Current Events: The 1939 New York World’s Fair

Welcome to Tomorrow.

“I think that there are moments where you can see the world turning from what it is into what it will be.  For me, the New York World’s Fair is such a moment.  It is a compass rose pointing in all directions, toward imaginary future and real past, false future and immutable present, a world of tomorrow contained in the lost American yesterday.”
– John Crowley, from the film The World of Tomorrow

Some girls are into Fendi bags, others into baubles, and I, happen to be on a 1939 New York World’s Fair kick.   I never knew how many modern references and events can actually be linked back to the exhibition, but it’s pretty interesting, or at least to me. –adjusts glasses-

The information available online is a bit overwhelming and disjointed, but I thought I would share some anecdotes I found particularly notable.

First off, some background. The fair was held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, New York. The 1939 World’s Fair came at a time when the United States was coming out of the Great Depression and looking towards the future with the hope of a brighter tomorrow-branding the event as “The Dawn of a New Day”.   Organized by a group of retired New York City policemen, the fair’s construction, organization, and exhibitors were mapped out over the next four years.  In addition to lifting the spirits of the American people and driving much needed business to New York, the original committee thought there should be a cultural or historical association with the fair and decided its opening would correspond with the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration as the President of the United States.

The grounds were split up into different zones(Transportation, Communications and Business, Food, etc) and laid out around the “Theme Center”, consisting of two monuments, the Trylon and Perisphere.  Over the fair’s two season run, 44 million people were in attendance making it the largest world’s fair of all time.

What first sparked my interest in learning about the fair was stumbling across Dali’s elaborate exhibit, Dream of Venus-or “Twenty Thousand Legs Under the Sea”. The surrealist pavilion was ornately adorned with an Art Nouveau-coral reef-Gaudi motif.   He conceived the idea of having a funhouse based on the dreams of the Roman goddess of love, which I’m sure as you can imagine- Dali took his own erotic Freudian liberties with.  There were topless women, mummified cows, bizarre objects from his mind strewn around or hanging, a submerged nude chained to a piano as its “keys”…just another Tuesday at Nana’s, really.

In the interest of time, and waning internet attention spans, I’ll list out the other interesting take-aways from my research.

  • Westinghouse Time Capsule-
    “The time capsule was not to be opened for 5,000 years, not until 6939 AD. The time capsule was a tube containing writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette Safety Razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and much more. The capsule also contained seeds of foods in common use at the time: (wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans, alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots and barley, all sealed in glass tubes). The time capsule is located at  40°44′34.089″N 73°50′43.842″W, at a depth of 50 feet (15 m). A small stone plaque marks the position.”

I particularly enjoyed Thomas Mann’s message to the future:

“We know now that the idea of the future as a “better world” was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress. The hopes we center on you, citizens of the future, are in no way exaggerated. In broad outline, you will actually resemble us very much as we resemble those who lived a thousand, or five thousand, years ago. Among you too the spirit will fare badly it should never fare too well on this earth, otherwise men would need it no longer. That optimistic conception of the future is a projection into time of an endeavor which does not belong to the temporal world, the endeavor on the part of man to approximate to his idea of himself, the humanization of man. What we, in this year of Our Lord 1938, understand by the term “culture” a notion held in small esteem today by certain nations of the western world is simply this endeavor. What we call the spirit is identical with it, too. Brothers of the future, united with us in the spirit and in this endeavor, we send our greetings.”

  • Firsts at the fair: color photography, nylon, air conditioning, the View-Master, aaaand Smell-o-vision..which never really caught on.
  • The White Mana, considered the “diner of the future” and “Introduction to Fast Food”, was on display and is still functioning in Jersey City, New Jersey.

  • Matt Groening’s show Futurama, was named after the GM exhibit at the World’s Fair which tried to depict the world twenty years in the future.  26 million guests swarmed in to see the simulated landscape of sprawling suburbs and automated highways.

And by far the most influencial exhibit to come out of the 1939 World’s Fair was ELEKTRO, the smoking robot.


You can catch him in all his smoking, finger counting, hitting on women in agonizing ev-er-y.syll-a-ble.brok-en.out glory here. ♥

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