World's Fairs are very special times and places. For all too brief a time they transform an everyday setting into someplace magical, one of exotic landscapes, international foods and visitors, playful architecture and projections of the future. Although they are with us for just a short time, they often leave long-lasting memories with those lucky enough to attend. Happily, they also leave behind a wide array of souvenirs, including photographs that forever memorialize these international galas.
I have long been interested in world's fairs, and have been fortunate enough to have visited several of them. Over the years I have collected thousands of photos and am pleased to be able to share some of them with you on this site. I hope you will enjoy these glimpses of these long gone wonders. Click on the tickets below to start your trip back in time.
The site is undergoing a major redesign, so please let me know if you spot anything that managed to get broken or lost in the process.
- Bill Cotter
A Century of Progress:
The 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair
It took six years and cost $100 million, but on May 27, 1933, the gates swung open on the biggest birthday party the city of Chicago had ever seen. The Century of Progress Exposition, better known as the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair, commemorated the amazing progress that had been made since the founding of the city just 100 years earlier. Many of America's largest companies joined with countries from around the world to showcase their histories and advertise their newest products. The road to opening day was not an easy one, with the Great Depression making it look like the fair might never be built, but thousands of small investors stepped forward to help close the financial gap. The fair went on to an unprecedented second season, and when the gates finally closed after the last of the 39 million visitors went home, it had achieved something quite rare among world's fairs: earning a profit.
The Golden Gate International Exposition: The 1939-40 San Francisco World's Fair
In 1939 the world was treated to two World's Fairs. While the New York one is the better known of the two, San Francisco also entertained visitors with the Golden Gate International Exposition. Held on the newly built Treasure Island, the GGIE was a smaller event, featuring pavilions with striking architectural designs, fountains, statues and colorful floral displays. The Exposition was successful enough that it was retained for a second season in 1940. The GGIE is also known as the 1939-40 San Francisco World's Fair.
The 1939-40 New York World's Fair
After enduring 10 harrowing years of the Great Depression, visitors to the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair found welcome relief in the fair’s optimistic presentation of the “World of Tomorrow.” Pavilions from America’s largest corporations and dozens of countries were spread across a 1,216-acre site, showcasing the latest industrial marvels and predictions for the future intermingled with cultural displays from around the world. Well known for its theme structures, the Trylon and Perisphere, the fair was an intriguing mixture of technology, science, architecture, showmanship, and politics. Proclaimed by many as the most memorable world’s fair ever held, it predicted wonderful times were ahead for the world even as the clouds of war were gathering.
Expo 58 - Brussels
Expo '58 was the first World's Fair following World War II. Held in Belgium on the outskirts of Brussels, it was a popular event for many Europeans. Due to the high costs of international travel it didn't attract a large American audience and thus is not as well known here as other fairs.
The 1962 Seattle World's Fair
When the United States entered the 1960s, the nation was swept up in the Space Race as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in rocket and satellite technologies. Cities across the country hoped to attract new aerospace companies, but the city leaders of Seattle launched the most ambitious campaign of all. They invited the whole world to visit for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, and more than nine million people took them up on the offer.
The 1964-65 New York World's Fair
The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair was the largest international exhibition ever built in the United States. More than one hundred fifty pavilions and exhibits spread over six hundred forty-six acres helped the fair live up to its reputation as "the Billion-Dollar Fair." With the cold war in full swing, the fair offered visitors a refreshingly positive view of the future, mirroring the official theme: Peace through Understanding.
Expo 67 - Montreal
In 1967, Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding with a spectacular party, and the whole world was invited. Montreal's Expo 67 was the first world's fair held in Canada, and it was a huge success, attracting over 50 million visitors. The 1,000-acre site was built on two man-made islands in the St. Lawrence River and incorporated 90 futuristic pavilions created by some of the world's greatest architects and designers. Over 60 countries were represented, along with many private, corporate and thematic pavilions, all brought together under the theme "Man and his World."
HemisFair '68 - San Antonio
HemisFair '68 was small, at slightly over 96 acres, but it was fun. Held in San Antonio, Texas, it featured the theme "The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas", celebrating the many different cultures that have made Texas so vibrant and alive.
