I recently began researching a small piece for the World War I Centennial Commission social media page when I came across these remarkable photographs taken during the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. If you do the math you will note that we are currently in the middle of the fair’s 75th anniversary. It was a fascinating historical moment because the Depression was finally starting to lift, while at the same time the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. The fair began on April 30 and the German invasion of Poland was on September 1. Needless to say, these and other events wreaked havoc on the fair and its hope for a batter world of tomorrow. The Second World War also had immediate concerns for event planners from the dozens of participating nations. For instance, which constituency would represent this or that recently conquered nation in the fair’s pavilions? Would it be the resistance leaders or the representatives of the new regime? Or neither? Perhaps a country’s organizers would be better off shutting down their nation’s pavilion and washing one’s hands of the entire matter. How does one celebrate knowing the news of such death and destruction back home? These are the issues they dealt with.
The photos here are of American Civil War veterans at the fair. I wish I could date the images more precisely but as of yet cannot. I hope to do more with this in the future. In some cursory digging I discovered that Civil War veterans went to the 1939-1940 World’s Fair on several occasions. Helen D. Longstreet, Pete Longstreet’s widow, was at the fair at least twice. In June 1939 she was there to dedicate an exhibit of Confederate artifacts at the Florida Pavilion. A month later–on 2 July 1939, the 76th anniversary of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg–she appeared again. Her appearance came one year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the unveiling of the Peace Light Memorial.
The very week the Germans and Soviets were dividing Poland Civil War vets inspected the tanks of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade at the fairgrounds in Queens. Again, it is not clear when these photographs were taken. The one of the soldiers standing in front of the Lincoln statue says it was taken on Lincoln’s Birthday. The heavy coats would seem to corroborate that. I would guess the photograph was taken in 1940 but it could have been 1939 when the final touches were being made in preparation for the opening that spring. Note the photo of Robert E. Lee. This was quite consciously a reconciliationist effort on the part of the organizers.
A young girl admires the medals of a Civil War veteran. One can imagine that Americans found comfort in the presence of these aging soldiers as war was getting underway yet again. The Second World War’s role in the reconciliation process is often overlooked.
Here are our friends in blue and grey yet again. I am not sure of the building in front of which they are standing.
This past August I took this photo of the rear of the New York City Building. This is today the Queens Museum of Art.
Here is a mosaic commemorating the fair. This area today is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. I took these two photos on my way to a Mets game.
(images of Civil War veterans, NYPL)