New Jersey can boast of inventions, innovations, and creative gifts that keep on giving, from the earliest brewery in America, founded in Hoboken in 1642, to the many of Thomas Edison’s technologies — the first movie developed, the first phonograph, and the first incandescent light bulb.
There were outstanding New Jersey moments in American transportation, such as the first ferry service in the U.S., which began operating between Hoboken and Manhattan in 1811. There was also the initial airplane passenger flight, from New York to Atlantic City, in 1919. Not to mention the first steam locomotive to pull a train on a track, built by John Stevens of Hoboken in 1824.
Of course, rock and roll would never be the same when Les Paul invented the solid body electric guitar in 1940.
You get the idea.
There are even more Jersey innovations to be celebrated in the State Museum’s exhibit, “New Jersey on Display,” running through Sunday, January 4, 2015, in the museum’s Riverside Gallery. The exhibition, which opened in June, chronicles the state’s involvement in seven World’s Fairs held between 1876 and 1964.
Curated by cultural history curator Nicholas Ciotola, “New Jersey on Display” features the stories of entrepreneurs such as Edison, the Roebling family, and David Sarnoff, as well as political leaders.
The exhibition was developed as part of this year’s celebration of the state’s 350th birthday, marking the anniversary of the English land grant creating “New Jersey.”
“One of the reasons we focused on the World’s Fairs is because the theme of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary is ‘diversity, innovation, and liberty,’” Ciotola says. “It dovetails nicely with this exhibit, since the World’s Fairs were about showcasing diversity and innovation in subjects like bridge building, electronics, ceramics, and whatnot.”
“The image of New Jersey and ‘liberty’ has always been important,” he adds. “Of course New Jersey has a long history relating to the Revolutionary War, and we’ve always enjoyed telling the world that the war largely happened in our state. We fought for independence here, and the World’s Fairs were the place to tell the story.”
In addition, at World’s Fairs, New Jersey promoted itself as an innovator in the decorative arts. “New Jersey on Display” is the first exhibit to reunite four supreme examples of the state’s ceramic arts with the porcelain vases created by the Trenton Pottery company for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, all designed, fired, painted, glazed, and gilded in the Garden State. (See “A Trenton Reunion — of Vases — Makes History,” U.S. 1, June 18.)
Outside the gallery, a visitor is greeted with seven huge World’s Fairs posters, in dazzling colors and designs, all conveying the styles of their respective eras. For example, the poster for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair features an Art Nouveau painting of an idealized turn-of-the-century woman welcoming fair-goers, while the poster for the 1926 fair, held in Philadelphia, shows a romanticized, patriotic belle femme holding the flags of numerous countries in her arms.
For the 1939 New York World’s Fair, an ethereal figure floats in space, holding the globe in her arms, superimposed with the fair’s iconic obelisk and sphere, or “trylon” and “perisphere” as they were called. With the poster for the beloved 1964 World’s Fair, also held in New York, the eye is first drawn to the Unisphere, then to a handsome family of four just arriving, Brownie camera in dad’s hands. Modernistic colors of maroon, magenta, umber, and gold, as well as balloons lifting off, convey a sunrise, or new day/new era feeling. Interestingly (or bittersweetly) the “dad and mom” resemble John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy.
In the gallery, an abundance of placards, pictures, and information fill the space, and a careful visitor could get lost in remembrances of the World’s Fairs.
In addition to the quartet of vases — which are, indeed, majestic when seen all lined up — “New Jersey on Display” features light-hearted World’s Fair information, such as the story behind Hires Root Beer, which has its origins at the 1876 Centennial Fair, held in Philadelphia.
Born in 1851, Charles E. Hires developed a beverage comprising roots, berries, and herbs. The story goes that Hires was either inspired by a landlady’s concoction during a stay at her boardinghouse, or he developed the recipe himself while working at a confectionery store in Millville. In 1876 Hires marketed his fledgling product, “root tea,” at the Centennial expo.
Eighteen years later, at the World’s Fair in Chicago, also called “The Columbian Exhibition,” New Jersey was well-represented, especially by Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” His rival, George Westinghouse, provided the electricity to the fair, but Edison countered with a massive showcase of his works inside the Hall of Electricity.
On display were the inventor’s dynamos, phonographs, and the kinetoscope, the forerunner of modern movies. Edison had also constructed a 100-foot “tower of light” that dazzled visitors.
The symbol for the 1893 World’s Fair was the 250-foot iron and steel Ferris Wheel, supposedly invented by Chicagoan George Ferris. Three years before the 1893 fair, Ferris had visited Atlantic City, where he rode a wooden “roundabout,” invented by New Jerseyan William Somers. Though the Ferris Wheel loomed large at the fair, Somers defiantly built one of his wooden wheels on the outskirts of the exposition grounds.
