Jurassic World's Fairs: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Expos

11 June 2015

Cultural Studies

There are several avid fans of the Jurassic Park film series here at Adam Matthew. Listening to colleagues’ tales of being young and watching the movie for the first time and the awe they felt at the sight of the dinosaurs brought to life reminded me of the fairs of not so long ago and the dinosaurs that inspired so many even then. These have been captured in an array of personal photographs, promotional pamphlets, periodicals and much more in our upcoming World's Fairs collection.

Image © Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The potential the dinosaurs had to wow fair-goers was not lost upon those creating the exhibits, but the uptake started out slow. In 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair there was just one dinosaur on display, a plaster cast taken from an incomplete skeleton of a hadrosaurus which had its missing bones reconstructed. We now know that how they envisioned this dinosaur was incorrect- it did not, for example, use its tail as an additional support for its weight.

This was just the start. In 1933, again in Chicago, dinosaurs were displayed in out-of-doors conditions for the very first time, as the Sinclair Oil Corporation displayed seven life-size beasts. For the New York World’s Fair of 1964-1965 Sinclair spent several years creating more dinosaurs, two of which (the T. rex and brontosaurus) would also mimic the movements of the real things via internal mechanisms that made their heads and mouths move. They had used a brontosaurus as their company mascot since just before the 1933 Chicago fair; the idea was that the fuel they provided was as old as the dinosaurs themselves and so the very best quality, or so they claimed.

Image © Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Sinclair were determined to make the dinosaurs as scientifically accurate as possible; there was no room for erroneously lizard-headed hadrosauruses here! They enlisted animal sculptor Louis Paul Jonas who envisaged using fibreglass to create the most realistic dinosaurs he could, and who consulted with noted paleontologists Barnum Brown and Edwin Colbert of the American Museum of Natural History and John Ostrom of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He first created the dinosaurs in miniature, later slicing them laterally, or “like loaves of bread”, to use as templates for the larger ones. In the end, the brontosaurus alone weighed five tonnes: the next challenge was therefore transporting the dinosaurs. Finally, eight of them were sent on a barge down the Hudson River, with the triceratops airlifted to the site.



Image © Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The dinosaurs pulled in the crowds. They were made to look like they were grazing and interacting with one another; the smaller animatronic dinosaurs seemed to have been a favourite of Walt Disney’s, as he named three of them after his own cartoon creations, Huey, Dewey and Louie. For the fifty million visitors that flocked to the New York World’s Fair, Dinoland proved the most popular of all exhibits. Once the fair was over, the dinosaurs travelled around the country, including appearing at the 1966 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Two of the dinosaurs have since found homes at a zoo and at a national dinosaur monument, respectively, with the other six in various museums. The final of the nine, the Ornitholestes, was stolen and has never been recovered. When asked about this, the dino fans here at Adam Matthew looked sheepish and refused to comment.


World's Fairs: A Global History of Expositions will be released in Spring 2016.

About the Author

Sara Hussain

Sara Hussain

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 I have worked across a variety of projects, including World's Fairs and African American Communities. I enjoy studying all types of history and dabbling in languages, and travelling in my spare time, a combination which is perfectly complemented by my day-to-day work.

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