Primary Source: The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition
February 18, 1939
On February 18, 1939, eighty years ago today, the city of San Francisco and eleven western states kicked off the Golden Gate International Exposition. San Francisco was particularly proud of its twin engineering achievements: the Bay Bridge, completed in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge, completed a year later. The site of the exposition was the newly dredged Treasure Island, created just for the fair.
California and the rest of the United States were deep in the clutches of the Great Depression, so the exposition was seen as a way to spur the local and state economies. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the fascist leaders of Germany and Italy, respectively, had Europe on edge, while Japan had invaded China a year and half before. The Second World War would ignite later in 1939.
Jack James and Earle Weller, authors of “Treasure Island: The Magic City,” recall Opening Day.
Came at last the fateful day February 18, 1939 when the Magic City was to fling wide its gates. Years of discussing and planning months of construction on a project so ambitious as to stagger the imagination final weeks of frenzied furbishing, of last-minute checking and re-checking details. All this was over and done with now, and the idea that men had dreamed five years before had been given solid form, clothed in beauty far beyond the concept of the original dreamers. The Magic City stood ready, brave and awe-inspiring in the California winter sunlight.
Exposition President Leland Cutler leads off the speeches.
I have waited four years for this moment — waited as a mother waits for her child's first step — waited as a man who builds an ocean-going ship and, with bated breath watches it slide down into the water. Today our Exposition which we have been building becomes your Exposition. Treasure Island is offered today upon the altar of greater peace and greater good will among all the nations, among all the races.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses the crowd from Florida.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had visited San Francisco in July the previous year. Then, he told a thousand business, civic and political leaders gathered before him: “I think you people out here on the Pacific Coast, when you start to do something, do it better than anyone else in the United States.” Seven months later, more pressing presidential duties prevented him from opening the fair in person, but he broadcast his remarks over the radio.
From what I saw with my own eyes last July, I can well imagine the beauty of the completed undertaking . . .
I am quite open and unashamed in my liking for expositions. They perform a distinct service in acquainting people with our progress in many directions and with what other people are doing. They stimulate the travel that results inevitably in a larger degree of national unity by making Americans know their America and their fellow Americans. . . .
Many times, in the elaboration of what I call the Good Neighbor policy, I have stressed the point that the maintenance of peace in the Western hemisphere must be the first concern of all Americans — North Americans, South Americans and Central Americans — for nothing is more true than that we here in the New World carry the hopes of millions of human beings in other less fortunate lands. By setting an example of international solidarity, cooperation, mutual trust and mutual helpfulness, we may keep faith alive in the heart of anxious and troubled humanity, and at the same time, lift democracy high above the ugly truculence of autocracy.
And so, when I wish the Golden Gate International Exposition all possible success, it is as an instrument of international good will as well as an expression of the material and cultural progress of our own West and of our Pacific Ocean neighbors.
Images from the exposition.
The Santa Cruz Evening News informs its readers what’s happening up north.
Two days after the exposition opened, the Santa Cruz Evening News gave its readers an update on how things were going.
San Francisco took a cue from Hollywood today and decided after two days’ inspection that its new World’s Fair was “colossal” and “stupendous.”
Opened Saturday and viewed during its first two days by about 200,000 persons, the fair drew unstinted praise from virtually all who visited it on man-made Treasure Island in the middle of the bay.
The “Gayway” still had plenty of space left for additional exhibits and concessions but it was not expected to be in full swing until April and the start of an expected and hoped-for rush of tourists.
No one seemed to mind, however, for Sally Rand’s “Nude Rancherettes” were already called to the attention of police. There were protests that what Sally had done at the Chicago fair was to put on a fashion show compared to the amount of clothes worn by her “Rancherettes.”
Two broadminded policemen made an inspection and finally returned to report that everything was “lovely” and the Gayway a success if for no other reason than Sally’s exhibit.
On the more cultural side, there was some disappointment over the fact that a few federal and foreign exhibits were not ready for the public. Others, were, however, and drew excited crowds.
On one point, everybody seemed agreed. That was on the beauty of the island site, especially at night. Given a spectacular setting in the midst of one of the world’s most colorful bays, the fair became a fairyland of beauty at night.
Lagoons of still water were set off by Japanese lanterns hung low over the water on bushy trees. At numerous other points there were fountains surrounded by modernistic statuary and lined against the night by vari-colored lights.
Some of the fair’s architecture drew the praise of experts. Particular attention was called to the modernistic Federal and Administration buildings. The public seemed impressed with them all.
Fair attendants said the remark heard most often was: “What a shame they’ll have to tear it all down when the fair is over.”
The exposition was open from February 18, 1939 through October 29, 1939 and from May 25, 1940 through September 29, 1940.
I am currently working on a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.
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