What made these fairs “international”?

If you come to view Designing Tomorrow at the National Building Museum, you will not see very many examples of international pavilions on display. So you may wonder, like other visitors before you, why some of the world’s fairs of the 1930s were called “International Expositions.”

The fact is, four of the six fairs did have a number of foreign pavilions, and all of them had at least some representation of foreign culture, especially in their entertainment zones.  While we chose not to focus on the foreign presence at the fairs within the scope of our exhibition, here are some facts and figures that will prove to you how “international” these fairs actually were.

A Century of Progress International Exposition,  Chicago, 1933-34

Streets of Paris

Streets of Paris (Chicago Historical Society ICHi-19897)

  • Number of nations represented: 31
  • These nations included Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, USA, China, Japan, Palestine, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine
  • The fair had a number of ethnic villages in their amusement zone, including the Belgian Village, Chinese Village, Old Mexico, Moroccan Village, Oriental Village, and Streets of Paris in 1933.

California-Pacific International Exposition, San Diego, 1935-36

  • Number of nations represented: 23
  • These nations included Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, USA, Uruguay, China, Japan, Philippines, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Yugoslavia
  • The House of Pacific Relations, a complex made up of cottages, was actually the consular offices of twenty-one nations. The cottages still exist within Balboa Park and promote multicultural goodwill.

Texas Centennial Exposition, Dallas, 1936

  • Did not have separate foreign pavilions
  • Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Spain sent representatives to the exposition, and France sent two small exhibits for display.

Great Lakes Exposition, Cleveland, 1936-1937

  • Did not have separate foreign pavilions
  • 34 nations were “represented” in the fair’s entertainment zone, called the “Streets of the World.”  The Streets were dominated by European nations.

Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939-1940

  • Number of nations represented: 37
  • These nations included Argentina, Brazil, British West Indies, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, USA, British India, French Indo-China, Japan, Johore, Malasia, Netherlands East Indies, Persia, Philippines, Turkey, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Soviet Union, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • The number of Asian, Central/South American, and Oceanic nations, especially compared with the other fairs of the decade, reflected the fair’s theme, “The Pageant of the Pacific.”
  • A number of nations did not return for the fair’s second season, and their pavilions were adopted by other countries.  For example, Switzerland took over the Chile Pavilion.

New York World’s Fair, New York, 1939-1940

Polish Pavilion, 1939

Polish Pavilion, 1939. Wurts Brothers Photography Collection, National Building Museum.

  • Number of nations represented: 62 —by FAR the highest foreign presence at a 1930s world fair.
  • These nations included Morocco, Southern Rhodesia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, USA, Uruguay, Venezuela, French Colonies, Iraq, Japan, Lebanon, Netherlands East Indies, Palestine, Siam, Taiwan, Turkey, Albania, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Soviet Union, Sweden, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • The Irish Pavilion was in the shape of a shamrock.
  • The British Pavilion displayed a print of the Magna Carta.
  • The Polish Pavilion was the site of several large gatherings in the months leading up to and following Germany’s invasion of the country in 1939. The exiled Polish government chose to keep the pavilion open for the fair’s second season, where it remained a potent symbol of the war abroad.

It is fascinating to imagine how fairgoers experienced international cultures at each of the fairs!

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