Boomers Witnessed the 1964 New York World’s Fair

As the last batch of Baby Boomers were being born fifty years ago, New York City introduced growing boomers to a fantastical future at the 1964 World’s Fair. Imaginative architecture, technological marvels and a view of the future that was unthinkable a decade earlier were voiced as the blueprint to progress for humankind. Included in this vision was space travel, underwater exploration complete with aquaculture and underwater living quarters, super highways for cars that drive themselves, homes in skyscrapers, exploration for minerals at the earth’s poles and technological breakthroughs that would make life easier, safer and better.

The Fair opened surrounded in controversy, as the official Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) had not sanctioned the event. International rules stipulated that only one fair could be held within a 10-year span, and Montreal, Canada, had already been chosen to host the next World’s Fair in 1967 (Expo67). Further, the New York World’s Fair organizers, led by Robert Moses, wanted to charge rent to exhibitors in an effort to recoup construction costs. That was a violation of BIE rules. Moses had overseen the construction of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was the main force behind the construction of much of the city’s highway system and the creation of the recreational and park system. Each had been controversial in their own right, including the fact that the 1939 World’s Fair was a financial disaster. Eager to redeem his reputation, Moses led the organizers to build on the same site as the 1939 Fair, only bigger and more expansive than any previous fair had been. For this reason the organizers knew they would have to have 70 million visitors to make it a successful event, and that would require the site to be open for two six-month periods. This was also a violation of BIE rules, as only one six-month period was sanctioned.

As a result, many European nations and U.S. allies chose not to participate, including Canada, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union. Instead, spots designated for governments were filled by tourist bureaus and corporate sponsors. The proliferation of corporate interests alone fueled the controversy as the press characterized the Fair as too commercial.

For visitors, however, none of that mattered as they were immersed in a world filled with optimism, driven by technologies that would help to solve the world’s problems. Corporate interests, including General Motors, the Ford Motor Company, IBM, RCA, DuPont, Bell Systems and the Walt Disney Company all contributed their visions of tomorrow.

Among the marvels introduced at the Fair were the Ford Mustang, animatronic figures from Disney, color TV from RCA and the video telephone from Bell Systems.

The Mustang was unlike any car introduced before it in that the public became immediately enamored with its styling and size (see Boomers Loved the Ford Mustang). The car model is still being sold today, with those early models especially prized by boomers.

The Walt Disney Company exhibit was populated with animatronic figures that moved more like humans than any mechanical figures that had previously been seen. The “It’s a Small World” exhibit introduced more than 100 figures dressed as children from various nations, along with a song that could very well be used in enhanced interrogation. “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” saw the 16th President of the United States stand up from a chair and address the audience. “Ford’s Magic Skyway” showed a world of dinosaurs — all huge animatronics made by Disney’s company. Today, “It’s a Small World” is a feature of Disneyland and the latest incarnations of Abraham Lincoln and the dinosaurs are part of the Disney World experience.

Color TVs were first sold by RCA in the mid-50s, but only a small portion of TV programming was being broadcast in color in 1964 (see Fancy Colors: Boomers Watched TV Before There Was Color). NBC became the first network to broadcast all their programming in color two years after the opening of the Fair, in 1966. Despite this “futuristic” vision of television communications, by 1970 only about half of all U.S. households owned a color TV. Today’s kids have no idea what a black & white TV looked like.

Bell Systems showcased a two-way video phone that captured the public’s imagination, but in practicality a short conversation demonstration between New York and Philadelphia would cost as much as $25 in today’s dollars, making the technology beyond the reach of the average consumer. Yet fifty years later, face-to-face conversations occur daily in business video conferencing and real-time video sessions via Skype and Facetime.

Vatican City displayed Michelangelo’s Pieta, which became one of only a few cultural highlights. People waited in line for hours to get a glimpse of the statue. It returned to the Vatican after the Fair, and was damaged by a deranged Dutch man wielding a hammer in 1977. The repaired statue currently resides inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

Meanwhile, 1964 was percolating beyond the borders of the World’s Fair. Race relations, escalating involvement in the Vietnam war, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union all took their toll on world optimism. Times were changing, and utopian visions of the future began to feel as dated as the 1950s.

Living in the Midwest, the sum total of Mister Boomer’s connection with the 1964 World’s Fair was through a comic book. The Flintstone’s At the New York World’s Fair (1964) saw the famous cartoon characters, through the magic of time travel, visiting the Fair. His sister had purchased the book and it is now part of Mister Boomer’s personal collection.

The Fair may very well have captured the attention of Mister Boomer’s father, however. Three years later, he drove to family to see Expo67 in Montreal. Mister Boomer recalls that as a magical experience where he first saw lasers demonstrated, heard electronic music, viewed amazing architecture, witnessed a 360 degree movie and was exposed to many different cultures through the various countries’ pavilions.

