Monday, August 22, 2011

1939 New York World's Fair

James Melton's Stanley Steamer at the World's Fair

The James Melton collection at the American Jubilee Pageant

Last week my e-friend Tim Martin forwarded me several photos from the 1939 World's Fair, so without further ado, that's my topic for today.

In April of 1939 the New York World's Fair opened. A much-needed antidote to the Depression, it touted technology as the means to economic prosperity, not only for Americans, but as a ray of hope in the midst of Europe's troubling times. Among corporate sponsored exhibits at the New York World's Fair, American automobile companies figured hugely. The General Motors “Futurama” was a 36,000 square-foot scale model of what America would be like in the 1960s, a good deal of which vision was based on the supremacy of the automobile. The Ford Motor Company “Road of Tomorrow” showed how the automobile industry spread employment, from raw materials through manufacturing to sales.

While the theme of the Fair was progress and modernity, the American Jubilee Pageant, largely sponsored by Studebaker, celebrated what we’d come from, America’s past glories. My father was asked to provide ten antique cars to be driven in the Pageant four times a day. In order to assure ten in constant working order, he had to have many more than that. By opening day he owned thirty. What a convenient excuse to expand his collection. The cars on display ranged from an 1896 Ofeldt Steamer to a 1914 Packard twin-six seven passenger automobile.

The American Jubilee Pageant was an extravaganza with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II—a kaleidoscope of American social and political history from George Washington to “the next president” who would be elected in November 1940. The revolving stage on which the pageant unfolded was 270 feet in diameter, large enough to accommodate horses, buggies, cars, it was complete with details like real flowers growing in real earth in real gardens. There were 350 performers in various vignettes about George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and “the next President.” Cars from the collection of James Melton were featured in a section called “The Struggle Buggy Days,” which included twenty-four long-legged “American Beauties,” and tableaux about financier and gourmand “Diamond” Jim Brady and turn-of-the-century singer Lillian Russell. The venue for this exhibit alone held 7,000 people. Admission was 40 cents.

In September 1939, the Bell Telephone Company (for which my father later starred on radio in the weekly “Telephone Hour”) in cooperation with the Veteran Automobile Club of America, sponsored a “Veteran Automobile Day” at the World’s Fair. It included prizes for the most picturesque costumed driver, the car driven from the greatest distance, and events such as a race in reverse gear, and a cranking contest, all of which was followed by participation of the cars in the American Jubilee program itself.

It seems amazing to me that during the Depression four cities managed to mount major expositions—Chicago’s Century of Progress (1933), the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas (1936), San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition and the New York World’s Fair (1939). They were all celebrating hope and progress. The New York World’s Fair opened in April of 1939, the following September, Hitler invaded Poland.


  1. Second car in the line looks to be a CDO!! It is very hard to tell as most of the car is obscured, but that might be my car. The lamps look identical. Wheels are wrong, but they may have been replaced later. You can see photos of the car today at my blog

    1. Great to hear from you Bradley. I always enjoy knowing who is the current owner of one of my father's cars. Although I don't have information about the history of cars in my father's collection, I'll have a look in my "archives" and see if I have a photo of the 1901 CDO. If you want to contact me directly, my email is: Thanks for writing!