“Dreams That You Dare To Dream”

Hopes and Ironies of the New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940

Jared A. Fogel and Robert L. Stevens

“And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
—From “Somewhere Over the
Rainbow” by Harburg and Allen

When the New York World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1939—a date celebrating the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration—it was expected to far surpass the world’s fair held in Chicago six years earlier. After a decade of struggling through the Great Depression, people would surely respond to the hopeful vision embodied in the Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow.” The Fair’s promoters had confidently paved the way for 50 million visitors to attend over its two year run.

Even from the elevated station I could see the famous Trylon and Perisphere. They were enormous. They were white in the sun, white spire, white globe, they went together, they belonged together as some sort of partnership in my head. I didn’t know what they stood for, it was all very vague in my mind, but to see them, after having seen pictures and posters and buttons of them for so long, made me incredibly happy. I felt like jumping up and down, I felt myself trembling with joy.1

Thus does E. L. Doctorow describe the impressions of nine-year-old Edgar (himself) on his first visit to the Fair in the novel World’s Fair. Nor should such unbounded euphoria at seeing the great symbols of the Fair be chalked up to mere boyish adulation. The entire nation—after years of grinding poverty, drought, bread lines, and despair—felt like “jumping up and down” at the prospect of a brighter future promised by the magical advances of technology.
It is perhaps no coincidence that in the same year the Fair opened, The Wizard of Oz debuted in movie houses all over the country, playing to audiences of all ages. While the underlying political concerns of Baum’s classic addressed events at the turn of the century, the movie’s appearance in 1939 spoke to a contemporary set of problems and hopes. People were eager to be swept away from the memory of devastated farmlands and walk the Yellow Brick Road to an Emerald City of peace and prosperity that lay “somewhere over the rainbow.”

If the World’s Fair was the Emerald City made tangible, if only for a brief time, then technology was the Wizard that dwelt within—larger than life and wondrous. Yet there was another side to all of this. For before Dorothy and her companions discovered the Wizard to be only a little man with some mechanical levers at his disposal, they saw another aspect of their hoped-for Redeemer: he could be threatening, even terrifying.

The World of Tomorrow:
Technology as Savior

A well-known documentary about the New York World’s Fair, titled The World Of Tomorrow, shows a clip of a young couple watching in awe the fireworks and lighted fountains at the Lagoon of Nations. The wife comments: “I wonder if the years ahead will be as bright as this,” to which her husband confidently responds, “We haven’t seen anything yet, darling. Why, all of this is merely a sample of the real world of tomorrow!”2

Technology and its fruits were on display everywhere at the Fair—in the streamlined, futuristic Art Deco buildings; in the innumerable gadgets (one of them being television) proudly displayed in the exhibit halls; and in the art liberally scattered throughout the fairgrounds. About half of the Fair’s fifty-eight major murals had technology as their theme. As David Gelernter comments, “Artists in the 1930s (not all but many) were technology’s priesthood. As a consequence, art found itself embroiled alongside technology in the future.”3

The theme of the Fair was well conveyed by a Rockwell Kent mural in the General Electric Building that “represented the progress from obscurantism to enlightenment made possible by electrical research.”4 Not content merely to illumine homes and buildings, here electricity took on the role of Savior—predicted by the prophet Science—that would lead mankind, both literally and figuratively, out of the darkness and into the light.

One of the most popular exhibits at the Fair was located in the Westinghouse Electric Building, an impressive horseshoe-shaped structure located to one side of the Trylon and Perisphere at the fittingly named Plaza of Light. What the Official Fair Guide called “the Westinghouse Robot” was more popularly known as “Elektro, the Moto Man.” This was a blocky, stiffly moving, gold-colored mechanical man who, said the Guide, “talks, sees, smells, sings, and counts with his fingers.”5 A robotic prototype of the future wonders of computer gadgetry, Moto Man bore an uncanny resemblance to the Tin Woodsman of Oz, although he was not nearly as dextrous or as personable.

