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The View from Flushing Meadows

War clouds were gathering over Europe. Asia was already in turmoil. But out at Flushing Meadows, construction crews were busily assembling the optimistically designed components of "The World of Tomorrow." Optimism was the subtextual keynote, rather than the often-articulated official one of the 1939 New York World's Fair, a vision of the way we would live in the peaceful technological future. The grim effects of the Great Depression still weighed on much of the nation. The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which would help plunge America into the worst war we had ever known, was not far off.

Yet, in the offices of Grover Whalen––a prime mover in luring exhibitors from at home and abroad and finding the funding to make the great international exposition a reality––the skies were clear and the future seemed secure. The only real questions were how long it would take before dirigibles would be regularly mooring on skyscraper spires and robots would be doing Mrs. America's kitchen chores. No one gave a thought as to how passengers would get off the Graf Zeppelin, were it indeed moored to the spire on the Empire State Building.

The incredible optimism of Whalen, and of designers such as Norman Bel Geddes––who really believed unruly humanity could be engineered into living in automated Cities of the Future––and of major American corporations is affectionately recalled in the 1984 documentary film, The World of Tomorrow. John Crowley wrote the script, warmly narrated by Jason Robards. Tom Johnson and Lance Bird produced and directed the 83-minute film is composed of media documentation of the time, much of it produced exclusively for the fair: cartoons, old newsreels, home movies, promotional films, and even the first television broadcast.[1]

Because so much of the design inspiration of the 1939 World’s Fair was Art Deco and Moderne, this film has a wide appeal for Deco buffs. At a 1980s preview at New York’s Film Forum, the program included typical 1930s film shorts, such as a newsreel and a wonderful Looney Tunes cartoon about the hazards of the new automated home.[2]

GM Postcard.jpg
WH Postcard.jpg

The irony in the optimism of designers like Bel Geddes in 1939 was not only that World War II was just about to explode, but that they confidently believed their vision of the future was not very far off. It was so easy for them to envision Mr. and Mrs. North America getting into their automated automobile and zooming off down the spacious mechanized freeways of the General Motors Futurama. In case no one's been watching how time flies––the Long Island Expressway is still the world's longest parking lot. For that matter, it was amusing, even back in 1939, to see that one of the triumphs of modern science was a robot that could smoke a cigarette. 

They buried a time capsule in the heart of the Flushing fairgrounds. One of the items that would help the folks still around in 2539 to understand what twentieth century Americans were all about was––a Lilly Dachwoman's hat. (Today, there are millions of people who never heard of Lilly Daché.)


A highlight of The World of Tomorrow is footage of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia genially promising prospective visitors to the fair cheap, clean, and safe accommodations in New York City. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland even join in these pitches, offering metropolitan bedrooms for 50 cents a night. But then, in those days, you could have a good time for ten cents a dance, couldn’t you?

This article was originally published in the Summer 1984, Volume 4, Number 2, edition of the Art Deco Society of New York News.


[1] It has been shown on PBS, screened at many independent theaters, and is available on DVD at public libraries and from Amazon.

[2] The World of Tomorrow is distributed by Direct Cinema, Ltd. 

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Winter 2019. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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