The World of Tomorrow: Introduction

The New York World's Fair of 1939 provides the last great backdrop against which one might look at the history of the hobo. Built upon the marshy grasslands of Flushing Meadows, the fair was a spectacle of futuristic design promoting a vision of yet another promised land, this one to be achieved via technology and the purchase of industry's products. If the Centennial Exposition of 1876 introduced America to the Machine, by 1939 its incorporation into American life was so complete that the design of the Fair itself and the products it promoted spoke the "language" of the machine. Huge corporations like GE and Ford exhibited visions of an ideal future - streamlined cars and clean, clear highways - for those who 'bought' in, who believed. Product consumption makes good citizens, the spectacle seemed to say, consumption will equalize and uplift citizens into this utopian tomorrow.

All World Fairs present the best picture of the present - and in this case especially - the future. But while the hope of the Machine Age was underscored by unemployment and labor unrest, and while the dream of high culture and purity embodied in The White City was mirrored across town in the development of a subculture of impoverished, homeless men, what did The World of Tomorrow hold for the hobo? By 1939, it definitely did not hold hope.

Already in the early 1920s, the market demand for hobo labor was diminishing. The increased mechanization of industries such farming, ice harvesting, and logging made men increasingly less necessary. Farmers had combines and other machines and needed fewer and fewer workers to help harvest their crops. The wheat belt, and much of the rest of the West, also now had a large enough permanent population or "home guard" from which to draw their labor supply. As the Great Depression would make all too clear, migrant workers known as "rubber tramps" now traveled in motor vehicles. The vision of the future built on highways and corporate farming promulgated at the Fair in New York finally spoke some truth to the hobo, not that he didn't exist, but that he was no longer necessary.

The Changing Face of Labor