Visitors to the Hall of Man were confronted “upon entering the chamber [by] . . . A Great Man which dominates one end of the Hall. In mysterious gloom, a pulsating heart shines blood-red in the mode#146;s breast accompanied by the rhythmic tattoo of his beating heart.”6 The Great Man was quite different from “Elektro, the Moto Man,” and all of this high cardiac drama was perhaps intended to emphasize the nature of this difference. Other exhibits in the Hall of Man included “The Parade of Translucent Men,” depicting the internal organs of the human body, and “The Retreat of Death,” illustrating the “declining death rate of the United States population since George Washington’s time.”7

There were scores of other technological wonders to attract the eye and dazzle the senses. The General Electric Building high-teched the Arabian Nights in its House of Magic, where among “. . .great whirling discs, synchronized with light, was a metal carpet floating in space.” It also featured “a large sun motor driven by sunlight” and “a shadow that comes and goes independently of the person who casts it”—a haunting prefigurement of the seemingly autonomous life that technology would take on in the years to come?

The Fair’s planners were not oblivious to the negative—as well as the positive—potentials of technology. The contradiction between the two was well delineated by Michael Hare, Secretary of the Fair Committee: "The world is in chaos struggling to master its own inventions. We are in danger of being annihilated by forces which we ourselves set up . . . mere mechanical progress is no longer an adequate or practical theme for a world’s fair.”9

Some Fair exhibits acknowledged, or at least hinted at, the concerns posed by modern technology. For example, if the ideal purpose of technology was to create greater leisure time for man, to what use would all this newly gained time be put? Gilbert Rhode, who designed the “focal exhibit” for the Fair’s Community Interests zone, developed the concept of “Man Freed in Time and Space.” The dramatic narration that accompanied its set offered some possibilities: “Time for interest in government, in community, in the group. Time to plan for our community. At last Man is freed in time and space.” But, there followed the equivocal question as the light faded out on the set, “For What?”10

The Triumph of Pristine Reason

The optimistic view of technology as enlightenment was reflected in the Fair’s layout. At its center were the pristine white Trylon and Perisphere. From this Theme Center, streets led to color-coded zones, with the colors deepening the farther one moved away from the center. Within the hollow Perisphere was Democracity, a prototype for the city of the future in which all the rationality and conveniences produced by science would guide the lives of citizens. The common theme of this and other exhibits was that the future would be the product of reason, careful planning, and controlled progress.

There was also the Electrified Farm where “electricity does all the work efficiently and economically, and more than a hundred of its practical applications are demonstrated”11 ... one of these being a “bull exerciser.” Equally enthralling was the piece de resistance in the Borden’s “Dairy World of Tomorrow” in the Food Zone. This was an electric contraption called the “rotolactor,” which consisted of a revolving platform “on which cows are washed, dried with an individual sterilized towel and mechanically milked.”12 Doctorow’s young protagonist is especially struck by this bizarre gadget:
We saw a rotating platform on which real cows were milked by electric pumps. The cows stared at us as they turned past . . . That they had to be milked by machines while they were rotated I did not question. I thought this was a new discovery, perhaps it kept the cream from rising.13
The Town of Tomorrow was likewise a well-planned affair, with its demonstration homes containing “the latest and most modern equipment and materials consistent with the cost of the house in which they are found”—the cost being around $20,000.14 Some critics have found this suburban vision of homes designed in Colonial, Baroque, and Tudor styles among the most accurate depictions of the future displayed at the Fair.15

But however far one wandered from its center, the tour de force of the New York World’s Fair remained Democracity—a form of urban utopia. Comments historian Joseph P. Cusker, “In a single statement, it incorporated all the social and cultural ideas of the Fair’s design.”16 This ideal city of the future, referred to as “Centerton,” would be surrounded by equally ideal suburban enclaves, fittingly called “Pleasantvilles,” which would house populations of around 10,000 and be exclusively residential in nature.

“Millvilles,” with populations of around 25,000, would be located farther out and contain “light industry as well as bedroom communities.” Surrounding all these municipalities, the creators envisoned large greenbelt areas consisting of both agricultural lands and recreational parks.
Regrettably, the ideal did not translate well into reality. As Cusker notes:
Rather than being located in carefully planned suburban communities with access to recreational opportunities, America’s postwar homes were crowded into vast tract developments with little thought for preserving aspects of the natural environment or providing an infrastructure for human needs. Center cities were abandoned to those segments of the population that were still economically or socially deprived, and the urban infrastructure—transit, schools, parks—was left to strangle on a declining economic base.”17

Only the Futurama exhibit located in the General Motors Building was more popular with visitors than Democracity. Set in that impossibly futuristic year of 1960, this exhibit contained, in miniature, “300,000 individually designed houses, more than a million trees of eighteen species, and 50,000 scale model automobiles, of which 10,000 are in actual operation over super-highways, speed lanes, and multi-decked bridges.”18 The audience traveled from coast to coast in “magic chairs” meant to provide the sensation that one was viewing this World of Tomorrow “from a low-flying airplane.”19 But its vision of the future interstate highway system did not accurately foresee either the traffic clog or the unhealthy, even lethal, smog that became the unfortunate byproducts of America’s love affair with the automobile.

