Just in time for the 72nd anniversary of New York’s 1939 World’s Fair — which opened on April 30th, 1939 — the New-York Historical Society has received an extensive collection of photographs and other memorabilia documenting this momentous event.


President Roosevelt’s official dedication at the Fair’s opening ceremonies.

Although Paul Gillespie was only 12 years old in 1939,  and almost certainly did not attend the fair himself, he apparently developed a lifelong fascination with the “World of Tomorrow.”   A high-school teacher who lived in the same rent-controlled apartment on the upper west side for almost 50 years, Mr. Gillespie accumulated an impressive assortment of photographs, scrapbooks, pamphlets, guidebooks, menus and other fair-related ephemera.   His bequest of this collection to N-YHS will complement and enhance the Society’s already considerable holdings of material relating to the fair.


Out of town attendees enjoy some watermelon

New York’s 1939 World Fair was ostensibly held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of another landmark opening that took place on April 30th — George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States on April 30th, 1789.


Statue of George Washington by sculptor James Earle Fraser

Even a cursory glance through the piles of photographs and ephemera in Paul Gillespie’s collection, however, confirms author Stanley Appelbaum’s assessment that this was merely “a patriotic pretext” for the fair. The fair’s real focus was on the future, not the past.


The Westinghouse Exhibit, featuring Elektro the Robot

We will be processing this collection over the summer (with the invaluable assistance of our interns) so by the time N-YHS reopens in the fall, it should be fully accessible to researchers.   Fair enthusiasts who can’t wait that long may want to visit Future Perfect: Re-Constructing the 1939 World’s Fair, on exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art (in the only building left standing from the 1939 World’s Fair) until August 14, 2011.

The variability and just plain depressing weather of late here in New York is probably trying everyone’s patience. But, after all it is Earth Day, so we should give Mother Nature a break, especially since we can always rely on her to give us our May flowers. That was somewhat true in Williamsburg, VA as well from February to April of 1779 too, as shown by this single leaf of Thomas Jefferson’s weather journal in the Society’s manuscript collections.

Leaf of Thomas Jefferson’s weather journal, showing February 15 to April 15, 1779. (Jefferson Fragment, MS 1627)

It’s fairly common knowledge that Jefferson was a man of far-reaching interests, so the fact that he painstakingly recorded the weather even at a time of such upheaval and unpredictability is not altogether surprising.  He also notes on February 15th and 22nd (the first two entries) the blossoming of fruit trees which reminds us of one of his many great fascinations – gardens.

While we all are likely to know of his architectural achievements at Monticello, Jefferson was also passionately interested in its landscape design. His very earliest conceptions in 1771 were heavily influenced by the emerging “English Garden” movement in Europe that first modeled itself upon the idyllic, classical Italian landscape, often as depicted by artists such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain.

Engraving showing pastoral Italian landscape entitled “Evening” by William Byrne after Claude Lorrain, 1769. (Luman Reed Print Collection, PR 141)

We rarely consider the layout of a landscape as a reflection political attitudes  but the movement was stoked by egalitarians in England who  sought to replace the rigid, linear layouts of the formal Europeans gardens with more “natural” designs characterized by irregular, curving and serpentine lines. Needless to say, this political underpinning fit well with Jefferson’s own ideals.

Ultimately then, we shouldn’t be surprised that while responding to a pamphlet about commonwealths in his retirement years, Jefferson chose a nature metaphor to explain the creation of a virtuous citizen:

I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man. That every man shall be made virtuous by any process whatever is, indeed, no more to be expected than that every tree shall be made to bear fruit, and every plant nourishment. The brier and bramble can never become the vine and olive; but their asperities may be softened by culture, and their properties improved to usefulness in the order and economy of the world.

Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, with quote highlighted, October 21, 1822. (Thomas Jefferson Collection, MS 331)

The camera, that is:


Western Barracks and Parade, Fort Sumter, April 15, 1861 (Civil War Photograph File, PR 164)

Southern photographers took very few of the thousands of photographs that document the Civil War, especially as the war dragged on and union blockades cut off Southern access to the necessary photographic supplies.   However, with the camera, no less than the cannon, the South was the first to shoot.


Fort Sumter, April 15, 1861 (Civil War Photograph File, PR 164)

Shown here are three of 13 photographs of Forts Sumter and Moultrie which were taken on April 15th, 1861 — 150 years ago today — just after the evacuation of the defeated Union forces.


Fort Sumter, April 15, 1861 (Civil War Photograph File, PR 164)

Each mount bears a label with a full description of the image and its date, and features an autographed approval note by the victorious Confederate Brigadier General Pierre T. Beaureguard.

 Detail (Civil War Photograph File, PR 164)

Although the photographer of these images has not been identified, at least two Charleston photographers are known to have visited Fort Sumter immediately after its surrender.   On April 15th, Alma A. Pelot — assistant to Jess H. Bolles, the owner of one of Charleston’s leading photographic studios — took a series of “full and perfect representations of the internal appearance of Fort Sumter, on the morning after the surrender,” as reported in the next day’s Charlston Courier.   With these photographs, according to Civil War photography expert Bob Zeller, Pelot became the first photographer of the Civil War.

J.M. Osborn, half-partner in “Osborn & Durbec’s Southern Stereoscopic and Photographic Depot,” also took a number of photographs of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in the days immediately after the surrender.

We are working with experts from the Center for Civil War Photography to determine whether N-YHS’s intriguing images of Forts Sumter and Moultrie may be among the earliest images of the Civil War.  In the meantime, to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, you can view the many other Civil War Treasures from the New York Historical Society here.

Creative: Tronvig Group