Sex Sells the Future

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century world’s fairs were instrumental in transitioning America from an economy of production to one of consumption. Their role in bringing about this shift is fascinating. Here is but one of the more interesting dimensions of this role described by Robert Rydell in World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions:

“Fundamental to this effort was an assault on remaining vestiges of values that were associated with what some historians have called a ‘culture of production.’ To hasten the dissolution of this older emphasis on restraint and inhibition, already under siege by world’s fairs at the beginning of the century and by the steady barrage of advertising that saturated the country during the 1920s, world’s fair builders injected their fantasies of progress with equally heavy doses of technological utopianism and erotic stimulation.”

We’re more familiar with the technological utopianism of the world’s fairs; the manner in which this technological utopianism was alloyed to erotic representations is less commonly noted. For example, Norman Bel Geddes, who famously designed Futurama, the fair’s most popular exhibit, also designed “Crystal Lassies,” “A Peep Show of Tomorrow.” Rydell continues:

“As if to liberate these fantasies from their Victorian moorings, exposition promoters gave increasing prominence to female striptease performances on exposition midways that, by the end of the decade, gave way to fully nude female performers in shows replete with world-of-tomorrow themes.”

Of course, this makes a great deal of sense. Chastity is to sexual desire what thrift is to economic desire. Rydell goes on:

“By suffusing the world of tomorrow with highly charged male sexual fantasies, the century-of-progress expositions not only reconfirmed the status of women as objects of desire, but represented their bodies as showcases that perfectly complemented displays of futuristic consumer durables everywhere on exhibit at the fairs.”

We know sex sells. This is a commonplace in our society. But we often think it operates by association. Pair the model with the car and somehow the attraction to the model will infuse the car. Perhaps. But some marketers appear to have understood the relationship somewhat differently. Eliminate restraint in one domain and you will eliminate it in the other as well.

E Simms Campbell in Esquire, 1939

“Sacred Industry” and Technology

From David Nye’s American Technological Sublime:

“Writing of the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, Walt Whitman proclaimed:

Mightier than Egypt’s tombs,
Fairer than Grecia’s, Roma’s temples.
Prouder than Milan’s statued, spired cathedral,
More picturesque than Rhenish castle-keeps,
We plan even not to raise, beyond them all,
The great cathedral sacred industry, no tomb,
A keep for life of practical invention*.

‘Sacred industry’ rivaled the religious architecture of antiquity; in America technological achievements became measures of cultural value.”


* “Practical invention” was one of several phrases then commonly used to designate what we would today call “technology.”

The Centennial Tower, Philadelphia 1876

Selling the Future

Again, from Laura Burd Schiavo’s “Modern Design Goes Public” in Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s:

“From their start, expositions were meant to incite consumer desire.”

The evolution of display techniques:

“In pavillions dedicated to the display of goods, exhibits showcased row upon row of clocks, glassware, and, as industrial production heated up, pyramids of ketchup bottles and other mass produced goods, as well as the machines that made them possible.”

“By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, displays had become more sophisticated, advancing from showcasing product to demonstrating production. The ultimate express of this trend came at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, where Henry Ford installed an assembly line that churned out as many as twenty-five Model Ts a day.”

“During the 1920s and 1930s corporations were involved in the development of an increasingly sophisticated public relations strategy … World’s fairs became prime venues for designers to experiment with how design innovation could visually and viscerally dramatize the promise of industrial capitalism … they sought to provide innovative and engaging exhibits that shared a vision of the future, a sense of the power and promise of industry, and an image of the place of consumers in that world.”

Compare Walter Benjamin’s comments on the Paris expositions of the late nineteenth century:

“The world exhibitions glorified the exchange-value of commodities. They created a framework in which their use-value receded into the background. They opened up a phantasmagoria into which people entered in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry made that easier for them by lifting them to the level of the commodity. They yielded to its manipulations while savouring their alienation from themselves and from others.”

