Reactions to the Message:
Contradictions in the Promise of Tomorrow

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"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

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Of course reactions to The World of Tomorrow varied widely among its visitors and critics.

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"Official" Certificate of Attendance

The fair had marketed its message well in the press and in an infinite number of commercial products, from playing cards and board games to household items such as soaps, glasses, plates, and radios, most of which displayed the Trylon and Perisphere. The fair had attempted to transform itself into the literal world of the future by providing a very clear vision of the chaos of the past and the purity and peace of the socially-planned future.

Purity, however, often walks hand in hand with exclusion, and the fair’s biases were recognized along with its benefits by its visitors and critics.

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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. Lorentz’s City offered an apocalyptic vision of contemporary urban life in America and claimed the solution to its woes rested in Mumford’s 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 Mumford’s 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 Corporation’s 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 People’s Fair" in Culture as History, Warren Susman sheds light on and attempts to unpack the answers to both of those questions.

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Contradictions in "The People’s Fair"

According to Susman, the Gallup Poll (established by George Gallup’s 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 Gallup’s August 1939 poll (63 percent, in fact) believed they could not afford to attend.

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Entry ticket for opening-day festivities

Gardner Harding, considered by Susman "the Fair’s friendliest critic," wrote in Harper’s 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 Harding’s 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.

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1940 Fair advertisement poster

The fact that Harvey Dow Gibson reduced the general admission fee to 50 cents in 1940 (and the fact that the Corporation was forced to declare bankruptcy despite turning a slim profit for 1940) supports Harding’s contention that no matter how much visitors and prospective tourists "liked" the fair, for many it was simply too costly.

Gibson’s 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 Gallup’s 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 fair’s 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.

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The Claim of "Latent Fascism" in Tomorrow’s Message

The fair’s social critics were even more vocal and outspoken in their disapproval of the fair’s message. Susman notes that a New York Times piece considered it "Tomorrow’s Propaganda" rather than an outlet toward peace and prosperity as portrayed in The City (225).  Joseph Wood Krutch of The Nation recognized the fair’s 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).

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A "dancing ladies" show in the Amusements Area

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. O’Connor, who declared the fair’s 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).

For cultural critics of the fair, that stability was deeply entrenched in a lesson of consumption and passive acceptance taught by the exhibits’ sponsors.

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This box-cover to a Parker Brothers board game displays the "typical Americans" who the Fair hoped to reach

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 Westinghouse’s white, upper-middle class Middletons) carefully represented in the fair’s 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 Gibson’s 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 Mumford’s 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).

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A rare glimpse of African-American visitors at the Fair, resting on a bench in front of the Soviet Pavilion

Indeed, prior to the fair’s opening the Fair Corporation’s 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, "World’s 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 Manhattan’s twelve-year old Alfred Roberts, Jr., who won on the strength of his "appearance" and his essay:

The typical American boy should possess the same qualities as those of the early pioneers. He should be handy, dependable, courageous, and loyal to his beliefs. He should be clean, cheerful and friendly, willing to help and be kind to others. He is an all around boy interested in sports, hobbies, and the world around him (Robertson, 40).

Robertson confronts this notion of the "typical American boy" with E.L. Doctorow’s novel World’s 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:

The typical American boy is not fearful of Dangers. . . . he should traverse the hills and valleys of the city. If he is Jewish he should say so. If he is anything he should say what it is when challenged. . . . He reads all the time. . . . Also, radio programs and movies may be enjoyed but not at the expense of important things. For example he should always hate Hitler.  In music he appreciates both swing and symphony. In women he appreciates them all (39).

Obviously, to the fair’s 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.

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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 Crowley’s film The World of Tomorrow and David Gelernter’s historical novel 1939: The Lost World of the Fair reiterate that the 1939 New York World’s Fair was and remains a realm of fascination and possibilities.

Like Disney’s Magic Kingdom, it inspired a youthful optimism and exuberance for many who gazed upon its immaculate streets, luxurious automation, and clean lines. Unlike Disneyland, though, the fair was not intended to be either a carefully-reconstructed, five-eighths-scale historic preservation project or a theoretical simulacrum of a potential world.

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1939 Fair advertisement poster

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. Gelernter’s novel is based upon volumes of personal accounts from the fair’s 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 fair’s visitors and scholars have seen it fulfill its prophecy.

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Tomorrow's Legacy

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