PODCAST Visiting the first World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the unimaginable playground of the future, planted inescapably within the reality of the day.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the fourth largest park in New York City and the pride of northern Queens, has twice been the doorway to the future.
Two world’s fairs have been held here, twenty-five years apart, both carefully guided by power broker Robert Moses. In this episode, we highlight the story of the first fair, held in 1939 and 1940, a visionary festival of patriotism and technological progress that earnestly sold a narrow view of American middle-class aspirations.
It was the World of Tomorrow! (Never mind the protests or the fact that many of the venues were incomplete.) A kitschy campus of themed zones and wacky architectural wonders, the fair provided visitors with speculative ideas of the future, governed by clean suburban landscapes, space-age appliances and flirtatious smoking robots.
The fair was a post-Depression excuse for corporations to rewrite the American lifestyle, introducing new inventions (television) and attractive new products (automobiles, refrigerators), all presented in dazzling venues along gleaming flag-lined avenues and courtyards.
But the year was 1939 and the world of tomorrow could not keep out the world of today. The Hall of Nations almost immediately bore evidence of the mounting war in Europe. Visitors who didn’t fit the white middle-American profile being sold at the fair found themselves excluded from the ‘future’ it was trying to sell.
And then, in July of 1940, there was a dreadful tragedy at the British Pavilion that proved the World of Tomorrow was still very much a part of the world of today.
PLUS: Where can you find traces of the fair in New York City today?
Listen Now: New York World’s Fair of 1939 Podcast
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Silent color video of the 1939 World’s Fair
A map of the World’s Fair of 1939, courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection. Click here to zoom in and get a closer look.
A look at the park grounds before they became Flushing Meadows. Read this article on the ash dump for more information.
With the Trylon and Perisphere in the background, a statue of George Washington presides over the lagoon era and statues of the Four Freedoms. Read this for more information on the fair’s Washington inauguration connection.
Gazing down at the wonder of Democracity within the Perisphere.
Starring into the gushing waters of the Lagoon of Nations with a view of the U.S. Federal Building.
A few images of pavilions from the ‘Government Zone’ that were mentioned on the show:
The Mickey and Minnie Mouse cartoon which appeared at the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) exhibition.
The ‘rotolactor’ in the Borden Company Exhibit
Futurama — gaze at the world of 1960!
Elektro, the robot superstar of the Westinghouse Pavilion
Billy Rose’s Aquacade — or if Aquaman were a musical!
You can find evidence of the 1939 Worlds Fair all over the place in the park! Just a few examples (pictures by Greg Young):
Don’t just look up! At your feet are also some tributes and traces to the World’s Fair.
The website 1939 New York World’s Fair is a wonderful resource, breaking down the specifics of most pavilions and even offering scans of brochures and programs from the fair.
The University of Virginia American Studies program also has a fine, older online look at the fair.
NYC Parks also has a page of vintage photographs, including one of the Westinghouse Time Capsule being installed.
The Anthology Film Archives is hosting a film series in May called Films For The Fair: The World’s Fair and the Cinema with some fascinatingly strange features scheduled throughout the month.
Listen to these past Bowery Boys podcast episodes for tie-ins to this week’s show — two on the World’s Fair of 1964-65 (including one on the ruins of the New York State Pavilion) and one on the ‘first’ World’s Fair — the New York Crystal Palace Exposition. In addition, an episode on the birth of television featured the RCA Pavilion at the World’s Fair.
In addition, you may also like an episode of Greg’s spinoff podcast The First about the invention of robots (featuring Elektro).