Imagine a time of wonderment when lofty dreams and sleek designs and magical technology could inspire a worn and dejected nation to dream.
World’s fairs had that power in the 1930s — the decade that bore the brunt of the Great Depression — when six U.S. extravaganzas lifted spirits and gave our people the spine-tingling promise of what one of the fairs’ biggest corporate sponsors, General Electric, called “happier, more pleasant living” to come.
There hasn’t been an American world’s fair for 26, going on 27, years, since the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition changed the face of New Orleans’ decrepit riverfront for the better. What’s become of U.S.-based fairs and our nation’s participation in ones abroad is a yeasty, but separate, subject that I’ll explore next time.
Right now, I ask you to travel with us, back three quarters of a century to a simpler, more elegant and idealistic, but economically bereft time. The “us” includes Deborah Sorensen and Laura Burd Schiavo, who together assembled a historical feast for the imagination — an exhibit called “Designing Tomorrow” about America’s fairs of the ’30s — at the National Building Museum here in Washington. And Robert Rydell, a professor of history at an unlikely outpost for one of the world’s foremost exposition experts — Montana State University in the northern Rocky Mountains.
I will decorate the story with lots of extra photos to help you visualize the times.
Great international fairs were already a time-honored venue for technological innovation and artistic showmanship, dating to 1851, when Britain dazzled the world with a glittering “Crystal Palace” and other marvels at London’s “Great Exposition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” This was followed by jaw-dropping fairs across Europe, and in the next century by extravagant fairs in the United States.
Memorable among them: the nation’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, which introduced the world to the telephone, the typewriter, electric light — and ketchup; and the awe-inspiring commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America — the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
It turned a chunk of Chicago into a “Great White City” of (mostly temporary) neoclassical buildings so spectacular that the mere sight of them set loose a nationwide “City Beautiful” stampede that invigorated grimy industrial cities. Come check out the palatial, Beaux-Arts monoliths along Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue if you want to see that neoclassical influence on parade.
By the 1920s, however, the world seemed fatigued with grand expositions. More accessible entertainment — silent movies, burlesque shows, something called “radio” — were the buzz. Even the great world’s-fair midways, with their sword swallowers and Ferris wheels and aboriginal peoples paraded like anthropological specimens in front of crowds, no longer fascinated Americans. Great fairs that looked backward at the nation’s achievements were passé indulgences of historians and esthetes and engineers.
So how to explain SIX super-fairs on American soil in the following decade?
Part of it was a calculated attempt by everyone involved to cheer up a downtrodden nation. Part was the enthusiastic emergence of corporate sponsors of pavilions and exhibits. And the federal government — which back then was kicking in handsomely to underwrite such expos — was anxious to tout democracy and capitalism. After all, as Robert Rydell points out, “Japan was on the march throughout Asia. Fascism was rising in Europe. And the Soviet Union was poised to make the argument that capitalism was yesterday’s news.”
Bragging about past achievements would no longer cut it, and the present was too dreadful to mention. Better to lay out the promise of a brighter future. Fortunately, modernist artists and product designers had been at work on streamlined, labor-saving, exotic creations that would fill the bill dazzlingly.
How ironic that Herbert Hoover, when he was secretary of Commerce in 1925, had turned down an invitation for the nation to participate in an international decorative-arts expo in Paris.
The United States had no modernist art or architecture to show off, he said.
Let’s roll out the procession of U.S. world expos in the 1930s and then revisit what were, by the standards of the time, some of the breathtaking presentations by the nation’s designers, engineers, and architects, whom one fair guidebook called “the true poets of the twentieth century.”
By the way, admission to all but one of these daylong views of a rosier tomorrow was 50 cents (25 cents for children). New York’s expo, as you might expect, cost more: 75 cents.
The Century of Progress International Exposition
Along the Lake Michigan shoreline in brightly painted pavilions — picture magenta and white stripes, for instance, in what came to be called a “rainbow city,” and an “avenue of flags” bathed in colors that changed with the weather — the emphasis at a buffet of astounding innovations was on scientific spectacles. The theme: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.”
But it wasn’t owl-eyed geeks with white coats and pocket protectors who would guide the nation to a happier, healthier, more comfortable, and more sophisticated future. American corporations were Mighty Mouse. Like the cartoon superhero rodent, they reassured America, “Here I come to save the day!”
They dove headfirst into these world’s fairs and many to follow, sponsoring pavilions that introduced modernist designs; pliable materials such as plastics and metal alloys; futurist transportation models; and affordable, often prefabricated, housing. These innovations were not science fiction; they would flower for real once the nation got through the world war to come.
