Americans got their first glimpse into the World of Tomorrow, 77 years ago.
On April 30, 1939 the New York World’s Fair had its grand opening, inviting and enticing Americans with a view of the wonderous future that awaited them.
They liked what they saw.
If the seed of the American Dream was first planted during the dark days of the Depression coming into full bloom in the post war years, it was germinated at the 1939 N.Y. Worlds Fair where our fundamental expectation in limitless progress took root.
The Fair confirmed our belief that there was nothing that American ingenuity in science, technology, and industry could not accomplish.
It was the American way.
The Fairs opening was timed to coincide with the glorious 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in lower Manhattan as our beloved first President.
Now 77 years later the bloom of that American Dream has withered, and some who aspire to fill President Washington’s grand shoes appear more buffoonish than presidential.
Todays current gloom and downsizing stand in sharp contrast to the buoyant optimism of an earlier time
For those in 1939, the prospect of the World of Tomorrow was filled with hope.
A Day at the World of Tomorrow- July 1939
The future was getting closer every day.
Like so many, my mother Betty had been captivated with the futuristic visions of the 1939 NY World’s Fair which she had as yet only read about in the pages of Life Magazine.
It had been barely 3 months since that hot Sunday in April when FDR gave the opening day address officially opening the 1939 N.Y. World’s Fair. But to an anxious 13-year-old girl who longed to see The World of Tomorrow, it seemed an eternity.
Finally with the arrival of her July birthday, the long promised visit into the future had arrived.
All Eyes To The Future…
Because her family lived in Brooklyn, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the fair grounds in Queens. Descending into the steamy bowels of the N.Y. subway system that July, transported her quickly to the World of Tomorrow that magical land of the future making her feel like Dorothy entering the land of Oz.
Exiting the train the first magical sight was the National Cash Register Exhibit shaped appropriately enough like a giant cash register.
The fair was one big showroom after another – a whirlwind, merry go-round of Corporations on parade with a roster of names straight out of Dow Jones. You could call your aunt in California courtesy of Bell Telephone, feast on pickles at Heinz, get a free shave at Remington Rand, ride a Ford on the Road to Tomorrow, and most miraculous of all watch Television at RCA.
The wizards behind the curtain to this streamlined magic kingdom was a collection of smart, modern industrial designers, like Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy whose celebrity status bespoke of a society hungry for the new and improved.
To an impressionable youngster, the sunshine of promise seemed to shine as brightly as all the new glittering automobiles, gleaming appliances and too-good-to-be-true-television that loomed in our future. “A greater world…a better world…a world which always grows forward.”
A world superior to anything ever seen.
Inside the Persiphere, which along with the Tryon was the optimistic symbol of the fair, was the theme exhibit of the fair, Democracity a diorama of the utopian city of the future. For an additional twenty-five cents above the general admission price, Betty would be dazzled by a six-minute version of the Future.
Entering the gleaming white gigantic globe, that measured an entire city block long, Betty felt as if she were in a dream. After riding silently on a glass enclosed moving escalator – the largest ever seen – she stepped onto a “magic carpet,” a circular moving platform for her journey into the future.
Perched high on a slowly revolving balcony, the lights dimmed, the dome twinkled with stars, a thousand voice chorus resounded as if from the heavens, as if God himself spoke.
The music reached a crescendo, announcing Democracity, a perfect model of a perfect world with pleasant suburbs for pleasant nuclear families with happiness in abundance. A place where you would own your own home, tend your own yard, where children could play on green lawns, ride their bicycles, play softball, all far from the bustling, business hub of the city.
Projected on the massive dome were large images of workers and farmers marching, not in Teutonic lockstep but in good ol’ American unity. The music rose, then subsided and the marching men vanished behind drifting clouds.
As she watched entranced, the narrators familiar voice explained how Democracity, epitomized “The American Way of Life” and included a future where ‘round the clock leisure and economic prosperity would result “for all who believe.”
Who wouldn’t believe H.V. Kaltenborn, the narrator, a highly respected radio commentator. His voice, ironically, would become even more familiar to my Mother with his nightly radio reports on the war.
Suddenly a blinding bright blaze of brilliant polarized light lit up the dome climaxing the spectacular six-minute show, well worth the extra twenty-five cents they charged for admission.
A bewitched Betty would believe.
Democracy in Action
In a fair loaded with choices, the choice’s for the “typical American” was limited to one.