The New York World’s Fair ended in debt, missing their projected attendance mark by nearly 20 million. Yet if Mister B’s 1967 World’s Fair experience is any barometer, then boomers who visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair remember the wonderment of it all and not the controversy.

Did you attend the 1964 New York World’s Fair with your family, boomers?

Boomers and the Cost of Living in 1964

Remember when you could pull into a gas station and add one dollar’s worth of gas into your tank — and actually get somewhere? Those days are long gone, but are another example of how much change baby boomers have witnessed over the past 68 years. It has been just that — 68 years — since the first baby boomer was born, and 2014 marks the year the last batch of boomers turn 50.

Looking back over the 50 previous years, 1964 was momentous, not only for Baby Boomers but also for history. Here are a few of the historical events that helped shape our boomer world 50 years ago:

  • Lyndon Johnson, after assuming the presidency when John Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, spearheaded his War on Poverty that laid the foundation for food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid.
  • The U.S. Surgeon General released the first report that concluded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.
  • The Beatles came to America.
  • The Feminist Movement was launched with the publishing of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan.
  • My Fair Lady won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
  • The first G.I. Joe action figure debuted; so did the Easy-Bake Oven, the Frisbee and the plastic version of Mr. Potato Head.
  • Three students were killed in Mississippi while volunteering on a non-violent bus trip promoting an end to segregation.
  • The Mustang was introduced by the Ford Motor Company.
  • The Rolling Stones released their first album in the U.S.
  • With President Johnson leading the political movement for desegregation, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.
  • North Vietnamese ships attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonken, prompting Congress to pass a resolution permitting President Johnson to engage in a full-scale war against North Vietnam without a Declaration of War.
  • The Warren Commission final report was issued, naming Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocation of non-violent activism.
  • China became the fifth nation to successfully test a nuclear bomb.
  • In the Space Race, the Soviet Union launched the first multiple-person spaceship to orbit the Earth, while the U.S. launched the first space probe to take photos of the surface of Mars.
  • A dozen students burned their Draft Cards in a publicized event to protest the Vietnam War.
  • Students at the University of California’s Berkeley campus began protesting after they were told literature about desegregation was political and could not be distributed on campus. This sparked a Free Speech Movement that mushroomed into ongoing protests on campus, which then spread around the country.

Mister Boomer has written about many of these world-changing events, and will add more about 1964 this year. Nonetheless, boomers born in 1964 were too young to recall any of these events, naturally, but in a recent discussion with some boomers about to turn 50, Mister Boomer discovered that one thing that is endlessly fascinating to this last batch of boomers is the rise in the cost of living. They marvel at the stories told by earlier boomers, and how we could buy a gallon of gas for the change in our pockets. A look at this list from 1964 is mind-blowing, to say the least:

  • The list price of a new Ford Mustang was $2,368, slightly above the average of $2,250 for a new car
  • The average annual income was $6,080
  • The median price for a new home was around $20,000
  • The average price for a gallon of gas was 25¢
  • First-class postage cost 5¢
  • A loaf of bread averaged 22¢
  • Coffee was 79¢ a pound
  • A gallon of milk averaged $1.08
  • A telephone call from a pay phone was 10¢
  • A 26″ color TV averaged $379
  • Minimum wage was $1.15
  • Beatles albums had the list price of $5.98
  • Around 60% of the population smoked, and paid on average $1.60 per pack of cigarettes
  • The average movie ticket was $1.00


Today gas hovers around $4.00 a gallon; the average home price is a shade under $200,000 nationally; movie tickets are inching closer to $10 on average; a gallon of milk is nearly $4.00; and a loaf of white bread is just over $2.00 on average.

The shock and awe of the 1964 boomers with whom Mr. B spoke is understandable, as costs have averaged more than 10 times those of 1964 for some of the same common goods. It may be that since these boomers were parents later in life than their counterparts a decade earlier, they feel the pinch all the more. Kids have a way of impacting household budgets, and it would appear today’s kids more so than boomers did in 1964.

Mister Boomer vividly recalls 1964, and many of the prices of common goods. Brother Boomer would buy record albums on sale for around $3 to $4 dollars. By that time Mister B was mowing the grass for a couple of years, so when the lawn mower needed gas, a walk to the corner gas station with the 50¢ he was given could fill the two-gallon gas can that was stored in the basement. Those two gallons would last for several months of lawn mowing. As for most of the consumables, Mister Boomer would go food shopping with his father, but doesn’t recall giving the prices much thought, other than the family rule of no unnecessary purchases and go for the best deal. In between supermarket visits, the family got bread, milk — and his mother’s cigarettes — at a small store two blocks away. Sometimes he would go with a few coins from his mom to get bread or milk, while on other trips Mister B and his siblings could buy whatever they were sent to get, and the total would be listed by the store owner in a little black book kept by the cash register. At a later date, Mister B’s father would go to the store to pay the balance.

Will today’s kids look back on 2014 fifty years from now with the same nostalgia for “low” prices? What do you remember about the cost of living in 1964, boomers?