In April 1939, the World's Fair opened at Flushing Meadow in New York City. Advertized as the largest, most magnificent, amazing, dazzling, and significant of all time, the fair contained exhibits from almost every state in the union as well as from nations around the world.
In the Court of States one exhibit was strikingly different from all the rest; the Virginia Room was designed to provide an "oasis" from the fair's noisy and less-restrained sights. Leslie Cheek Jr., designer of the Virginia Room, and his team of artists developed a plan for a spacious, central room with the visitor's focus drawn to a large fountain highlighted with recessed lighting from above and below. Around the central statue were clipped boxwood and a series of deep cushioned seats and low tables. Cheek remarked that a visitor to the Virginia Room should find "an intelligently arranged display, free of ballyhoo and high pressure salesmanship." The design offered tired visitors a place to sit, a chance to enjoy a complimentary glass of ice water served by a white-jacketed waiter, and an array of 227 photograph albums prepared by the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce and filled with 5,675 Virginia scenes.
Each photograph album included an average of twenty-five images, with short descriptive captions, and covered one of twelve broad subject categories; agriculture, colonial archaeology, cultural and intellectual life, education, government and the people, historic homes, history, physiography, recreation, scenery and natural wonders, tours, and industry, commerce, and transportation, with from six to sixteen volumes devoted to each topic. Such publicity or public relations photographs often reveal how an entity or group wishes to be perceived, in this case how a state shapes a public image, telling us as much about the exhibit organizers' intentions as about the pictures' subjects. The collection is especially interesting when compared with other views of Virginia during the Great Depression. The 1939 World's Fair Photograph Collection, in contrast, documents an unwavering optimism, a faith in better times.
When at last after six months the season ended and the fair closed, it was estimated that well over a million people had visited the room, in the process wearing out two sets of photo albums. The State Chamber of Commerce later donated the photo albums to the Virginia State Library and Archives. Today the collection forms a remarkable resource; now once again able to be visually browsed as it was during the summer of 1939.