The future ain’t what it used to be.
If you’d like to know how this country once embraced the possible, go to the Museum of the City of New York for “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s,” now on display through March 31st. Equal parts commercial enterprise, scientific exposition and amusement park, the Depression Era world’s fairs each had an unmistakable WOW factor. Beginning with the Chicago fair of 1933-34 and covering the lesser-known expositions of San Diego (1935-36), Great Lakes/Cleveland (1936-37) and the Texas Centennial (1936), the exhibit culminates with San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition and the New York World’s Fair, both held in 1939-40. While the architecture ranged from Chicago’s classic art deco to Dallas’s ur-Southwest to San Francisco’s pan-Pacific, what each of these fairs had to say about America was remarkably similar.
There’s a big-heartedness in the vision, an open-mindedness as to what could be, as the fairs’ slogans proclaim. A Century of Progress. The Dawn of a New Day. The World of Tomorrow. Attendees saw man-made lightning at the General Electric Pavillion, a live General Motors automobile assembly line, and Electro the smoking robot and his equally radio-tubed dog, Sparko, courtesy of Westinghouse. They marvelled at displays of homes of the future, cities to come and super-highways, and were the first to behold images produced and transmitted by a new technology known as television. Is it any wonder that the signature souvenir of the 1939 New York World’s Fair was GM’s pin, proudly stating “I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE“?
Each of these fairs married technology, commercialism and innovation in design in a manner that has yet to be duplicated. All of this is on full display in the Museum’s exhibit, which showcases the participation of industrial giants like Ford, Chrysler, Borden (loved the automatic cow milking carousel), Wonder Bakeries and many others, without which the fairs would have remained a pipe dream. And, incidentally, would not have been a source of employment for thousands of people, before, during and after the fairs’ existence.
It’s fascinating to see Electro himself, promotional films for each of the fairs and the full array of souvenirs, games and ephemera they produced. Most haunting, though, are the home movies, especially those shot at the New York fair, since a considerable number of these are in color (when you’re so used to seeing historic images in black and white, the sight of the same views in Technicolor is eye-popping indeed). Equally memorable are the designs considered but discarded by the fairs’ planners which line the walls of the Museum’s display.
The Museum of the City of New York is one of those rare places that’s open seven days a week (closed for major holidays). If you go, be sure to visit an equally compelling exhibit, “Activist New York,” that features abolitionists, suffragettes, garment workers, school protestors and gays and lesbians, among other groups, in full cry. Great stuff.