At Rainbow’s End: Technology as Destroyer

In his insightful narration on the Fair in The World of Tomorrow, actor Jason Robards reminisces about his own experience of the Fair: “Actually, tomorrow scared me a little. Could I grasp the immense plan expressed in occult symbols all over the Fair? Would I be up to tomorrow?” Later, he expresses the darkening of the dream of a future made perfect by science and technology: “A real future was coming into being, a future the World’s Fair could not conquer. Because the World’s Fair was unwilling to imagine it.”20

The beneficent vision of the future celebrated by the Fair was fated to be overcome by the real events of 1939-1940. People at that time were not yet accustomed to the kind of damage that can be produced by modern aerial warfare:
The idea that war could enmesh even civilians far from the front, that people would die as a result of dangerous objects dropped from airplanes into a sea of women and children—it’s second nature to us, but in the 1930s, that idea took a little getting used to.21

But by the summer of 1940, radio broadcasts and newspaper photos of the German blitzkriegs overtaking European nations were providing a quick primer in the horrific effects of aerial bombardment.

By its second year, not only was the Fair in deep financial straits, but its shining hope for a better world based on the wonders of technology was visibly collapsing. In response to the outbreak of war in Europe, the Fair’s motto had been changed from “Building the World of Tomorrow” to “For Peace and Freedom.” Several nations either embroiled in, or imperiled by, war in Europe closed their pavilions in the Court of Peace.22 Comments Robards sadly: “It was the same Fair, only the heart seemed to have left it. It had become pretty obvious what tomorrow was going to be like.”23

Somehow the genii had gotten out of the bottle, and the technology so universally promoted by the 1939 Fair had breached the controlled confines of its perimeter. It seemed that no matter how deeply man desired it, technology and reason were not synonymous. Indeed, the greater the capabilities of technology, the more it appeared to threaten us, revealing that we ourselves were not advanced enough to control it. Elektro, the Moto Man showed an aspect that was more evil Golem than benign Tin Woodsman.

The New York World’s Fair was founded on the principle of impermanence; that was its nature, and its designers made no bones about it. The Official Fair Guide underscored this aspect:
There was an absolute conviction that buildings must be made to look what they are—temporary exhibit structures. No imitations either of historic architecture or [imitations] of permanent materials were permitted, with one exception only, namely—in the sector devoted to exhibits of the States.24

Everything about this wondrous and magical fair was momentary and evanescent—not least its aspirations for a better and more secure world. Given the long warning about Hitler’s intentions in Europe, it was perhaps naive of the Fair’s planners to present such an unwaveringly optimistic view of the potentials of technology. There is no more pointed example of its failure than the dismantling of the Trylon and Perisphere for use of its steel to manufacture bombs and other weapons. This tragic irony is well-described by historian Warren Susman:
Designed to teach lessons of mutual interdependence which would make all future wars impossible, in its own final functioning the symbol became an instrument of war.25

Yet, it was its very innocence that made the Fair—this particular apparition of a shining Emerald City—so remarkable, so joyous, so wonderful. Many visitors to the Fair, children and adults alike, carried its visionary dreams with them throughout their lifetimes. Many of the Fair’s aspirations for the humane uses of technology did come true. In the words of the Official Fair Guide—admittedly promotional, but sounding with a ring of truth:
Seldom, if ever, has such an entrancing vista been created by man. Visitors will never forget it, symbolical as it is of...humanity’s age-old quest for knowledge, increased leisure and happiness.26

