The year 1939 was one for the memory books. On the silver screen, Dorothy donned her ruby slippers and realized there’s no place like home, while Rhett informed Scarlett that he just didn’t give a damn. Politically, the year marked the end of the Spanish Civil War and the start of World War II in Europe.
A new technology called “television” was demonstrated for the first time at the World’s Fair in New York City. And at another fair on the opposite side of the country, Levi Strauss & Co. created an exhibition that thrilled visitors from across the globe. This year, the city celebrates the 75th anniversary of its famous fair, and the memories that it made.
Two Bridges, One Celebration
Although the worst years of the Great Depression in the United States took place in the 1930s, the decade also marked some of the country’s most significant public works projects. Two of them spanned San Francisco Bay: the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (1936) and its more famous cousin, the Golden Gate Bridge (1937). People could now reach the city not just on the ferryboats that traveled the bay, but in cars, which were becoming more important and more common.
To celebrate its new twin spans, San Francisco launched the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE). This mirror image of the World’s Fair rivaled New York’s version of the event, and opened in February of 1939, a full two months before its east coast counterpart. Even the land on which the GGIE was constructed was new: “Treasure Island” was built specifically for the Exposition, near one of the anchorage points for the Bay Bridge.
The Expo’s theme was “Pageant of the Pacific,” celebrating San Francisco’s importance to trade and culture throughout the Pacific Rim. It featured buildings devoted to new technologies, agriculture, and the arts. But it also had a fun side, which is where Levi Strauss & Co. decided to make its mark for fair visitors.
The Talk of Treasure Island
LS&Co. created a “Mechanical Rodeo” for the Exposition, described in fair literature as follows: “It moves. It talks. Its figures are all hand-carved likenesses of famous rodeo people. And they’re all dressed in authentic Western togs.”
Wooden puppets were dressed in miniature Levi’s® jeans, satin rodeo shirts and cowboy hats. They sat on a fence and watched the antics of a horse and mule on a revolving stage decorated, naturally, with a display of the famous 501® jeans. Behind the stage, a record player boomed out classic cowboy songs. It was a total hit and LS&Co. created a color postcard as a souvenir of the Electric Rodeo for visitors.
Unfortunately, the effects of the Depression prevented GGIE from being much of a financial success — it was only open from February to October 1939. It re-opened, however, in May of 1940 and ran until September, giving more visitors the chance to see the Levi’s Mechanical Rodeo in action.
When the fair finally closed, the company renovated a large truck and installed the display, renaming it the “Puppet Rodeo.” It toured county fairs and towns with large Levi’s retailers. During World War II, it also toured towns raising money for the war effort.
The truck is now in private hands, and much of the display has been lost. Today, a couple of pairs of the little jeans reside in our Archives, along with the postcard, photographs and brochures, and the fair’s promotional materials.