Touted on everything from publicity posters to a U.S. postage stamp as the “World of Tomorrow,” the 1939 World’s Fair was a showcase of modernity. Its sprawl across Flushing Meadow Park boasted exhibits like General Motors’ Futurama, a miniature city of tomorrow comprising blinking lights and hundreds of tiny, moving parts. At the fair’s center were the ultramodern Trylon and Persiphere, a pair of white geometrical structures that E.L. Doctorow wrote “filled the sky” with their enormity. The sheer blankness of their facades perhaps reflected the unanswered question in many fairgoers’ minds as they passed through the front gates: Who could bring the world, and a depressed America, into that tomorrow?
When they perused the list of exhibitors in the Fair’s Official Guide Book, visitors likely intuited an answer: large, American corporations. The 1939 fair was dominated by industry giants such as General Motors, AT&T, and IBM. The corporate presence makes sense in historical context. Since the first World’s Fair in 1851, host nations sought to design fairs that expressed their own people’s way of life. In 1939, Americans had become financially and emotionally unmoored by the greatest economic depression in their history. Corporate brands had become beacons of financial—even social—stability: Small businesses and local banks went under every day, but there would always be Sinclair Oil, which at the ’64 fair wowed the crowds with its animatronic dinosaurs.
This year marks the 75th and 50th anniversaries of the World’s Fairs, and New York is teeming with more nostalgia than usual, as institutions host events to celebrate. The Museum of the Moving Image has one of the more impartial offerings, an exhibit dedicated to films about the fairs. Mostly funded by the corporations that exhibited in 1939 and 1964, these films are as much commercial as documentary: witness Sinclair’s dinosaurs grimace and nod at smiling children in Sunday dresses and church pants. In a clip from 1939’s The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, a clean-cut family plucked straight from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post enters the Westinghouse exhibit to watch Electro, a man-sized robot, crack wise and smoke a cigarette. The father wonders aloud at the revolutionary vision of Westinghouse.
The ’39 fair attracted millions of visitors with its promise of a dazzling future but was a financial disaster. The severe loss motivated Robert Moses, head of the management committee, to try again. His 1964 fair proved an even larger exhibition built on the same site. Like the ’39 fair, the 1964 model offered spectacles of architectural and mechanical ingenuity made possible by America’s most recognizable corporations. The IBM Pavilion featured puppets that explained the company’s data processing systems, while Du Pont sold audiences on its contributions to society through a musical pageant about the benefits of chemistry. The Trylon and Persisphere had been razed, but in their spot now loomed the Unisphere, a giant steel model of the Earth supported by a pedestal made of three impossibly thin metal prongs. The 1964 short about its construction shows individual steel pieces being welded together to form the iconic globe that still stands in Flushing today.
The ’64 fair was never officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, and as a result, the world’s most powerful nations refused to take part. So Moses found an American way to draw the crowds: He commissioned amusement park-like installations designed by that master of mid-20th century entertainment, Walt Disney. When it opened, Moses’s second fair was less a meeting of the nations than a prototype of Disney World. (The “It’s a Small World” boat ride at Disneyland originated at the fair).
As with most nostalgia, nostalgia for the fairs is tinted with distortions. In 1993, Aimee Mann sang “Fifty years after the fair/I live in tomorrow town/Even on a wing and a prayer/The future never came around.” Mann, born in 1960, mourns the 1939 fair’s never-actualized future of individual financial security, although that is a future that neither fair, with their visions of corporate oligarchy, ever actually promised.
The clips, most cut from longer films, are shown in succession in a 30-minute loop. Except for a plaque describing, briefly, what each clip entails, the films are presented without context. The absence of commentary puts the responsibility of interpretation on the viewer: Why should these decades-old docu-commercials matter to the world of today? To sit with that question and its many possible answers is the best reason to go to the exhibit — the more we remember about the Worlds of Tomorrow, the better chance we have of figuring out why they never seem to arrive.