The road to Tomorrow leads through the chimney pots of Queens. It is a long, familiar journey, through Mulsified Shampoo and Mobilgas, through Bliss Street, Kix, Astring-O-Sol, and the Majestic Auto Seat Covers. It winds through Textene, Blue Jay Corn Plasters; through Musterole and the delicate pink blossoms on the fruit trees in the ever-hopeful back yards of a populous borough, past Zemo, Alka-Setzer, Baby Ruth, past Iodent and the Fidelity National Bank, by trusses, belts, and the clothes that fly bravely on the line under the trees with the new little green leaves in Queens’ incomparable springtime. Suddenly you see the first intimation of the future, of man’s dream – the white ball and spire – and there are the ramp and the banners flying from the pavilions and the brave hope of a glimpsed destination.
-E.B. White, “The World of Tomorrow” excerpt, from Essays of E. B. White.
Trylon and Perisphere
With the luxury of hindsight, old aspirations and predictions for the Future seem ludicrous or uncanny or both.
E.B. White wrote about his visit to the 1939 New York World’s Fair in a splendid story, “The World of Tomorrow.” What an odd year for a World’s Fair devoted to envisioning the Future: From a flyer for the Fair:
The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: "Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.
I don’t know where to begin with describing the attractions of this Fair.
Color photography, nylon, air conditioning, the View-Master, and Smell-O-Vision all debuted at the ’39 Fair.
There was the Westinghouse Time Capsule, not to be opened for 5,000 years, (6939 AD). The time capsule contained writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette Safety Razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and seeds of foods in common use at the time: (wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans, alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots and barley, all sealed in glass tubes.)
An entire book (Salvador Dali's Dream of Venus: The Surrealist Funhouse from the 1939 World's Fair) examines at the painter’s contribution to the Fair. The Dali work was controversial at the time:
Dalí's Dream of Venus, the creation of famed Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, is the most recent addition to the still-growing list of amusement-area girl shows and easily the most amazing. Weird building contains a dry tank and a wet tank. In the wet tank girls swim under water, milk a bandaged-up cow, tap typewriter keys which float like seaweed. Keyboard of piano is painted on the recumbent female figure made of rubber. In dry tank...a sleeping Venus reclines in 36-foot bed, covered with white and red satin, flowers, and leaves. Scattered about the bed are lobsters frying on beds of hot coals and bottles of champagne.
The General Motors Futurama exhibit looked ahead to the year 1960.
Perhaps GM's understandably autocentric vision of the future didn’t seem so horrifying in 1939:
The look forward to the distant future of 1960 would have been creepy with or without the organ accompaniment. In this saga, GM wins and we all lose. Here's the thrilling conclusion:
Really, I only intended to mention the World’s Fair, but now that we’re there, might as well stay with it.
Quite a bit of silent film footage (home movies shot in stunning new Kodachrome, no less!) is available online, documenting the 1939 World’s Fair. Truly bizarre stuff.
More on that, including a visit to the girlie show in the Bendix Lama Temple, and a last word from E. B. White…later.
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