1. E. L. Doctorow, World’s Fair (New York: Random House, 1985), 250.
2. Tom Johnson and Lance Bird, The World of Tomorrow, documentary video narrated by Jason Robards (Santa Monica, CA: Direct Cinema Limited, 1985).
3. David Gelernter, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (New York: Avon Books, 1995), 168-169.
4. Stanley Appelbaum, The New York World’s Fair 1939/1940 (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), 58.
5. Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939 (New York: Exposition Publications, Inc., 1939), 195.
6. Ibid., 109.
7. Ibid., 170.
8. Ibid., 184.
9. Quoted in Joseph P. Cusker, “The World of Tomorrow: Science, Culture and Community at the New York World’s Fair,” in Dawn of a New Day (New York: The Queens Museum/New York University Press, 1980), 6.
10. Ibid., 8.
11. Guide, 91.
12. Ibid., 109.
13. Doctorow, 255.
14. Guide, 101.
15. Barbara Cohen, Steven Heller, and Seymour Chwast, The 1939 New York World’s Fair: Trylon and Perisphere (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 44.
16. Cusker, 14.
17. Ibid, 15.
18. Guide, 208.
19. Ibid.
20. Johnson and Bird, The World of Tomorrow.
21. Gelernter, 229.
22. Among the 59 nations invited to the Fair, Germany did not attend, but Italy did. The Soviet Union withdrew its pavilion after the first season. Poland’s pavilion became a gathering place for refugees, while fund-raising in the U.S. kept the Czech pavilion open. See Cohen et al, 50.
23. Johnson and Bird, The World of Tomorrow.
24. Guide, 31.
25. Warren I. Susman, “The People’s Fair: Cultural Contradictions of a Consumer Society,” in Dawn of a New Day (New York: The Queen’s Museum/New York University Press, 1980), 27.
26. Guide, 44-45.

Teaching Resources

All of the books referred to in the Notes above are useful resources for students. An additional bibliography on the New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940 and other major world’s fairs is available at “The Iconography of Hope” website listed below.
Alan Anderson’s 1939-40 New York World’s Fair site: websyte.com/alan/nywf.htm. This excellent site is run by someone who attended the fair as a child and wants to “celebrate this symbol that remains bright in a dwindling number of minds.” Its message board contains the recollections of many fair visitors as well as general observations about this and other world’s fairs. The site also offers links to many other fair sites.
Feasting on the Future: Food at the New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940: www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/eve-wf. Graduate student Eve Jochnowitz’s paper on food-related exhibits argues that the Fair, in presenting an optimistic view of the future, also venerated the typical American housewife, “the unsung heroine…who harnesses the technology of the future to do her bidding.”
Gottscho-Schleisner Collection: rs6.loc.gov/ammem/gschtml/gotthome.html. Part of the “American Memory” series of the Library of Congress, the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection on the Web includes nearly 600 images of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Many of the Fair images have been color-corrected. Photographic copies are available for purchase from the Library of Congress.
I Have Seen the Future: www.geocities.com/
Broadway/4289. A collection of ten trivia questions and answers, ranging from easy to difficult, relating to the New York World’s Fair.
The Iconography of Hope: The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair: xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/
DISPLAY/39wf/front.htm. A product of the American Studies program at the University of Virginia, this site “examines the social, cultural, and commercial impact of the Fair on the American way of life in the twentieth century.” Complementing the extensive commentary are a variety of photographs, maps, and audio and video clips, including footage of speeches by Roosevelt and Einstein. A list of world’s fair links includes The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath, an award-winning site about the 1893 fair in Chicago.
Images from the 1939 New York World’s Fair: www.sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/39fair.html. This site features a variety of interesting postcards, posters, advertisements, and comics, as well as numerous links to other Fair sites. For example, click on “Giant Typewriter” and see the 14-ton Underwood model displayed at the Fair!
Midway Exhibition Grounds: www.chebucto.ns.ca/~ak621/CEC/Fair-Ex.html. This site prepared by the Coaster Enthusiasts of Canada lists and provides links to major world’s fairs of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. The last includes planned expositions in the United States (2001), Switzerland (2002) and Japan (2005).
Museum of the City of New York’s Drawing the Future: Design Drawings for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair: www.mcny.org/wf.htm. This exhibition opened at the Museum of the City of New York on August 21, 1996. The website features design sketches for the Fair, including those of buildings, buses, pavilions, exhibits, posters, and even scarves. A catalog of the exhibition is available.
New Deal Network Library’s collection: newdeal.feri.org/library/d_z_an.htm. Produced by the New Deal Network Library, this site posts about twenty images concerning the exhibition of the New Dea#146;s Works Progress Administration (WPA) at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.
New Trylon and Perisphere Proposal: spectrums9.com. Richard Alcos, a long-time Long Island resident, presents his proposal to rebuild the Trylon and Perisphere in order to foster tourism, revitalize the area economy, and give the island its own identity. The proposal is interspersed with images from the Fair. Several World’s Fair links are also posted.
The 1996 Internet World Exposition: www.park.org/
Pavilions/WorldExpositions/new_york.text.html. Part of a site on the Internet 1996 World Exposition, this page features an interesting description of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, as well as a list of print resources.
Western Fairs Association’s “History of Fairs and Expositions”: www.fairsnet.org/fhist.html#ny. From the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, an overview of the history of fairs and expositions in Europe and the United States. Also features commentary on the influence of fairs on art and architecture, as well as brief sections on commercial and agricultural fairs. Information on the New York World’s Fair itself is relatively limited.
William Grant Still Exhibition: scriptorium.lib.duke
.edu/sgo/start.html. Administered by the Special Collections Library at Duke University, this website portrays the life and times of William Grant Still, an African American who composed the Fair’s theme song, “Rising Tide.” Photographs of the “Rising Tide” score and an audio clip are available.

