The World of Tomorrow: Visiting the World’s Fair of 1939-40, the kitschy futurescape of Queens

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

To download this episode and subscribe to our show for free, visit iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Overcast, Google Music and Stitcher streaming radio.

Or listen to it straight from here:

__________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every other week. We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media. But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans. If you’d like to help out, there are six different pledge levels (New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age, Empire State and Greater New York). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

And join us for the next episode of the Bowery Boys Movie Club, an exclusive podcast provided to our supporters on Patreon. This month’s movie — On The Town!

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far.

________________________________________________________________________

AP Photo

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.

David Rumsey Map Collection
Renfusa/designer Tony Suga
Renfusa/designer Tony Suga

A look at the park grounds before they became Flushing Meadows. Read this article on the ash dump for more information.

Courtesy CUNY

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.

Peter Campbell/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Gazing down at the wonder of Democracity within the Perisphere.

Worlds Fair Community

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 Soviet Union pavilion/AP Photo
Poland pavilion/AP photo
Czech-Slovak Pavilion, New York World’s Fair New York City
A view of the Food North Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York City, New York. (Photo by Sherman Oaks Antique Mall/Getty Images)

The Mickey and Minnie Mouse cartoon which appeared at the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) exhibition.

Wonder Bakery displays a wheat field exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. The model, Penelope Shoo, is wearing an outfit designed by Hattie Carnegie. The wheat field was billed as “the first planted in New York City since 1875.” (Peter Campbell//Corbis via Getty Images)

The ‘rotolactor’ in the Borden Company Exhibit

Courtesy James Beard

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):

The former “New York City Building” which sat in the shadow of the Trylon and the Perisphere. Today it’s the Queens Museum….
…where you can find the relief map of the New York City water supply, designed for the 1939 World’s Fair but never used.
On the second floor, you’ll find a visible storage collection of World’s Fair memorabilia from both fairs.

Don’t just look up! At your feet are also some tributes and traces to the World’s Fair.

FURTHER READING

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.

FURTHER VIEWING

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.

FURTHER LISTENING

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).