Let me take you back to a lost world. A world where men of vision saw the future, and the future largely came true. This lost world is filled with some of the greatest scientists, craftsmen and artists of all time. It is a world emerging from a horrific depression, on the verge from a titanic war. This world also was a world of morality, a world where respect and pride were part and parcel of a kind of national evangelism. Then imagine all of that world's goals and aspirations and achievements and art projected into one tremendous event. That event is the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.
In a world emerging from an unprecedented financial depression, and about to engage in a monumental world war, the 1939 World's Fair represents a rare moment of vision. The nation had just barely survived the Depression, and most Americans of the time expected it to be fully involved in the maelstrom in Europe. And yet, this fair represented not pessimism or cynicism about the future. Instead, the Fair, and in fact, most Americans of the time, felt a genuine sense of optimism about our country's future. This Fair represents a rare moment of hope and vision between the Great Depression and the Second World War. The Fair is an expression of the American character of optimism, hope, pride and artistry. As such it is well worth celebrating today.
The ‘39 Fair is, of course, just one in a series of World's Fairs. Over the last hundred or so years, have been fairs held in Chicago, London, New Orleans, Vancouver and New York again, just to name a few. What makes the ‘39 New York Fair stand out is that it symbolized that particular moment on American history when optimism, artfulness and vision all combined to create the metaphorical shining city on the hill. This is the world explored by David Gelernter in his fascinating book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair.
Why should you care? What kind of relevance could an event that occurred almost 60 years ago have to your daily life? Well, I think this story is interesting in and of itself. The progression and evolution of America up to World War II are fascinating topics to me. I am very curious about what our country was like before the Cold War, suburbia and the rise of the middle class. Secondly, I think the Fair is an interesting reflection on American society in the ‘90s. Through looking at the Fair, we can see where many of our modern paradigms were created. Not just how did we get here, but why did we choose this place to go?
The World's Fair in New York ran from April 30, 1939 to October 27, 1940, with a break in between for the winter. The two years' fairs were different in character.
The ‘39 Fair was devoted to the idea of the world living a shared future of peace. "Building the World of Tomorrow" was the Fair's motto, and the Fair's planners meant that slogan sincerely. The Fair was a great, massive creation spearheaded by President Roosevelt, imaginative New York City mayor LaGuardia and New York's visionary city planner Robert Moses.
The mere fact of creating the World's Fair grounds was an impressive feat of engineering. The fairgrounds were built in Flushing Meadows, Queens, on what had once been a massive ash dump. The Fair's planners decided to reclaim the dump and constructed the grounds for this massive Fair The reclaiming of the land was often called the largest public works project in history. This echoes a theme of the Fair. Everything presented was faster or stronger or larger than anything ever seen before.
The Fair presented sincere views of the future from some 39 countries and dozens more corporations. You might expect such a Fair to single- mindedly promote corporate interest. There was some salesmanship involved, but the Fair was also filled with a fascinating and quirky diversity of visions.
When the Fair reopened in 1940, the spectre of war in Europe had become almost a certainty. The Nazi blitzkrieg had overrun much of Europe. Hitler and Stalin had signed their non-aggression pact. Roosevelt had signed the Lend- Lease Act to help a tottering England from collapsing. The Fair in 1940 was, out of necessity and public sentiment, much more nationalistically oriented and more concerned with militarism and national patriotism than the ‘39 event. The 1940 Fair was much more a show of nationalistic pride and strength than a vision of peace and prosperity. It is the Fair of ‘39 that is much more interesting and symbolic to me.
The Fair's centerpiece was two unique architectural constructs, the Trylon and Perisphere. Don't you love those classic deco ‘30s names? The Trylon was a massive three-sided pylon and the Perisphere was a massive ball that sat next to the Trylon. Some cynics claimed that these might have been the most ubiquitous and over- commercialized symbols of the time said at the time. To my eyes in 1998 they look like odd, otherworldly symbols of a past age. They appear to be attempts at a kind of futuristic grandeur that appears quaint to a ‘90s viewer, Buck Rogers zap gun creations. At the time of the Fair, the Trylon and Perisphere were powerful symbols of progress and ambition.
Equally important as the Perisphere itself, though, is the attraction found inside it. Inside the Perisphere was one of the most popular events of the Fair. Crowds would wait hours to ride on a ride called that described a "Democracity" of the future.Inside the enormous grandeur of the Perisphere was a long, educational ride of the type that might be found today at an attraction like Epcot Center.
Passengers on the ride viewed the city from seven thousand feet up in the air. They saw Democracity, an American city of the year 2039. It was a metropolis that bordered on a river, a city that radiated out in circles from a giant skyscraper at its center. The farther circles had parks and small towns. Nobody actually lived in this fictitious Democracity. Instead, citizens traveled into and out of the city on high-speed roads. The city and all surrounding suburbs were sparkling new. To the person of 1939, Democracity represented a bright, utopian future.
And yet, my jaundiced 1990s eyes look back and Democracity and chuckle at it. "This is it? Your paradise is a city with suburbs and freeways? What is the big deal here? Besides, this new city doesn't have any neat, older buildings. Nobody even lives there! How can it have life?". Yet this place caught the eyes of the fairgoers of the late ‘30s like few attractions did. Democracity seemed to capture a magical vision of these peoples' futures.
The reason for our disconnect from the views of the average person in 1939 lies with Gelernter's central thesis. He argues that the dream of the average American of that time has come true. 1990s America has suburbs and freeways and big cities with boring skyscrapers. We live in the utopia that was just a dream to the citizen of 1939. We have largely created the world that the creators of Democracity imagined. We live in 1939's utopia.
