Great Britain exhibited its foundational "Great Charter" at the Fair, emphasizing the Anglo-American friendship so desperately needed in the tumultuous times prior to World War II.
Americans and the Great Charter
Sir Louis Beale, British Commissioner General to the Fair, emphasized: "It was felt that our national contribution would be incomplete without some reference to the foundations in the past, in which both of the great English-speaking democracies have their roots." To that end, the designers included a special room to display an original copy of the Magna Carta.
Great Britain housed four copies of the Magna Carta: two in the British Museum, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and the one loaned to the Fair by the Lincoln Cathedral.
The invaluable document arrived in New York on the Queen Mary on April 20. A blue ribbon with its knots covered in red seals enclosed the heavy wooden case, two feet by three feet by six inches. A tag read "On His Majesty's Service" and a red chalk "Fragile" marked the top.
The New York Times' editors heralded the arrival of the Magna Carta as "the ever-living fountain from which flow those liberties which the English-speaking world enjoys today." The following day Mayor La Guardia, Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine, Sir Louis Beale, and Godfrey Haggard, Britain's Consul General, escorted the Magna Carta to the Fair. The document's insured value was listed at $500,000.
Once installed in its protective display case, two women approached the exhibit. One said to her friend: "I'm glad it's the Fair we came to. You can learn a lot here. Before I left home I told my sister that if it came to a choice between Coney Island and the Fair, I'd see the Fair." However, many Fairgoers didn't harbor the same intellectual purpose.
A guard strategically placed near the display case expressed astonishment that at least 30% of the pavilion's visitors had no idea of the significance of the great charter. Used to standing in lines to view the Fair's exhibits, tourists often queued up without any understanding of what they were about to view. Common responses included, "Oh, it's just a piece of paper" and "It's something to read but we can't stop to read it all." After standing for quite some time before the display case, a guard requested a lady proceed on, to which she replied: "I'm just waiting for the Magna Carta to start."
One couple hurried into the New Zealand pavilion where the husband demanded to see "the magic carpet." After a guide informed the husband the exhibit had no magic carpet, his wife uttered: "Don't be stupid, Henry. It's the Magna Carta we want."