April 30th will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With a decade of Depression behind them and a world war looming ahead, 44 million visitors came to catch a hopeful glimpse of the future. The essay below, an earlier version of which first appeared on this site two years ago, explores the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power that animated the vision of the future visitors encountered 75 years ago.
“The World of Tomorrow”—that was the theme of the 1939 NewYork world’s fair. Prior to 1939, the American fairs had been characterized by what historian Astrid Böger has aptly called a “bifocal nature.” Janus-faced, they looked back to a glorified past and forward to an idealized future.The fairs were both “patriotic commemorations of central events in American history” and they “envisioned the nation’s bright future.” During 1930’s, however, the fairs turned their gaze decidedly toward the future.
The ’39 New York fair offered an especially grandiose and compelling glimpse of a techno-utopian society poised to materialize within a generation. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow—Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power and supported by benign government planning. And little wonder these exhibits were so popular: the nation had been through a decade of economic depression and rumors of war swept across the Atlantic. “To catch the public imagination,” historian David Nye has explained, “the fair had to address this uneasiness. It could not do so by mere appeals to patriotism, by displays of goods that many people had no money to buy, or by the nostalgic evocation of golden yesterdays. It had to offer temporary transcendence.”
This link between technology and the realization of religiously intoned utopian visions did not, however, appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. In fact, the late cultural historian David Noble has argued convincingly that this religiously inspired techno-utopianism has been integral to the Western scientific project since at least the late middle ages; it was the central tenet of faith for what Noble called the “religion of technology.”
The planners of the 1939 fair instructed the industrial designers, who “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian,” to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous fairs and expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits and attractions. The ‘39 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. As world’s fair historian Robert Rydell put it, “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” the designers decided “to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism.” With nearly a decade of economic depression behind them and a looming international conflagration before them, the fair planners remained committed to the religion of technology and they were intent on creating a fair that would rekindle America’s waning faith. It may not be entirely inappropriate, then, to see the 1939 New York world’s fair as a revival meeting calling the faithful to renewed hope in the religion of technology. But the call to renewed faith in 1939 also contained variations on the theme. The presentation of the religion of technology took a liturgical turn and it was alloyed with the spirit of the American corporation.
Historians of the world’s fair typically focus on the explicit message fair designers intended to communicate. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But it’s debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Böger suggests a better way of understanding how the fairs made their impression. “World’s fairs,” she tells us, “are performative events in that they present a vision of national culture in the form of spectacle, which visitors are invited to participate in and, thus, help create.” Writing of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explained that it was the “striking example of the sensual–primarily visual–experience of the fair, which seems to precede both understanding of the exhibit’s technology and, more importantly, appreciation of it as an American achievement.” What Böger picks up on in these observations is the distinction between the fair’s intellectual content and the embodied experience of attending the fair. It is the difference between reading the fairs as a “text” with an explicit message and constructing a meaning through the experience of “taking in” the fair. The planners intended an intellectualized, chiefly cognitive experience. Fairgoers processed the fair in an embodied and mostly affective manner. It is this distinction that leads to the observation that the religion of technology, as it appeared at the ‘39 fair, was a liturgical religion.
The genius of the two most popular exhibits at the fair was the embodiment of their message in a ritual experience. Democracity, housed inside the Perisphere, and General Motors’ Futurama both solved the problem of the impertinent walkers by miniaturizing the idealized world and carefully choreographing the fairgoer’s experience. Earlier fairs presented themselves as idealized cities, but this risked the diffusion of the message as fairgoer’s crafted their own fair itineraries or otherwise remained oblivious to the implicit messages. Democracity and Futurama mitigated this risk by crafting not only the world, but the experience itself–by providing a liturgy for the ritual. And the ritual was decidedly aimed at the cultivation of hope in a future techno-utopian society, giving ritual expression to the religion of technology.
As David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the whole fair as “a quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future equally accessible to all … The fair was a shrine of modernity.” Nowhere was the “quasi-religious” aspect of the fair more clearly evident than in Democracity, the miniature city of the future housed within the fair’s iconic Perisphere.
Fairgoers filed into the sphere and were able to gaze down upon the city of the future from two balconies. When the five-and-a-half minute show began, the narrator described the idealized miniature landscape featuring the city of the future at its center. Emanating outward from the central city were towns and farm country. The towns would each be devoted to specific industries, and they would be home to both workers and management. As the show progressed and the narrator extolled the virtues of central planning, the lighting in the sphere simulated the passage of day and night. Nye summarizes what followed:
“Once the visitors had contemplated this future world, they were presented with a powerful vision that one commentator compared to ‘a secular apocalypse.’ Now the lights of the city dimmed. To create a devotional mood, a thousand-voice choir sang on a recording that André Kostelanetz had prepared for the display. Movies projected on the upper walls of the globe showed representatives of various professions working, marching, and singing together. The authoritative voice of the radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn announced: ‘This march of men and women, singing their triumph, is the true symbol of the World of Tomorrow.’”
What they sang was the theme song of the fair that proclaimed:
“We’re the rising tide coming from far and wide
Marching side by side on our way
For a brave new world,
That we shall build today.”
Kihlstedt believes Democracity’s designer, Henry Dreyfuss, modeled this culminating scene on Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece featuring “a great multitude … of all nations and kindreds, and people” as described in the book of Revelation. “In this well-known painting,” Kihlstedt explains, “the saints converge toward the altar of the Lamb from the four corners of the world. As they reveal the unity and the ‘ultimate beatitude of all believing souls,’ these saints define by their presence a heaven on earth.” Ritual and interpretation were thus fused together in one visceral, affective liturgy.
Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Robert Rydell, arguably the leading historian of world’s fairs, has emphasized the imperial and racial ideologies driving the design of the Victorian Era fairs. These fairs also promoted political ideals and patriotism. Additionally, they sought to educate the public in the latest scientific trends (dubious as they may have been, as in the case of Social Darwinism for instance). But in the 1930s the emphasis shifted decidedly. Böger notes, for example, “the early American expositions have to be placed in the context of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the world’s fairs after 1915 went in the direction of globalism and the ensuing competition of opposing ideological systems rather than of individual nation states.” More specifically the fairs of the 1930s, and the 1939 fair especially, sought to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.
“From the beginning,” Rydell observed, “the century-of-progress expositions were conceived as festivals of American corporate power that would put breathtaking amounts of surplus capital to work in the field of cultural production and ideological representation.” Kihlstedt put it this way: “whereas most nineteenth-century utopias were socialist, based on cooperative production and distribution of goods, the twentieth-century fairs suggested that utopia would be attained through corporate capitalism and the individual freedom associated with it.” He added, “the organizers of the NYWF were making quasi-propagandistic use of utopian ideas and imagery to equate utopia with capitalism.” For his part, Nye drew on Roland Marchand to connect the evolution of the world’s fairs with the development of corporate marketing strategies: “corporations first tried only to sell products, then tried to educate the public about their business, and finally turned to marketing visions of the future.” Nye also tied the ritual nature of the fairs with the corporate turn: “Such exhibits might be compared to the sacred places of tribal societies … Each inscribed cultural meanings in ritual … And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission.”
In this way, the religion of technology was effectively incorporated. American corporations presented themselves as the builders of the techno-utopian city. With the cooperation of government agencies, corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a rationally planned yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.
Framing the 1939 New York World’s fair as an embodiment of the religion of technology highlights the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power at this pivotal cultural moment in American history. This convergence was taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and compelling fashion. Through its imaginative liturgical experience, the fair renewed the faith of a generation of Americans in the religion of technology, and it was this generation that went on to build post-war American society.