A few weeks ago I wrote about a postcard folder from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Here’s one highlighting the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair for which I have a personal connection: my father went there. Often. On a speed boat!
The sprawling fair that opened the previous year in 1933 was so successful in the depths of the Great Depression that the organizers held it over to the summer of 1934, the year my dad, Gunnar Lendroth, moved to Chicago to live with his aunt and uncle.
They were frugal Swedes who wouldn’t squander their hard-earned money on anything as frivolous as a fair, but Dad found a ready source of income by offering Cubs fans a place to park their cars for games at nearby Wrigley Field. “On a good game I could make close to $4.00,” remembered Dad. Not bad in an era where the average wage was 40-50¢ an hour. Dad parked cars in the driveway and on the lawn, and also collected tips to watch over cars left at the curb in front of the house. He recalled the chauffeur of one elegant ride always tipped him a whole $1.00. And he spent that largesse at the fair.
A year before he died, I interviewed my father for a photo book I made him about all the cars he had owned and loved through the years. Here’s how he described the Chicago World’s Fair:
“I probably went to the fair six or so times that summer, at least three or four times by boat. The real fun part of getting there was going by speed boat. You had to pay 50 cents. This friend of mine, we would make the trip to the fair by speedboat. You had to go downtown to the Chicago River at Michigan Boulevard. Under the bridge you could walk down and there was a levee, paved concrete, and they had the boat tied there.
They would take two, up to four people. It wasn’t very far, and it didn’t take very long. The speedboat would go out to Lake Michigan and then come in and make a curve. You would arrive “in style,” you see. They had a special dock for people that arrived by boat. People with luxury yachts would come and tie up, and the speed boat would come in there.
There was so much to see that was free — all of the country displays and exhibits, and all the car exhibits were free because they wanted people to buy. They allowed you to get in and out of the cars, sit in the back, sit in the front, sit at the wheel.
I remember that Ford had a display. You see chrome — all shiny surfaces before had been nickel-plated — but they had a setup at Ford where they showed how a piece of dull looking pot metal could be transformed into this beautiful shiny chrome object. They gave you one of these dull things. And then you watched it go through the different chemical baths, and when it came out, shiny chrome!
The car I was most impressed with was a 1934 Packard [which won best in show at the fair]. It was a cream-colored convertible.
And then there were the freak shows and the dancing girls from so-called parts of Arabia. And the most famous of all was Sally Rand. That was half a buck. You paid dearly to see that. She would come out and manipulate the fans so it would seem like she was almost going to reveal something, but then the fan came in place. And of course there was a big ballyhoo about Sally Rand doing the fan dance in the nude. You must realize that in 1934, that was just 34 years away from the time when people were still wearing long dresses.
The whole purpose of the fair was to show how… Well, the name of it was the Century of Progress, mainly the century of progress of Chicago, how it had grown, its buildings, its magnificent stockyards, all the things about Chicago that were kind of big and brawny and brash. Also of course, Prohibition had just ended the year before so now you could buy all the beer you wanted, openly. Nobody really asked if you were old enough. They just assumed that if you had the money to buy you were old enough.”
Cars, beer and fan dancers — what a time Dad must have had!
ALL ABOARD THE FILM CLIP TIME MACHINE
While cameras in the 1930s weren’t as ubiquitous as cell phone cameras are today, they were common enough that we can walk through the fair in the footsteps of long ago visitors, joining the women in their dresses and heels, the men in their suits and ties (and everyone in a hat).
Here’s a rare Kodacolor home movie that must have been shot over several visits. Somehow, the silent, homemade quality of this clip makes it feel more real, letting me imagine how it felt to watch the Goodyear blimp launch from a field or to sail across the fair on the rocket ride. However, I bet the cameraman and I have very different opinions of the midway shows, several of which appalled me 80 years later.
Take a tour of the the fair in this short film that Chrysler must have sponsored because after an overview of colorful buildings and midway rides, the last several minutes dwell on the car company’s test track where “Speed Boys” put Plymouths through their paces.
Finally, watch a clip of Sally Rand’s famous fan dance and imagine my teenaged dad in the audience, dreaming of something besides a Packard at the Chicago World’s Fair.