Tomorrow's Legacy

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Paul Valery writes in his 1972 "Recollections" that "A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations." As a cultural event, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair is certainly a detailed and ironically profound work of art, still open to interpretation. In that sense, the fair never did close, for its position in American cultural history continues to be discussed and debated. Along the superhighway that is American culture, The World of Tomorrow was both an oasis and a landmine. Infinite questions remain about the fair’s impact on how Americans thought about and bought the future, but the legacy of the fair illustrates how it helped to conclude the tumultuous decade of the 1930s and how the rest of late twentieth century America has been influenced by the images, ideas, and products it presented.

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The Possession of Time

When visitors to the Futurama exhibit exited the General Motors Building, they were given a small blue and white pin which contained the phrase "I Have Seen the Future."

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It is perhaps difficult to contextualize for later generations the fascination with time which existed in 1930s America. The Depression created an era in which the utter meaningless-ness and emptiness of the present was underscored profoundly on a daily basis. Warren Susman has suggested that in times of crisis, Americans look in two directions, to the past and to the future, in order to manufacture a sense of identity rooted in success.

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Sign on a truck which traveled throughout the fair; obviously the Depression was not far from visitors' minds

Amid the breadlines, the riots, and the dustbowl of the 1930s, this phenomenon took full flight. That is why, despite appearing as if they are centuries apart, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colonial Williamsburg opened the same year in which Grover Whalen and his colleagues formed the New York World’s Fair Corporation, 1935.
The 1930s remains a unique decade in America, a period which balanced the paradox of despair and hope with the paradox of the past and the future. It seems fitting, nearly 60 years after the fact, that the 1930s closed just as "The World of Tomorrow" was being transformed into "For Peace and Freedom," a fair to celebrate the supposed international cooperation which would not arrive until well after the bloodiest war in the world’s history.

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1939 Fair advertisement poster

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1940 Fair advertisement poster

The 1939 New York World’s Fair insisted upon a futuristic promise, a machine-age Utopia, and it used as its tools "ideas, placed into imagery, later realized for the imagination," in the words of Alan Howard. If the 1939 fair was newborn promise, then the 1940 fair was its older and more experienced brother who knew that such a rosy vision of the future was impossible and instead retreated to the comfortable standards of God and country.


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Plugging in Tomorrow

It seems quite ironic to discuss the "legacy" of an event which placed so much emphasis on its ownership of the future and its explicit break from anything associated with the past. However, late twentieth century America has lived through the 1960 envisioned in Futurama, and the United States could not have developed as it has without The World of Tomorrow.

New technologies displayed at the fair included robotics (i.e. Westinghouse’s Elektro), television, FM radio, and fluorescent lighting. David Gelernter writes that "At the RCA Building, the ‘radio living room of tomorrow’ was (even) equipped with a fax machine" (40).

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Trylon and Perisphere radio

The technological marvels demonstrated at the fair have had a profound impact on the American home. Richard Guy Wilson notes that the high Modernist architecture of the day, designed by figures such as Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, did little to influence the architectural design of the American home. Instead, Modernism, via the fair, entered the American home through the kitchen, bathroom, and garage doors in the form of the industrial designers’ streamlined products.

The emphasis on consumerism in The World of Tomorrow was clear, and it helped develop the "psychological conditioning to foster artificial demand" typical in American advertising today (Susman, 221). In short, Americans want items which they truly do not need thanks to the revolution in large-scale product endorsement developed by the fair. The fair’s industrial designers also helped to develop the production theory of the annual model, the yearly re-development of an existing product, which still causes the rush of consumption of automobiles, clothing, television programs, and other products each autumn (and every other season, for that matter).

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The Impact on the American Identity

The fair also designed a new type of American, the "average" consumer who trusts the saving grace of new technology represented by Westinghouse’s Middleton family.

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New York Times article on the Fair's "Typical American Boy"

The image of the typical American was repeated time and time again in The World of Tomorrow, with the "typical American boy" contests and the faces of happy, clean-cut customers displayed on the fair’s memorabilia.

Coupled with the fair’s revolution in large-scale marketing, the idea of the typical American paved the way for the development of the nuclear family of the 1950s. Without the Middletons, it may have taken decidedly longer to get to Ozzie and Harriet or Richie Cunningham of Happy Days, characters decidedly different from E.L. Doctorow’s Edgar.

However, the fair has also influenced the human form in another way, through its use of scale and the appropriation of people within massive structures. The future was to become, if nothing else, a tremendously big place, made smaller by the use of technology – automobiles, superhighways, dirigibles, helicopters, and auto-gyros.

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Visitor standing atop a model of the Trylon and Perisphere

The human was to be able to traverse vast territories with a previously incomprehensible efficiency, and for the most part, that has come true. While the Eisenhower Interstate System was financed as a defense measure and had its roots in Gilmore Clarke’s Bronx River Parkway system, a project of such magnitude could not have been created without the earlier high-speed roads of Futurama.

