Yesterday’s Tomorrows, Full of Rosy Visions
World’s Fairs of 1930s Showed Boundless Vision of Prosperity
Albert Kahn Family of Companies
The General Motors pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Corporations and governments joined in self-promotional alliances at these kinds of spectacles.
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: December 6, 2012
We are not terribly interested in the future these days. We are preoccupied with repairs, restorations, reparations, reformations — attempts to redo or reconceive the past. That is where we look for blame and where we look for promise. The future? Well, who is to say that it will not be more of the same until the past is fixed? Progress is a word best used in scare quotes.
Take a look at the new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s.” It surveys six World’s Fairs, in Chicago (1933-4), San Diego (1935-6), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936-7), San Francisco (1939-40) and New York (1939-40). They were seen by tens of millions of Americans. They offered visions of unalloyed progress, lives of increased ease, an exhilarating future. There would be robotic companions like Elektro (who could walk, talk and smoke a cigarette); there would be soaring spires and sleek cable cars; there would be new materials and new possibilities. And all this was being promised during the Depression’s worst years, on the eve of the century’s most traumatic global war.
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