Buoyed by the success of the 1933 Chicago ‘Century of Progress’ World’s Fair, New York City’s civic and business leaders decided to hold one in their city in 1939, ostensibly to mark the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington. It was hoped that the fair would stimulate the local economy which, like elsewhere, was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. In 1935, the New York World’s Fair 1939 Corporation was established with Grover A. Whalen [1886-1962] as its president. The unifying theme for the fair, ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’, held out the promise of a more prosperous future.
Included in the plans for the fair was an exhibition hall for the cosmetics industry. The rotunda of the proposed building was to resemble a giant powder puff box, with an interior developed by Donald Deskey [1894-1989], the interior designer of the Radio City Music Hall.
Display space in the Cosmetics Building was to be sold and managed through a separate company, Perfumery and Cosmetics Exhibits, Inc., established with Herman L. Brooks [1898-1968?] as its president.
At the ceremony to mark the foundation of the Cosmetics Building representatives of companies involved in the perfume, cosmetics and toiletries industry were invited to add items to a strong box sealed into the cornerstone of the new building. A competition was held to decide a name for the completed building with the winning entry being ‘Vanity Fair’.
Although a number of cosmetic company representatives attended the foundation ceremony, the turnout was disappointing. This reflected a general disinterest by the cosmetics industry in the fair which resulted in Brooks being unable to sign enough tenants to fill the building’s exhibition space. The fair organisers contemplated turning the Cosmetics Building into a display hall for automobiles but late in the day the building was saved by Brooks. As well as being the president of Perfumery and Cosmetics Exhibits, Inc., Brooks was also the president of Coty and he used his position there to persuade Coty to lease the rotunda. Grover Whalen was a Coty director so I imagine he supported Brooks on the Coty board.
After taking over the rotunda, Brooks made a number of changes to the exterior of the building. The original plans for the structure had it topped of with a handle, which during construction became a large gold ball. This was replaced by an illuminated representation of a Coty Air-Spun powder box.
The Coty name and coat of arms was also added to the main entrance and the rotunda was then referred to by Coty as the Maison Coty (House of Coty) or the ‘Charm Center of the World’s Fair’. Other exhibitors housed in the building were situated in an area that used the original competition name, ‘Vanity Fair’.
Coty also made changes to the rotunda interior. Some features of the central atrium – the Hall of Perfumes – were redecorated by the interior designer Dorothy Draper [1889-1969]. These included removing a large abstract statue by Deskey and the installation of a large a Fountain of Beauty, designed in Draper’s signature style of ‘Modern Baroque’. Coty displays, exhibits and shops were then set in place around the circumference of the atrium.
Large posters of Coty products were arranged prominently on the walls of the Hall of Perfumes. These advertised the company’s perfumes, Air Spun loose and compact face powders, Air Spun rouge, and Sub-Deb lipsticks and rouge. The small theatre included in the original plans was used by Coty to screen films such as ‘Symphonies in Fragrance’ and to give the occasional lecture. Coty also a set up a museum displaying the 50 or so ingredients used to make perfumes.
Coty also installed a complete air-powered microniser operated by a white-smocked crew to demonstrate how the company made its Air Spun powders, and a production unit showing how Sub-Deb lipsticks were produced and packaged.
See also: Coty ‘Air Spun’ Powder
The New York World’s Fair opened April 30, 1939. Although 25 million visited the fair that year attendances were well short of the 50 million needed to repay investors so it was decided to extend the exposition for an additional year to help recover costs. However, the start of the Second World War in September 1939 meant that many nations did not return for the second season and attendances in 1940 were lower than those in 1939.
Over 7,000,000 people visited Maison Coty in the two years it operated at the World’s Fair – over 4,000,000 in 1939 and more than 3,000,000 in the 1940 season – which meant that a large number of people were exposed to Coty products. The value of exhibiting to the public in this way was one of the reasons behind the decision by Coty to lease space at the Rockefeller Center in New York and open a Maison Coty there in June, 1941.
See also: Coty
Updated: 13th January 2017
Cotter, B. (2009) Images of America: The 1939 New York world’s fair. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Coty, Inc. Annual Reports 1939-1940.
Digital collections from the New York public library. Retrieved July 1, 2016 from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/
Guide to the New York world’s fair 1939 and 1940 incorporated records 1935-1945 (2008). Retrieved June 20, 2016 from https://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/archivalcollections/pdf/nywf39fa.pdf
Whalen, G. A. (1955). Mr. New York: The autobiography of Grover A. Whalen. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.