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Photograph of Painting of Pocahontas, copied by W. L. Sheppard, 1939

CONTENT WARNING

Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 

Context

Touted as the largest and most magnificent exposition of all time, the New York World’s Fair opened at Flushing Meadows in April 1939. In the Court of States, one exhibition was strikingly different from the rest: the Virginia Room, “an island of quiet” amid the fair’s raucous and more sensational attractions. Leslie Cheek, Jr., designer of the Virginia Room, and his team of artists developed a plan for a spacious circular lounge with the visitor’s focus drawn to an ornamental fountain theatrically lit from above and below. The design offered tired fairgoers a place to sit, a chance to enjoy a complimentary glass of ice water served by a white-jacketed waiter, and an array of large photograph albums prepared by the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce.

Taken together, the Virginia Room albums can be thought of as a sprawling infomercial for the state, promoting it as a place not just of historic shrines and natural beauty, but as one of scientific, artistic, and intellectual sophistication, a modern state of concrete highways and Negro colleges, world-class museums and business-friendly public policies. When the World’s Fair closed, it was estimated that well over a million people had visited the Virginia Room and viewed its photograph collection. The photograph of the Pocahontas portrait was one of the images selected to be in the Virginia Room.

Pocahontas was an important figure in the early English settlement of Virginia as she was the daughter of Paramount Chief Powhatan and later acted as emissary for her people representing them both at Jamestown and in England. The original painting was likely produced after her death in March 1617. Images of Pocahontas were used with some frequency in the 1930’s and 1940’s to promote Virginia and Virginia- made products.


Citation: Among the portraits in the State Library at Richmond is the painting of Pocahontas, copied by W. L. Sheppard, Virginia New York World's Fair Commission, 1939. WF_04_01_017.jpg, Visual Studies Collection, Library of Virginia

Standards

USII. 1, USII.6, VSUS. 9, VUS.10, VS.1, VS.2 VS.4, VS. 9, VS. 10, WH II. 11, WG.8, WG.9

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Scan It: Look at the image of Pocahontas. Why is she dressed in English clothing? What does her dress tell you about her status?

Post Activities

Social Media Spin: Create a social media post in which you promote the Virginia Room at the World’s Fair. Include relevant information about the use of the image of Pocahontas and why she was important in Virginia history.

Up for Debate: If the Virginia Room albums had been limited to only 10 photos, would this be one you would have included? Why or why not?

Virginia Validation: Why was it important that the design of the Virginia Room reflected the culture of the State? How did the designer accomplish this goal?