Reactions to the Message:
"Actually, Tomorrow scared me a little. Could I grasp the immense plan expressed in occult symbols all over the fair? Would I be up to tomorrow? It seemed so urgent that Tomorrow be dragged out of the Future where it lay, peacefully unborn. But why was it so urgent? Why?"
- John Crowley, The World of Tomorrow
Of course reactions to The World of Tomorrow varied widely among its visitors and critics.
Purity, however, often walks hand in hand with exclusion, and the fairs biases were recognized along with its benefits by its visitors and critics.
Selling Purity and Perfection
The futuristic vision of perfection embodied by The World of Tomorrow is perhaps best exemplified in a movie entitled The City, produced for the American Association of Planners and shown in that organization's building. The City was written by Lewis Mumford, the famous social critic associated with the planned community reform of the Regional Planning Association. The film was also based upon the writings of Pare Lorentz, who directed other government-sponsored films intended for public release, such as The Plow that Broke the Plains. Lorentzs City offered an apocalyptic vision of contemporary urban life in America and claimed the solution to its woes rested in Mumfords greenbelt communities. The rhetoric of the film attempted to sell the idea of anti-urban regional planning as first outlined in Ebenezer Howard's text Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, portraying "average" Americans as Lewis Mumfords happy citizens. The City, in a sense, represented the transition into the future which the fair boasted as its guiding principle.
However, if The World of Tomorrow intended to be a shopping plaza for Modern ideals and products, it became clear that within its first season not all of its visitors were willing to purchase the message. True, the fair attracted 45 million visitors in its two years, but that figure was 5 million short of its projected 50 million admissions, and the miscalculation certainly contributed to the Corporations bankruptcy. Yes, the fair was highly recognizable as a cultural phenomenon and wildly successful as a media event, but those characteristics rarely illuminate accurate popular opinion about an event. What did the people for whom it was supposed to exist think about it in its day? Why did it change so drastically from 1939 to 1940? In a chapter on "The Peoples Fair" in Culture as History, Warren Susman sheds light on and attempts to unpack the answers to both of those questions.
Contradictions in "The Peoples Fair"
According to Susman, the Gallup Poll (established by George Gallups American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935) provides an enlightening record of how fair-goers viewed The World of Tomorrow. Culture as History states that the poll "reported that Fair visitors liked the following exhibits the best: General Motors, the Theme Center (Democracity), American Telephone and Telegraph, Ford Motor Company, the Soviet Pavilion, the British Pavilion, and the Railroad exhibit" (217). This poll, taken in August 1939, also noted that "at least 85 percent of those who attended the Fair enjoyed it. Women were found to be significantly more enthusiastic about it than men. The typical Fair visitor visited the Fair an average of 2.3 times and only 3 percent of those attending did not like the Fair at all."
"Like," of course, is a relative term. Americans may have liked or loved the fair from afar, but their enjoyment of the Fair does not escape the fact that a majority of the visitors who responded to Gallups August 1939 poll (63 percent, in fact) believed they could not afford to attend.
Gardner Harding, considered by Susman "the Fairs friendliest critic," wrote in Harpers magazine that "price ranges of the fair are not . . . geared to the pocketbook of the fifty million people whom the Fair has staked its credit (and its return to its bondholders) on attracting through its turnstiles" (223). Ostensibly the 75 cents admission fee, combined with Hardings estimated $7.00 for a tour of the popular exhibits and meals for two ($92.00 by 1998 standards) drove away the "folk" for whom the fair was supposedly organized.
Gibsons other changes for the 1940 season, from "The World of Tomorrow" to the American-centered "For Peace and Freedom," suggest that not only was the fair too pricey for its target market, but its original ideals were also too "heavy." What did visitors and critics think about the message penned in The City and Futurama? Again, Susman reports through Gallups poll that not everyone believed in the messianic power of technology 23 percent of Americans on economic relief at the time believed the cause of their unemployment was the increased use of machines (218). Only 13 percent of those polled displayed an interest in actually purchasing television sets. The fairs appeal to technology and social planning appeared to draw the people only as it displayed spectacle and entertainment, not as it functioned as a near religious conversion to the power of technology.