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A long-distance view of visitors lining up to enter the Futurama exhibit


The manner in which the fair portrayed the human figure in the scale of the future both heightened and released the tension between the individual and society. Each individual’s world became exponentially larger while temporal distances between destinations became exponentially smaller, yet the individual was becoming miniscule in comparison to the architecture which surrounded him or her.

What better place for this tension to be displayed than in New York City? The juxtaposition of the city and the fair represented the natural progression of scale, with the fair as an encapsulation of and improvement upon the city’s grandeur and quality of life.

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The Image of the Future

The fair’s emphasis on the ubiquitous nature and inevitability of the future contributed to the acceptance of high Modernism as an appropriate style for governmental, corporate, and academic architecture. It placed terms such as "streamlined," "aero-dynamic," and "o-rama" into the American vocabulary. The emphasis on the future has even given support to visions of tomorrow as banal as "The Jetsons" and as highly developed as those of NASA. Bringing the future into the present was a clear attempt by The World of Tomorrow to take Fantasy and make it Reality.

In the process, it represented that fantastically real world with the orb of the Perisphere, a form repeated as the theme was repeated in the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair (held on the same grounds as the 1939-40 fair) and in Disney’s EPCOT Center, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

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The central exhibit of the 1964-65 N.Y. World's Fair, on the former site of the Trylon and Perisphere

The 1939-40 World’s Fair and the scale of FDR’s federal government programs emphasized the massive organizing power which was to be exemplified in the future, carefully planned and, in Gelernter’s words, "full of authority."

Of course, World War II challenged the authority of each, and the world peace promoted by the fair gave way to destruction. Even the 4000 tons of steel used to construct the Trylon and Perisphere were transferred to military factories to become scrap metal "for bombs and other instruments of war" when the structures were dismantled (Susman, 229). However, many people believed fervently in the fantasy-reality world created by The World of Tomorrow, and Disney’s success is evidence that many people continue to believe in it. In spite of the Depression, in spite of the blatant consumerism promoted, people "liked" it, to the point that its turnstiles revolved about 45 million times. Why? Michael Robertson’s assessment of Doctorow’s novel suggests the answer: "individuals can participate in mass culture and at the same time transform it, making it their own" (42). Was the message of Tomorrow too much for the populace, as Henry Dow Gibson suggested in 1940? Doctorow and Robertson would say no; it is simply that Americans, for better or for worse, enjoy their social theory and their frivolity in relatively equal doses.

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Yesterday and Tomorrow

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Trylon and Perisphere clock

The fair’s ideals live on in myriad arenas, but it is perhaps fitting that a large portion of the fair's physical remnants circulates in the collectibles and memorabilia sold as part of its promotion.
"Official" 1939-40 World’s Fair soaps, razors, perfume bottles, dolls, silverware, buttons, and other artifacts have been transformed from kitsch into cultural indicators, the symbols of the staying power of the fair’s iconography. Even a World’s Fair commemorative version of the New Testament was published (one must wonder if the Book of Revelation was re-written in it).

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A commemorative World's Fair shaving kit

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The World's Fair version of the New Testament

1939 America was, indeed, fascinated by The World of Tomorrow, and the continuing market for its products is evidence that the same fascination and enthusiasm still exists.

Gelernter’s 1995 text notes that "it is of course crucial not to flatten the complexity of 1939’s worldview. It was not uniformly optimistic any more than we are invariably pessimistic" (33). This is true, but the optimism and exuberance of 1939, especially as it relates to the fair, cannot be denied. Why did Americans have such optimism and such a positive reaction to "the future?" Why does it seem that, despite the popularity of Disneyworld, if The World of Tomorrow were exhibited today it would be seen as transparent? Even though the world of 1939 had experienced mass destruction in the mechanized wars of Europe, it had not lived through the detonation of the atomic bomb. The World of Tomorrow could promote its message because technology had not yet demonstrated its ability to destroy a major metropolitan area with little effort in a matter of minutes.

That message of hope, wonder, amazement, and even spectacle was palatable because The World of Tomorrow was a Modern extension of enlightenment thinking, the unswerving belief in the abilities and perfectibility of humankind.

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Sunset at the Fair, with a view of the Washington statue gazing at the Theme Center

The ideals of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair certainly had their limitations, which the rest of twentieth century America has met, but the wonder and awe which surrounded it has not subsided. In the context of the late twentieth century’s view of technology, 1939’s view of the future even takes on an aura of nostalgia. The World of Tomorrow was a dreamland, and it remains so, a work of art incomplete yet planned well into "the future." The fair is a time capsule unto itself, filled with kitsch and theoretical salvation, a rare icon of hope in the twentieth century, ready to be opened time and again for future generations. The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair is both yesterday and tomorrow.

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Notes and Resources

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