Everything from glass window blocks to Bakelite telephones to streamliner trains — even streamlined vacuum cleaners — amazed fairgoers, many of whom had made their way to Chicago from many states away. “It was as if the future could unfold effortlessly, without difficulty, without friction,” Laura Schiavo told me. “Corporations didn’t want to talk about the strikes of the period, but about speed and efficiency and convenience.”
Visitors could view the Chicago fair from 60 meters (200 feet) high on a Sky Ride “transporter bridge” — or aerial tramway of “rocket cars” — that ferried people across what the Century of Progress guidebook called “a magic garden” of exhibits below.
The California Pacific International Exposition
San Diego, 1935
Previously a drowsy coastal outpost, San Diego set out to ignite regional tourism, presenting displays from as far away as the vast western national parks of Utah and Arizona — and to glorify and freshen the region’s pre-Columbian and Spanish-colonial architecture as well. And seven million fairgoers got a thorough look at Californians’ informal lifestyle inside the fair’s single-story ranch and pueblo-style buildings.
Near a pavilion called the “Palace of Better Housing,” the Federal Housing Administration even laid out a “Modeltown and Modernization Magic” exhibit of winding streets whose miniature homes were crafted to epitomize “the good life” to come.
San Diego is a good place to find remnants of the 1930s fairs. In the California city’s lush Balboa Park, created for an expo that had celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal 20 years earlier, many of the 1935 fair’s pavilions survive as museums and theaters.
The Great Lakes Exposition
Cleveland, Ohio, 1936-37
As you know if you’re a regular reader, I was born and lived the first 18 years of my life in this gritty industrial city. Yet never once did anyone mention to me that there’d been a world’s fair in town, marking Cleveland’s centennial. But there it had been, along Lake Erie. Seven million more Americans saw this “fun on a dump,” as people called it — the grounds had been a landfill — but none of them bothered to tell me about it.
Nothing to speak of remains from it, though fair aficionados point to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and say that this was where producer Billy Rose staged his first, spectacular, intricately choreographed “aquacade” at the fair. This swim and stage show, which somehow worked in actor Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, the jungle man among apes, was an appealing diversion to the wonderama on display in other pavilions.
Exhibits extolled the “romance” of the city’s iron and steel industry, whose smokestacks belched just down the lakefront, and whose block-long freighters plied the five Great Lakes. Crowds gaped, too, at a glittering light show created by General Electric, whose Nela Park lighting division was based right next door.
The Texas Centennial Central Exposition
In Fair Park, next to the massive Cotton Bowl football stadium, visitors flocked to see the largest of several statewide celebrations of the Lone Star State’s independence from Mexico.
Notable in Dallas were a “Cavalcade of Texas” pageant saluting four centuries of the region’s history, a phalanx of art deco statues and what is thought to be the first pavilion ever to highlight what was then called “Negro life.”
Never mind that it was only because of federal funding that such a pavilion was permitted in racially segregated Texas. The building was virtually hidden on the outskirts of the grounds, behind a thick row of trees.
Like San Diego’s expo, this fair left behind a “cultural campus” that survives.
It includes the onetime “sheep and goat building,” an aquarium, a band shell, and a horticulture building that’s now called the “Discovery Garden.”
The highly successful Dallas fair closed after eight months but reopened, with new exhibits, as the “Pan American Exposition” for another run in 1937.
The Golden Gate International Exposition
San Francisco, 1939-1940
This fair rose on manmade “Treasure Island” beneath the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, whose elaborate construction — along with that of an even more beautiful and amazing engineering marvel, the Golden Gate bridge across town in San Francisco Bay — the fair detailed and celebrated.
The intention was that the island would accommodate a regional airport once the fair was disassembled. But the Second World War disrupted those plans, and a naval base took root there instead.
Beneath a “Tower of the Sun” and a 24-meter statue of Pacifica, “goddess of the Pacific Ocean,” this fair highlighted the products of Asian nations and, in Robert Rydell’s words, served as “a launching pad for America’s economic expansion across the Pacific Rim.” San Francisco “stands at the doorway to the sea that roars upon the shores of all these nations,” President Franklin Roosevelt announced from Washington via a radio hookup during opening ceremonies.
One of the remarkable corporate exhibits at this fair was the Del Monte Company’s display of its fruit products in a stylish, curvilinear hall lined with elegant display windows. Together, as Deborah Sorensen puts it, the setup “looked like a fine jewelry store,” with cans of pineapple and pears where the rings and tiaras would normally be mounted.
The New York World’s Fair
New York City, 1939-1940
Where today’s Americans have any awareness of the great fairs of the ’30s, it’s usually of this, the second-largest world exposition of all time (Shanghai’s last year was larger) — though they often mistake it for an international expo on the same Flushing Meadows grounds in Queens, 25 years later.
