some of the fair's attractions. "Treasures of The New York Public Library: The New York World's Fair, 1939–40."

Coin with portrait of George Washington
Coin featuring iconic architecture of the World's Fair, sphere and monument

Keen on offering fairgoers a respite from the harsh realities of the Great Depression, planners spared no expense on buildings that illustrated the hopefulness of the fair's original theme: "The World of Tomorrow." Two imposing structures, futuristic in the elegant simplicity of their geometric design, served this purpose. The first was the Trylon, a three-sided tower that rose seven hundred feet in the air. Next to the Trylon was the Perisphere, a hollow globe with a diameter of two hundred feet.

Photo of coin

Photo of coin

Visitors to the fair waited in line for hours to see the interior of the Perisphere, which boasted a massive diorama known as "Democracity." Designed by Henry Dreyfuss, the attraction treated spectators to a glance at a utopian city in the year 2039, where citizens from all walks of life lived in perfect harmony. It offered viewers an attractive, if only momentary, escape from the tensions of an unstable world.

Black and white illustration

In spite of such ostentatious features, those listening to the president at the fair's opening ceremony in April 1939 may have found little reason to hope for a democratic and prosperous future. Just a few weeks earlier, the Spanish Civil War had officially ended in victory for the forces of Francisco Franco, aided by equipment and soldiers from Nazi Germany. During March and September of the previous year, Hitler had acquired control of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Several years earlier, in 1935, the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia. It would not be long before the frightening events overseas would impact the fair.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, bringing about the official beginning of World War II. It was a sunny day on the fairgrounds, and by that afternoon visitors were drawn to the Polish building in huge numbers. For months after the invasion, crowds would frequently assemble around the building to hear a trumpeter sound the Hejnal, a traditional anthem of Polish resistance, from the pavilion tower. As legend has it, the Hejnal ends on a broken note as a tribute to the watchman who originally sounded the call in 1241. He alerted the citizens of Krakow to an impending Tatar invasion before being pierced in the throat by an arrow. The Polish delegation members soon used their pavilion to display photographs of the violence and destruction inflicted upon their home country.

Coin with portrait

Photo of coin with tall tower and tree

By the end of the fair's first season in October 1939, the organizers recognized that "The World of Tomorrow" had lost its appeal due to the outbreak of war in Europe. When the Fair opened its gates for a second season on May 12, 1940, it had been re-branded with a new theme: "For Peace and Freedom."

Photo of coin

Photo of coin

A coin marking the second season of the New York World's Fair, reopened in May 1940 under the new theme "For Peace and Freedom." Historian Marco Duranti has suggested that the use of Washington's image at the fair may have served the purpose of providing "a comfortable colonial counterpoint to the anxieties of modern life," an observation which likely was especially true during the fair’s more solemn 1940 season.

The fair closed its doors on October 27, 1940. Most of the fairground structures were torn down, their materials set aside for a burgeoning U.S. defense program. Materials from the Polish pavilion were purchased by the Polish Roman Catholic Union in Chicago, where they remain today in the Polish Museum of America.

An underappreciated interpretive resource for historians, the commemorative coins produced during the New York World's Fair of 1939–40 amply capture the changing outlook of the fair's planners and visitors: their hopes, their fears, and their vision of an enticing future, beyond the uncertainties and losses that had so clearly scarred their own time.

Scott St. Louis is an intern in the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History.