The Claim of "Latent Fascism" in Tomorrows Message
The fairs social critics were even more vocal and outspoken in their disapproval of the fairs message. Susman notes that a New York Times piece considered it "Tomorrows Propaganda" rather than an outlet toward peace and prosperity as portrayed in The City (225). Joseph Wood Krutch of The Nation recognized the fairs value of science and industry in the fair only as much as it provided "spectacles . . . which could easily compete with acrobats and trained seals of a conventional circus" (223).
Michael Robertson emphasizes that critics underscored the controlling power which the exhibits held over the visitors minds, carefully pouring into their eyes and ears a packaged message of consumption, as displayed in the Futurama exhibit in which viewers were positioned to marvel at "highway engineering at its most spectacular." Unpacking that controlling power to its extreme, Robertson cites historian Francis V. OConnor, who declared the fairs exhibits as an exercise in "latent fascism . . . : The Fair was a carefully contrived conditioning experiment (Germany was another at the time) and few among the multitudes entering its gates were ready in 1939-40 or subsequently to psyche out the reasons they suddenly yearned for television sets, superhighways, foreign foods, and a streamlined life" (36). Late twentieth-century critics echo many of the Fair's contemporary critics. Jeffrey Meikle even argues that the streamlined motif repeated throughout the fair is a paradoxical mixture of an emphasis on forward thrust paired with control, order, balance, and stability (Cooney, 22).
The fair planners created a curriculum in which the visitors became students who were to imbibe the corporate doctrine and carry it out with their dollars, all the while emulating the "average American family" (such as Westinghouses white, upper-middle class Middletons) carefully represented in the fairs films and in the products of memorabilia marketed by the Fair Corporation.
Susman, Meikle, Robertson, and a host of other critics attempt to expose underlying reasons behind Gibsons decision to change the fair from an emphasis on the future to a massive "country fair." That exposure claims that, despite an inclination to look forward to a better life, Americans were not ready for Mumfords radical vision of "tomorrow."
Robert Rydell suggests it was not so much that visitors did not understand or were unable to process the social theory involved in the fair but that its view of perfection in the world of tomorrow left out too much (970).
Indeed, prior to the fairs opening the Fair Corporations office was picketed by African-American organizations, drawing attention to their exclusion from the exposition. In a 1990 review of a Museum of the City of New York exhibit on the fair, Rydell draws attention to a previously unrecognized racism associated with the fair in which a Milwaukee-based travel agency, "Worlds Fair Tours," instructed its salespeople to pitch its product as "a pre-arranged-tour for white people. . . . We are not offering tours to the general public but to a specific section of the public, just the same as though we had arranged a specific tour for some Fraternal Order and for members of that order only" (968). A principle of negligent exclusion in the 1939 fair is also exemplified in the fact that for the 1940 fair Norman Bel Geddes responded to criticism of Futurama by adding "600 more churches, several hundred filling stations, and one university" (Susman, 227). Furthermore, the 1940 fair had run a contest for the "typical American boy," won by Manhattans twelve-year old Alfred Roberts, Jr., who won on the strength of his "appearance" and his essay:
Robertson confronts this notion of the "typical American boy" with E.L. Doctorows novel Worlds Fair in which the protagonist, a young Jewish boy from New York named Edgar, appropriates the contest as a way in which to assert his own unique American identity. In his essay Edgar writes:
Obviously, to the fairs visitors and critics, the world of tomorrow was to be considerably more complex and socially inclusive than the Fair Corporation and its exhibitors had demonstrated.
The Emotional Impact of The World of Tomorrow
This is not to suggest that the fair did not succeed in delivering a message of hope and wonder for many of those who attended. John Crowleys film The World of Tomorrow and David Gelernters historical novel 1939: The Lost World of the Fair reiterate that the 1939 New York Worlds Fair was and remains a realm of fascination and possibilities.
The World of Tomorrow was intended to be a clear demonstration of how life was going to be in the United States and in the rest of the world from that point forward. Gelernters novel is based upon volumes of personal accounts from the fairs visitors, and they, as well as students of the fair, continue to marvel at the emotional "peace and freedom" which it helped to develop in them, if only during their brief visit. At the risk of crude reduction, the fair was, in the end, an amusement show with a message. The World of Tomorrow promised a hegemonic worldview of a society dominated by leisure and abundance granted by the use of technology, and in many ways the fairs visitors and scholars have seen it fulfill its prophecy.