Also note: New York World’s Fair Memorabilia can be found at:
Twin Brooks Antiques and Collectibles: www.msjudith.net
Just Kids Nostalgia: www.sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/
Museum Shop of the Queens Museum of Art: www.fieldtrip.com/ny/85929700.htm

Jared A. Fogel is director of Fogel/Art L.L.C.
Robert L. Stevens is associate professor of Middle Grades and Secondary Education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

Teaching Activities

I. Looking at the New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940

One of the most provocative exhibits at the New York World’s Fair was Gilbert Rhodes’s “Man Freed in Time and Space” in the Community Interest zone (see article). Rhodes designed it to show “the simplicity and coherence of elements of early community . . . [followed by] an increase in complexity and diversity and simultaneously disorganization . . . [leading eventually to] desired reorganization for a richer environment” (Cusker, 10). In the final section of this exhibit, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” sets of statements and questions flashed before the audience. While the statements about past progress rested on blandly optimistic assumptions, the questions posed real concerns about the potential and limits of technology in shaping society in the future. Ask students to read and discuss the first two sets of statements/questions below. Then pose the final set along with the questions that follow. These sets could be used as the basis for further research, essay writing, or class debate. This activity addresses NCSS Standard 2 Time, Continuity, and ChangE.

Set 1

Set 2

Set 3


II. Looking Forward: The 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan
The theme of this major world’s fair planned for 2005, “Beyond Development: Rediscovering Nature’s Wisdom,” is a far cry from the theme of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. A further statement of the coming fair’s purpose includes these words: “…we need to breath the forgotten wisdom into our technology-dominated civilization, to allow modesty and humility back into our hearts, and to restore the precarious relationships between humanity and the rest of nature and among people themselves.” [www.pref.aichi.jp/expo/index-e.html]

> Assume the role of a fair planner, and outline an exhibit for the 2005 world’s fair that you think is in keeping with its spirit. Your outline can call for the use of any kind of media, including text displays, art forms, audio and video clips, and interactive computer programs. It may or may not involve the use of technology.

III. Looking Backward: World’s Fairs of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
In 1939, The Lost World of the Fair, David Gelernter points out that: “Elderly visitors at the 1939 fair might in principle have seen every one of history’s greatest world’s fairs, except for the very first—the London Exposition of 1851, housed in the famous glass-and-iron palace. They might have visited Philadelphia in 1876 and seen the American Centennial exhibit, Paris in 1889 to view the brand-new Eiffel Tower—the only world’s fair centerpiece more celebrated than the Trylon and Perisphere....the famed “White City” in 1893—at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—and the Saint Louis Exposition in 1904, the San Francisco and San Diego Fairs in 1915, Chicago’s Century of Progress in 1933.”
Choose one of the fairs mentioned above and do research aimed at comparing and contrasting some aspect of it with the 1939 Fair. Some possibilities are:

• planning/major exhibitors • art and architecture
• attendance/who came • technology (or one aspect, e.g., transportation)
• commercialism • view(s) of history it reflected
• entertainment (i.e, the midway) • vision(s) of society’s future it projected