Test driving Fords on the "Road of Tomorrow" (NY 1939)

Corporate Modernism

From Laura Burd Schiavo’s “Modern Design Goes Public” in Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s:

“[The world’s fairs of the 1930s] were decidedly public. They introduced modern design to the tens of millions who visited the fairs and those exposed to them through extensive coverage in popular periodicals, on the radio, and in newsreels. What might have been an aesthetic experiment or marketing ploy before 1929 soon became an urgent response to crisis. During the Great Depression, the spectacular demonstrations aligned modern design with a vision of a better future that celebrated consumer progress and trumpeted mass production and corporate leadership. The world’s fairs were popular interpretations of what it meant to be modern in the 1930s, lessons that could be taken home and applied to everyday lives.”

Historian David Nye dubbed this collusion of modernist aesthetics with corporate interests, “corporate modernism” (fittingly enough):

“The future that corporate planners imagined no longer had the neoclassical overtones expressed in the architecture at the pre-1915 fairs in Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, and San Francisco. The fairs of the 1930s adopted the geometrical forms and flat surfaces of the international style … Indeed the invention of ‘corporate modernism’ was one of the more remarkable adaptations of business to the 1930s. Part of the impulse came from increasing competition among manufacturers, whose products often performed equally well, and who therefore needed styles that set their products apart … To repackage products they turned to industrial designers to rework the appearance of objects, emphasizing sleekness, streamlined contours, and functional appearance. The demand for ‘the new’ beams incessant: last year’s style began to seem second-hand; and corporations increasingly advertised and packaged products as innovations recently arrived from the future.”

Intersection of Tomorrow, Futurama Exhibit
GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

Ritual Fairs: Liminality and the World’s Fairs

In 1983, cultural historian Warren Susman wrote a brief but remarkably suggestive essay in the journal Chicago History. The essay, “Ritual Fairs,” evoked the categories of ritual studies and the sociology of religion to understand the significance of World’s Fairs to American culture.

Susman begins by discussing the World’s Fairs as instances of tourism, as the first modern media events, and as the paradigmatic generator of souvenirs. Susman then pivots to draw a comparison between the World’s Fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries and the fairs of medieval society.  According to Susman, “in our era pilgrimage becomes tourism, … souvenirs are a more modern form of relic, and … the iconographic function of some fair’s buildings can be related to the iconographic significance of Gothic cathedrals.”

Like the medieval fairs, World’s Fairs were “idealized towns, utopias, or as H. Bruce Franklin shrewdly suggests about New York’s 1939 fair, works of science fiction.” Consequently, Susman recommends that we understand the fairs in light of the liminal stage that Victory Turner assigned to pilgrimages. The fairs separated the “pilgrim” from their ordinary world and immersed them in another world “somewhere between past, present, and future.” From this vantage point fair goers were led to “an acceptance and participation in a new social order that is emerging technologically, socially, culturally, politically”.

Consider the poster below, from the 1933 Century of Progress Fair in Chicago, a graphic representation of this idea of liminality. The fair’s icon stands posed between the world as it has been and the imagined world of the future.

Borrowing from Emile Durkheim’s notion that religion involves the worship of society, Susman also believes that the fair goers “went to worship or at least stayed to worship a vision of that society or social order.” Susman doesn’t use this language, but it is an eschatological vision that the fairs communicated and invited attendees to worship and participate in. It was not a vision of society as it was or had been, but as it could be. In this respect, the fairs traded in the cultivation of hope; thus their frequent appearance at times of economic or social upheaval.

The golden age of World’s Fairs in America, roughly the period between the 1870s and 1960s, witnessed the nation’s passage from an economy of scarcity and production to one of abundance and consumption. In Susman’s view, the World’s Fairs played an indispensable role in guiding American society through this transition: “… world’s fairs were rites of passage for American society which made possible the full acceptance of a new way of life, new values, and a new social organization.”

To wrap up with a question, is there anything comparable today? Do we have anything that serves a similar function in what is evidently our ongoing transition from one form of society to another?