Westinghouse introduced fair goers to a typical Mr. and Mrs. America – the fictitious Middleton family from “Everywhere USA.” Starring in their own color film shown at the Westinghouse Pavilion, this “average American family” were “visitors to the fair, just like you” who naturally were besotted with all its wonders, the perfect role models for the consumer culture.
Though the cheery Middletons bore no resemblance to anyone my mother might have run into on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, this wholesome lot of fun-loving typical Americans were described as “ a family of folks you know, friends who live just around the corner from everyone.”
“There was Babs and Brad, overflowing with the exuberance of 18 and 14…romping through wonderland like two kittens across a rug,” explained the Westinghouse ad.
“There are father Tom and Mother Jane, trying unsuccessfully to be calm and judicious about it all. And there’s Grandma, whose eyes bright with the memories of other fairs grows brighter still with the vision of a new Tomorrow for her dear ones.”
“Life gets easier and easier doesn’t it girls?”
Like practical Mother Middleton, my grandmother Sadie was mesmerized at all the work saving, housekeeping miracles that promised a life of leisure. Our pride in our scientific prowess spilled over into m’ladys kitchen where once again man would triumph over nature in his march to progress-ahead lay a future of pre-sweetened reconstituted freeze-dried food.
All Eyes to the Future
That afternoon my Mother had stood in line uncomplainingly for over two hours to see the wildly popular General Motors Futurama exhibit.
The exhibit was the talk of the fair and the anticipation was palpable. Here was a preview of tomorrow…a country at its freshest and finest; engineering at its most brilliant, and GM would provide the means to navigate this new world.
“Come tour the future with General Motors! A transcontinental flight over America in 1960. What will we see? What changes will transpire?”
Its main attraction was a large-scale diorama called “Highways and Horizons” with a simulated flight over the America of 1960, giving the audience a look at what life might be like in that year, filled with superhighways, sprawling suburbs and naturally, thanks to General Motors, a boatload of speeding cars.
Where but in America could you see a sight like this, the viewer wondered in awe.
Cars by the thousands on the road…new sleek powerful machines, driven not by bankers but by average Americans! Distances dwindle at such a pace but you’d never know the engine was running. You’d never dread a hill or a bump again.
Yes, the kind of motoring that not even a millionaire could ever enjoy before.
New and Better Things
Narrated by an authoritative voice from the future, “Man,” she was told “has forged ahead since 1939. New and better things have sprung from his industry and genius.”
Even as the narrator spoke, Mans genius was being put to use that very summer in the Manhattan Project demonstrating new and better ways to destroy major metropolitan cities and kill millions in a blink of an eye. “Yes”, the narrator continued “a vivid tribute to the American scheme of living!”
“So we saw things to come,” the narrator spoke optimistically at the finish “a new world with a future-that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives.”
Wide eyed, Betty emerged from the exhibit proudly displaying a button that said “I have seen the future.” From a 1939 perspective it was a promised land.
The future in 1960 seemed a brilliant glittering dream.
All Eyes to the Future
Sitting by the magnificent Lagoon of Nations, that summer of 1939, surrounded by the buildings of exhibiting foreign countries, Betty could rest and reflect.
Confident she was sure she had submitted the winning entry in a contest sponsored by the fair in which the winner would win a trip abroad by writing 1,000 words on “Why I want to Visit Poland”.
However while the sounds of Chopin’s piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor played in her hopeful head, Adolph Hitler was racing down the Autobahn as nearly 2,000 Germans tanks were lining up on the Polish-German border ready to attack.
Obviously Adolph Hitler had the winning entry.
World of Tomorrow
Blinded by the dazzling optimism of the fair, it would be easy to ignore the darkening cloud of war on the Horizon overseas, where Hitler and Mussolini offered their own visions of the world of tomorrow . Every day new headlines would appear. “Germany Invades Czechoslovakia!”… “Japan Invades China”… “Franco Takes Madrid!”
But at the fair it was one big happy family of nations, ignoring all the signs that the dysfunctional family was headed for bitter divorce.
The dramatic displays of fountain fireworks and colorful fire, flaring from gas jets which were staged every evening at the Lagoon, would be an eerie portent of things to come.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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Another wonderful , thought provoking piece Sally. The contrast between the wide-eyed wonder of the World’s Fair and what was brewing across the Atlantic is remarkable when seen in this light.
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