Weird, Weird World: Some strange world’s fair memorabilia

While cataloging Print Collection 47 Michael Zinman collection of World’s Fairs and Expositions material, I came across a significant amount of stuff — I don’t really have another word for it — that I didn’t expect. Any time I process a collection, of course, I inevitably run up against things that don’t seem to “fit,” that are surprising, or confusing, or just plain weird. But Print Coll 47 was eight boxes of nonstop weirdness, and I want to share as much of it as I can.


That there is so much of this material is a testament to the popularity — indeed the craze — of world’s fairs during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the modern world’s fair/exposition showcased new technologies and industrial progress in general. Many world’s fairs/expositions also centered around specifically nationalistic and at times generally western-imperial themes. (In a follow-up post, I will go into detail about the confluence of industrialism and imperialism in world’s fair advertisements.)

As consumerism took hold in the twentieth century, these events began to place a premium on showcasing new products and the supposed capacity for corporations to improve the lives of people around the world. Of course, historian Robert W. Rydell points out in World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) that this shift did not necessarily stem from a decisive move away from the “imperial dreams” of exposition organizers but rather reflected a need to marry “science and technology to the modern corporation as the blueprint for building a better tomorrow” (7). From the 1990s to today, the primary focus of world’s fairs/expositions shifted again as these events began to center more on displays of national image and cultural achievement. World Expos, as they are now typically called, continue to be held every few years, have only grown in size and expense, and tend to center on themes that foreground challenges faced by humanity as a whole.

From its beginnings, the institution of the world’s fair has always been an epicenter of weird memorabilia and souvenirs — as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people, fair participants wanted to make sure fairgoers remembered their experience. So here, without further ado, are some of the more quirky inclusions in the Zinman collection:

Box 2 Folder 11 (top) and Box 2 Folder 12 (bottom): Souvenir scale models of the Panama canal complete with topographic embossing from the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition
Box 2 Folder 23: Souvenir “golden book” replica from the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926. Fairgoers signed their names in the “golden book,” then the largest book in the world, and received this commemorative replica
Box 3 Folder 6: A century of progress indeed–this novelty ceramic chamber pot and toilet set from the 1933-4 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition shows how far we’ve come when it comes to nature’s call
Box 3 Folder 8: 3-D prints with “magic glasses” from the 1933-1934 Chicago, IL Century of Progress Exposition
Box 3 Folder 22 (top) and Box 4 Folder 4: Souvenir trivets from the Cleveland and New York expositions
Box 3 Folder 30: Promotional pamphlet from the most popular exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, with souvenir pin saying “I have seen the future” still affixed
Box 4 Folder 7: Souvenir prints, pennant, and ticket booklets from the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair
Box 4 Folder 18: Fantum-vu image of San Francisco Bay, 1939. Like an unused lotto scratcher from eighty years ago!
Box 4 Folder 19: From the 1939-1940 San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition, a thermometer in the shape of a key… for some reason. (Non-functioning.)
Box 4 Folder 30: Viewmaster reels from the 1958 Brussels Wereldtentoonstelling/Exposition universelle et internationale
Box 5 Folder 3 (top) and Box 5 Folder 26 (bottom): Postal musicards… Postcards that can be played on a turntable!
Box 5 Folder 16: A pop-up book from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair
Box 5 Folder 10: A sealed sugar packet, likely from one of the two original restaurants at the top of the Space Needle, which was the (literally) biggest accomplishment of the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle (The actual sugar was removed by Conservation at time of processing the collection–but the packet is still very much available!)


One response to “Weird, Weird World: Some strange world’s fair memorabilia”

  1. I remember that PENN’s Marching Band was among those who opened the NY World’s Fair. The displays from NY brought back good memories of the World’s Fair.

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