At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” New Jersey focused on its growing status as an industrial center. In the Palace of Manufacturing, the Trenton Pottery Company saw an opportunity to promote its status as the largest producer of porcelain bathroom fixtures in the nation, with an alluring array of commodes, sinks, and bathtubs on display.
The 1904 fair also marked the debut of the ice cream cone, thanks to New Jersey’s own Italo Marchiony. In 1903 the Hoboken resident patented a device for making edible “pastry cups,” perhaps a variation on a cannoli shell. Marchiony traveled to St. Louis the following year to popularize the invention.
Eleven years later the World’s Fair was held in San Francisco, where it was called “The Panama-Pacific International Expo.” This time, the New Jersey building was modeled after something directly related to the Battle of Trenton.
“Each state would build an official building to showcase the state. In other words, here was an opportunity for people coming to the fair to visit their ‘state’ in the show,” Ciotola says. “Throughout the earlier World’s Fairs, New Jersey used imagery from its Revolutionary War past as the inspiration for their state buildings, including a recreation of Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, called the Ford Mansion.”
“However, by 1915, they didn’t recreate the Ford Mansion, they recreated the Old Barracks,” he adds. “This was done again and again, for the last time in 1939, on the World’s Fair grounds in Queens. Unfortunately, none of these structures survived.”
The year 1915 also saw the presence of Mount Laurel native Alice Paul, who used the expo to promote suffrage for American women. Though some women had a state’s right to vote in the West, there was no such right in the East. So Paul organized a cross-country automobile relay, carrying a petition of 500,000 names in support of women’s suffrage to the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C.
The Garden State flexed its engineering muscle at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. John A. Roebling’s Sons Company showcased its long history of civil engineering, including the wire rope similar to that used to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Located in the Metals Building, the Roebling exhibit centered on a huge mural of the recently completed Golden Gate Bridge, which utilized Roebling’s wire rope in its construction.
Perhaps a more lighthearted but equally intelligent device presented at the 1939 fair was the Rotolactor, a kind of bovine merry-go-round created to speed the process of milking cows. When the Borden Company of Plainsboro perfected the invention, the Rotolactor could milk as many as 50 cows in 12 minutes. Borden built a working Rotolactor inside its exhibition building, and it was one of the most popular attractions at the fair.
These long-ago World’s Fairs may be only foggy memories for a few, but the 1964 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows is recent enough to be reasonably fresh. The Disney corporation lent a hand in designing many of the pavilions, and they were fantastic, all in unusual shapes and sizes. The 1964 fairground also featured a monorail, a sky ride, and animatronic dinosaurs.
The New Jersey building was adjacent to the central Unisphere, and it was a veritable city of cultural, industrial, historical, and recreational displays, some 21 different exhibits. From more than 100 architects, Princeton’s Philip Sheridan Collin was selected to design the state’s building and evoke New Jersey’s festive spirit and progressive outlook.
The year 1964 also marked New Jersey’s tercentenary, and the state’s 300th “birthday” was a predominant theme.
It might be said that “TV was king” of the 1964 fair. In the early 1960s most television broadcasts and TV sets were black and white, and it was at the 1964 World’s Fair that RCA’s David Sarnoff showcased the first fully functional all-electronic color television system, which had been developed over the course of 15 years at the RCA laboratories in Princeton.
The RCA pavilion building touted itself as “where the fair begins.” It was heavily advertised and occupied a prominent location on the fairgrounds, all of which boosted interest in color TV technology.
In this futuristic building, visitors could ride on a mechanical roundabout that shuttled them past a series of state-of-the-art cameras; they saw how they looked on TV, live and on tape delay.
“Although there’s a lot of information to absorb in this exhibit, I think it’s fun,” Ciotola says. “People have fun remembrances of World’s Fairs, especially the 1964 fair in New York City. I’ve heard a lot of people tell stories about their visit to the 1964 World’s Fair and their fond memories.”
“This exhibit will be up during the Patriot’s Week celebration in Trenton, the last week of December,” he says. “All the Revolutionary War imagery in this exhibit ties in nicely with Patriot’s Week.”
New Jersey on Display, through Sunday, January 4, 2015, Riverside Gallery, State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. 609-292-6464. www.statemuseum.nj.gov. For information on the state’s 350th anniversary visit www.officialnj350.com/nj350.
A History of Inventing in New Jersey, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Linda Barth discuses her book. Wednesday, August 20, 7 to 9 p.m. www.princetonlibrary.org.