Americans in 1939 yearned for suburbia. Cities were crowded places, full of smoke and noise and dirt. People yearned to escape the city but were unable to do so amid the ravages of the Depression. They saw suburbia, at least in the abstract sense, as a new and exciting place for people to live. They saw suburbs to be more civilized places with lawns and parks and almost no public transportation. It all seemed a very romantic and exciting way to live. After World War II, veterans and their families flocked to prefab suburbs like Levittown, New York, where children could ride their bikes in peace, where they could have a home of their own with modern appliances and could go into the city to work.
Democracity is symbolic of the fascinating differences between our world and that of 60 years ago. It represents a certain communal yearning that is simply not present today. The ideas were, largely, created out of a national consensus rather than our current dissonance. And finally, one more interesting central fact: the people of 1939 trusted that central planners and other authority figures were not only capable of creating such a utopia, but held a certain amount of responsibility for creating such a place. It was commonly felt in ‘39 that America was home to the greatest artisans, the most innovative planners and some of the most unique designers of all time. These artisans came together to create Democracity and the other tableaux of the Fair, creations that still hold up today as works of great beauty.
If Democracity presented a vision of one city, then Futurama presented the whole world of the future.
Located in the massive General Motors building, Democracity was the most popular attraction of the Fair. It was a similar attraction to Futurama: fairgoers traveled in two-person chairs over an America of the future. The promises of a future America were explicitly spelled out: there would be high-speed superhighways (hopefully with GM cares driven on them, you can be sure). Communications would be easy and people would no longer feel isolated in their small communities. The world of tomorrow promised freedom from the drudgery of day-to-day life. Even roads and buildings would be far, far better than ever before.
The last words of the patrician narrator of this ride symbolize the hope and vision of the Fair. As passengers disembarked, the voice intoned "all eyes to the future." The whole Fair was a look at the future, and the future largely came to be realized.
Along with all these promises, wonderful technology was also realized for the Fair. On the opening day of the Fair, the very first commercial television broadcast was shown. This has to be an event that has to be remembered as one of the most significant in world history. FDR's opening remarks at the start of the fair were the first moments ever shown on TV. It is astounding that technology progressed from talking movies to television in a mere ten years. If progress could be made so quickly, who knew what sorts of innovations we could dream of?
Other exciting items presented at the Fair included extemely streamlined trains and home appliances and cars and many other "modernized" objects. It's easy to forget how pervasive trains were; it's always a shock to see movie stars riding in trains in old movies, but airplanes were loud and dangerous until after World War II. Trains were important in the ‘30s, and new and exciting train designs were presented at the Fair. Also presented were home washers and dryers, to relieve women of some of the drudgery of household chores. Newer, most exciting cars were presented. The technology was exciting for the average fairgoer.
Again, the questions arise in your mind. What is so exciting about presenting new washing machines? And trains were on their way out. Gelernter makes the point repeatedly in his book that these common, day-to-day improvements to daily life were exciting to the people of the ‘30s. They were flashes of their nice, pleasant future life. They could see a utopia, one where things were not perfect or even spectacular, but where things could, and would, be better.
This all implies that the Fair was a very serious event. To a very great extent, this is true. Perhaps to a fault, the planners of the ‘39 World's Fair saw it as an extremely important event. We can see this clearly in the referent and self-important way that a group of Fair organizers buried a time capsule at the Fair's grounds, ostensibly to present the world of 1939 to people living 5000 years hence. In pictures, the serious faces of the men burying the capsule are excruciating. They are completely convinced that what they are doing is exceedingly important, even if the idea is tremendously silly.
Many Americans saw the Fair as reflecting this self- importance. Attendance was poor in ‘39. Part of the reason for the bad turnout comes from economics. Admission cost 75¢ - a great deal of money in those days - plus events inside the were expensive as well. The national economy was just starting to bounce back from a second financial crash in 1938, the so-called "Roosevelt depression," and people were understandably anxious about their financial situation. If they had the money to spend, though, many Americans thought the fair to be too elitist, too much over their heads. They thought it simply wouldn't be fun enough. Things such as automobiles, urban planning and washing machines were important, but what about just going to the Fair and having fun? The Fair had a large amusement area full of popular attractions. There were large ballrooms, Aquacades, even an area with topless women frolicking outside. But the Fair's planners shunted these exhibits off to a corner of the fair. They were treated like the lower-class stepchildren of the Fair. In some official Fair maps, they didn't include the amusement area! The future, it seemed, was too important for mere fun to intrude.
More attempts were made as the Fair went on in 1939 to improve this impression. Publicity pushed the fun aspects of the event over the artful, scientific and cultural aspects that had so attracted the Fair's planners. In 1940, admission prices were cut to 50¢ and the place became much more oriented toward patriotism and America's place in the coming conflagration. But by 1940, with the Nazis ascendent in Europe, the world had gotten much too grim for a mere World's Fair to excite people. The Fair was serious, but it was out of step with the way most Americans felt at the time.
This World's Fair is a fascinating event. In its optimism and faith in the future, it is a truly American celebration. In its paternalistic and over-serious tone, it seems very representative of American public life in the 1930s. Finally, though, the ‘39 Fair is fascinating because it represents a specific moment in American history when art and commerce intersected to create something extraordinary.
If I've intrigued you, I highly recommend you read David Gelernter's book. It is a fascinating account of the Fair and its ideas and concepts. Be warned, though: the author is a social conservative and has a strong axe to grind. I think the brilliance of the Fair, and Gelernter's passion for the event, shine through all his criticisms.
I'd also be thrilled to dub you a copy of "The World of Tomorrow," a documentary about the Fair, narrated by Jason Robards.
At the Fair's theme song put it, the Fair was "the dawn of a new day." That new day is here. We live in the shadow of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Spend some time looking at how we got to where we are now. You will be captivated.