A tale of three world's fairs
How Seattle bested New York and inspired Spokane when it came to hosting a world's fair.
THIS PROMO FOR SEATTLE'S 1962 WORLD'S FAIR ENVISIONED A RED SPACE NEEDLE.
By Knute Berger
APRIL 18, 2014
World's fair anniversaries abound this spring. In May, Spokane celebrates the 40th of the opening of its eco-oriented 1974 expo. On April 22 New York celebrates the 50th anniversary of its 1964-5 extravaganza in Flushing Meadows. Besides being events worthy of remembrance on their own merits, both have interesting connections to Seattle.
The 1962 Seattle fair created a new model for international expositions in post-World War II America. Seattle's model beat New York's, and paved the way for Spokane's. In other words, these fairs signaled both the limits of and the path to success for a new era of expos launched by Century 21.
World's fairs had been going strong since the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, but World War II brought them to a screeching halt. The hiatus lasted until 1958 when expos were revived with an "atomic"-themed fair in Brussels, Belgium. The two prior fairs had been held in New York and San Francisco in 1939-40. After the war, Americans looked at the possibility of a domestic fair revival.
The prospects seemed dubious. The last American fairs had been financial failures and brand new innovations like Anaheim's new Disneyland threatened to replace fairs with permanent theme parks. Plus television, a technology showcased at the late 1930s fairs in Paris and New York, offered the potential of allowing people to enjoy international spectacle without getting off the couch.
Seattle didn't know enough to be scared off by the conventional wisdom and began pursing a fair for purely parochial reasons: Local leaders wanted to put the unknown city "on the map." The fair coincided perfectly with the U.S. government's desire to send, and fund, a post-Sputnik science message. The marriage of local self-interest — building a civic center — and federal science funding fueled Seattle's bid.
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