Expo 70 - Osaka
Japan's first world's fair celebrated the theme "Progress and Harmony for Mankind." Seventy-eight countries exhibited along some of Japan's leading companies, making for a hugely popular and successful event. More than 65 million visitors enjoyed the six month run.
Expo 74 - Spokane
In the late 1960s, Spokane’s civic leaders were desperately looking for a way to revitalize a large section of downtown, especially a motley collection of little-used railroad lines and polluted industrial sites along the Spokane River. Their solution was to use the area for Expo ’74, which was billed as the first ecologically themed world’s fair. Critics predicted the project was sure to fail, as Spokane was the smallest city to ever host a world’s fair, but history proved them wrong.
Expo 75 - Okinawa
The island of Okinawa's "International Ocean Exposition" focused on the sea. The theme was "The Sea That We Would Like To See", and the main pavilion was a giant platform constructed offshore from the land-based pavilions. Pavilions explored the problems mankind had caused to marine life, with suggestions on how improvements could benefit all of us, as well as how the sea has helped define many island cultures. There was also a demonstration system for a proposed environmentally friendly mass transit system.
Portopia '81 - Kobe
The Kobe Port Island Exposition was held on a man-made island at Kobe, Japan from March 20 to September 15, 1981. The theme was "Creation of a new Cultural City on the Sea".
The 1982 World's Fair - Knoxville
The 1982 Knoxville World's Fair is perhaps best known today for two things - the Sunsphere, which was the theme symbol of the Fair, and for it's appearance in an episode of "The Simpsons". During it's six month run, May 1-October 31, the Fairgrounds were a busy spot indeed, with more than 11 million guests enjoying the sights. Today, a park and the Sunsphere remain to provide a link back to the days of the Fair.
The 1984 World's Fair - New Orleans
The 1984 World's Fair is known by several names. The official name was the Louisiana World Exhibition, but is was also known as the New Orleans World's Fair and, to some, the Louisiana World's Fair. What the Fair is really known for, though, is that it was the last World's Fair held to date in the United States. It's also sadly remembered as being the only World's Fair that was forced into bankruptcy during its operating season.
Expo '85 - Tsukuba
Expo '85 was held at Tsukuba Science City, a planned city near Tokyo which had been built as a research and development hub for Japanese companies and government departments. Construction began in 1963, and for 1985, a major expansion took place with the addition of Expo '85. Running from March 17 to September 16, Expo '85 was a Special Exposition under the rules of the BIE, the international organization that sanctions world's fairs.
Expo 86 - Vancouver
To mark the 100th anniversary of the city’s founding and the arrival of the first trans-Canada train, Vancouver’s political and business leaders invited the whole world to participate in the festivities. The result was Expo ’86, and more than 22 million people came for the party. It took eight years of planning and hard work to transform a former railroad yard into a colorful showplace full of pavilions and shows for the six-month event, but those lucky enough to have been there would agree that it was worth it.
World Expo 88 - Brisbane
World Expo 88, also known as Expo 88, was part of Australia's Bicentennial celebrations. Thirty-five countries joined in the party, and more than 15 million guests attended.
Expo 2000 - Hannover, Germany
Sadly, Expo 2000 was one of the least successful of modern world's fairs, despite an attendance of more than 18 million. Guest reaction to the exposition was often quite negative, with many expressing that they were disappointed in the heavily commercial messages in many of the pavilions. Happily, from a photographic point of view, Expo 2000 was quite entertaining.
There's also a section for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. My visits to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair led to my working for Disney, and as an avid photographer I have enjoyed capturing scenes from the Disney parks.
I've always enjoyed writing and photography. I haven't tried to make a living at it, but over the years I have been fortunate to have convinced people to publish some of my efforts. Here's some information on the world's fair books I've written, shows I've worked on and other things that have helped pass the time. All of my non-fair projects can be found on my other site, billcotter.com.
Interested in restoring your own pictures?
A lot of people have asked me how I have been able to restore the photos featured on this site, in my books, and on the CD sets. I put together a page of information on the hardware and software I have been using. The key thing you will need is patience - it can take a bit of time to undo the ravages of time, but the results are worth it.
Got a case of cabin fever from being cooped up to avoid the coronavirus? Me too! I'll be doing a series of world's fair talks on Zoom to help escape the news for at least a little while. Please check out the schedule of upcoming events, and let me know if you have suggestions for others.
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