Friday, March 16, 2007

"The World of Tomorrow"

If you haven't figured it out yet, I love the flotsam and jetsam of pre-1960 pop culture, particularly when it comes to the 1930s and 1940s. And although I'm more an aficionado of old British sportscars (think MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey), I do have a thing for American-made cars of the 30s and 40s. (This painting I just finished is based on an image I made at a car show that featured classic Fords, Hudsons, Packards and their contemporaries. As usual, it's a 9x12" image, in watercolor. The chrome hubcap was a challenge, but after recent efforts reproducing salt shakers for my Ralph Goings series, this wasn't too bad.) Wouldn't it have been fun to drive the new Pennsylvania Turnpike - considered an engineering marvel for its time - in a huge 1939 Ford?

Historians are often asked by their students the following question: If you could travel back in time to one event or period, what would it be? And my answer always surprised them . . . until I explained myself. I'd return to the 1939/40 New York World's Fair. (When I was a history professor, one of my sub-specialties was post-World War II America, and more specifically, the development of the auto-centric, suburban, consumption-crazed society with which we're still burdened.)

If one looks at the history of "world's fairs" and "expositions" in the U.S. one finds a very colorful story. And while we didn't have a monopoly on this kind of celebration - the English and French had a well-established tradition of holding "international expositions," the London Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851 being the best example - Americans clearly enjoyed the "exposition" medium. Beginning in 1876 with our Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the U.S. hosted a series of "world's fairs" that included the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, the 1903/04 St. Louis World's Fair, the 1907 Jamestowne Exposition in Virginia, a Chicago World's Fair in 1933/34 and the New York World's Fair of 1939/40. Although each fair was significant in the context of its era, the 1939 New York World's Fair stands out for several reasons.

Obviously the timing of this fair is critical to its legacy. It came at the end of a decade punctuated by the Great Depression and represented a last gasp of international cooperation on the eve of the Second World War. In fact, before the Fair closed in late 1940, the war had started, and Poland and France had fallen to Nazi Germany. Yet it's the theme of the Fair - "the World of Tomorrow" - which separates it from its predecessors. Our previous exposition efforts had usually represented commemmorations of significant historic events: the national centennial, settlers landing at Jamestowne in 1607, the Lewis and Clark expedition (1904, St. Louis), or Columbus "discovering" the New World (Chicago, 1893). And while we used these venues to show off some of our technological and engineering achievements, a majority of the exhibits were about entertaining the masses with low-brow amusements and colorful historical re-enactments.

Sure, the 1939 Fair had its share of amusements, particularly in its 1940 season. Yet the optimistic Fair organizers earnestly sought to make this occasion different. Fair visitors paid their admission and were rewarded with a display of the newest innovations corporate America had to offer: electric appliances, plastics, robots, cutting-edge farm equipment, and television. And although a majority of the people attending couldn't yet afford the new consumer items on display, the Fair primed a pump of demand which would be turned on with a vengeance after World War II.

In addtion, the New York World's Fair represented a harbinger of the "American Dream" and suburban ideal which would transform the American landscape post-1945. Indeed, the most popular exhibit was the General Motors "Futurama" in which visitors saw a model of what America would possibly look like in 1960 . . . if General Motors - and the infamous Robert Moses, one of the Fair's key proponents - had their way. The "Futurama" predicted a world in which people lived in bucolic suburbs and drove their cars on superhighways to offices in nearby cities. No doubt this was a powerful vision to apartment-living urban dwellers who had little chance to buy their own homes.

Each visitor to the "Futurama" received a button that said, "I Have Seen the Future." And they had! The America they saw in model form became the America of the postwar world, realized first in the mass-produced homes of Levittown on Long Island, and copied repeatedly across the nation. The residents of these new suburbs, enjoying a level of prosperity not seen since the 1920s, filled those homes with the consumer goods - including televisions - so prominently displayed at the 1939 Fair.

That being said, one can approach the fair from other angles as well. From a design standpoint it represented the height of Art Deco style in America, particularly as illustrated by the Fair's symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere. The New York World's Fair also influenced the vision of Walt Disney, who would use some of the lessons learned in 1939 in the construction of Disneyland in the 1950s. Interest in the Fair has only grown, particularly among collectors of memorabilia. Among my various collections of antiques and "junk" the largest group likely comes from the Fair, including a mountain of souvenirs, plates, and books. I even have a couple of those "I Have Seen the Future" pins. Realizing I can't time travel back to 1939, I collect these items to experience some of the magic of the event. It's not a substitute for a good H.G. Wells-like adventure, but it will have to do for now.

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