People still confuse the ’39 fair’s solid, round “Perisphere” — in which visitors viewed America’s “Democracity” diorama imagining the world a century ahead — with the open, revolving, stainless-steel “Unisphere” globe that would rise on the same foundation at the 1964 fair.
The 1939 expo, built upon on a mountain of ashes called the Corona Ash Dumps — coal furnaces still abounded throughout New York City — followed its utopian “Building the World of Tomorrow” theme straight into the future elsewhere as well. General Motors’ “Futurama” pavilion, for instance, ferried many of the fair’s eventual 45 million visitors in groups of 552 sitting in “sound chairs,” in which a taped narrator described what they were seeing below — along a conveyor above a 3,300-square-meter model of superhighways and housing developments. What they saw would come to pass 15 years later and more as tract-housing developments clustered along the nation’s emerging interstate highway system.
Across the way, the rival Ford Motor Company even allowed visitors to test drive its new line on an elevated “Road of Tomorrow” course above the fairgrounds.
More prosaically, the New York fair offered 46 “typical American families” a chance to live in model homes on the grounds for a week at a time. In each and every case, “typical” meant family units with two parents — the male of which was always the breadwinner. Most of these happy homemakers had two children, and none of the selected families was African-American.
Here, and at the other fairs of the decade as well, visitors could walk into model homes and see “modern living” design features. These were compact, one-story homes devoid of formal dining rooms and featuring stylish and comfy furniture, handy laundry rooms, and patios ideal for entertaining.
The fairs of the 1930s shared what Deborah Sorensen calls an “aspirational quality” for a populace beaten down by breadlines and bank failures. Over the course of the decade, Americans from coast to coast were exposed to an exciting world, not just of possibilities but of scientific and artistic certainties to come: streamliner train and auto and air travel, hygienic food production, modular building construction, and accessible air-conditioning. Even television — which was demonstrated at all six fairs, not, as Sorensen puts it, “as some magical scientific box” but as a regular service soon on its way to people’s homes.
While alluring and provocative, these fairs did not seek to shock, given the fragile nature of the times and the conservative bent of sponsors. Much of the architecture, for instance, evoked a “stripped classicism” design —comforting classical sturdiness stripped of fru-fru ornamentation.
But sometimes the fairs’ imagination overreached or missed the mark. One of the Chicago expo’s “houses of tomorrow,” for example, included an airplane parked in the garage. And one of the material miracles displayed at several fairs — asbestos fireproofing — dramatically demonstrated in New York by a giant figure called “Asbestos Man,” who loomed above the entrance to the Johns Manville Company pavilion, stepping unharmed from a flaming pit, would prove to be problematical down the road.
TV and superhighways were but two lasting byproducts of the Depression-era fairs. In a broader sense, so was brand identity. Whereas companies in the past had simply produced, distributed, and perhaps modestly advertised their products, the great expos introduced savvy corporate messaging designed to imprint brand awareness and loyalty.
The fairs were a pragmatic smash, attracting 100 million visitors (and their tourist dollars) and creating thousands of jobs during desperate times. And judging by the ebullient accounts of fairgoers that survive, the expositions’ spirit-boosting goal was met as well.
I should not fail to mention that, in fine world-expo tradition, each of the fairs had plenty of midway rides and popular entertainment. San Francisco’s shindig, for instance, featured a “Gayway,” a mile-long, circular amusement zone that it called its “40 acres of fun.” This wasn’t what you might think considering San Francisco’s 16-percent population of self-identified gays, lesbians, and bisexuals today.
One of the biggest hits at the Gayway in that same Pacific Exposition was called “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, in which the risqué fan dancer performed at least semi-nude.
From all six fairs, people lugged post cards, home movies, and miniature souvenir models of various towers and spheres, as well as millions of advertising pamphlets that, as Robert Rydell puts it, “tried to convince fairgoers that, through the consumption of newly stylized goods, they could become as modern as their toasters and roadsters, or, for that matter, their countertops and commodes.”
America in streamline moderne.
If there was a lingering message from these fairs, it might be that increased consumption of ever-more-marvelous goods was the solution to the problems of the world. And as you’ll read next time, this corporate influence on international pageants would mushroom.
As you await that posting — no doubt breathlessly — ponder this question that I will attempt to answer: Whatever happened to America’s world’s fairs?
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Decrepit. Worn out, neglected, ruined.
Diorama. A museum display or painting, often revolving, of scenes from life, such as battles and vast cityscapes.
Ebullient. Cheerful, energetic, enthusiastic.
Extol. To praise the virtues of something or someone.
Prosaic. Ordinary, unromantic, lacking in beauty or charm.
Shindig. A lively party, especially one that celebrates something. The term traces to the old word “shindy,” in which the party was more like a brawl — perhaps one in which lots of shins took a kick or two.