tv 1939 Worlds Fair CSPAN March 24, 2022 2:10pm-3:44pm EDT
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day developed over years and our occasional series, talking w features extensive conversations with historians about their lives and work. many of our television programs also available as podcasts. you can find them all on the c-span now mobile app or wherever you get your podcasts. >> let me tell you about our speaker this evening, dr. allen tetrobond professor of global affairs, since 2011, served as assistance director at the nuclear studies institute and his primary research and teaching areas are modern u.s. history and foreign policy focusing on nuclear weapons policy and cold war diplomacy but also believes in making education more accessible outside universities to works to give presentations on why ranging topics like the impact of rogue trips throughout
american history, rise of american suburbs, the history of food and dining in the u.s., or like this one, how the 1939 world's fair envisioned the future. allen will also be back with us on january 11th to discuss kennedy, nixon and the debate of the century, we hope you'll consider joining us. so excited to have allen with us this eving in so without further adue, join me in welcoming dr. allen petrabond. >> i am professor of global affairs at trinity university here in washington dc and i want to start tonight by giving you a number, 1939. it's one of those years that stands out in history. for those who know their history, it's a year that evokes
a reaction, much like 1776, the american revolution, or perhaps 1989, with the fall of the berlin wall. or, 9/11. there are just some dates that just sear themselves into the historical memory. and 1939 holds special significant because it's the year world war ii begins. hitler's armies roll into poland, sparking a global war that would go on for nearly six years and result in upwards of 85 million people killed that serves as the roots of 1939 and much less remembered is the fact that that exact same day, the united states president, franklin roosevelt extended a
formal invitation for all european nations to return to the united states in 1940 to continue celebrating the next season of the on-going new york worlds fair. this invitation said, quote, the continued hope of the nations must be that there will increasingly understand each other and the new york world's fair is one of the many channels by which this continuing conception of peace may be known. and yet, on that same september day that the war broke out, the on-going new york world's fair saw record attendance numbers. it had sort of become a defacto gathering round for those who wished for comfort or solace or maybe just those who wanted to revisit the world as it existed
just the previous day. the world not plunged into a catastrophic war. a world of hope for the future. the following day on september 2nd, the headline said new york's turmoil reflected at the fair, wrote, quote, with bombs bursting over poland yesterday, the impact of general war that seemed to threaten europe finally broke with full force, at the world's fair. which, such a short time ago was dedicated with brave speeches of international peace and good will, end quote. the 1939 world's fair was supposed to be a celebration of mankind's progress, a glorious vision of the future, literally called the world of tomorrow.
and so with that line as a means of a teaser, what i want to explore in tonight's presentation is exactly that. how did this fair, full of such promise, collapse into the fires of world war ii? and what vision of the future did it present? how far off were we? so about the next hour or so i'll explore this fascinating moment in history and time at the end for q&a, you can feel free to enter into the question box throughout or hang on to it to the end and i want to begin looking at not just the world's fair and the vision for the future it presented, but really, the fact that there was an enormous amount riding on this single event, an event that would be marred by the outbreak of war. so let me set the scene.
again, first a general overview then we'll come back and fill in some of the gaps, expand our context a little bit, because our stories sees us on october, or rather april, not october, april 30th, 1939. a muggy sunday afternoon when the new york world's fair had its grand opening with over 200,000 people in attendance. it was an especially exciting moment because franklin roosevelt, the president of the united states was going to be there to officially open the fair. here's a newsreel from that moment. >> america's world of tomorrow is ready for its formal debut, monument to showmanship and industry, 58 nations, crowds pouring from subways, trains, buses and cars, half a million strong and for 40,000 invited
guests, the moment has come. president roosevelt, speaks in a cause of peace. >> i here by dedicate the world's fair, the new york world's fair of 1939 and i declare it open to all mankind. >> should have mentioned before, it started, it's an old video clip and depending on the speed of internet connection, video might be a bit choppy but audio should come through fine. but right from that very moment, this fair was already opening a window on the future. the world of tomorrow, because roosevelt's speech was broadcast on a brand new invention that was being debuted for the first time at the fair.
television. roosevelt's speech launched the very first scheduled television broadcast tv station in america. nbc, that first broadcast station, breathlessly pro claimed the president's address was being beamed from a transmitter at the very top of the empire state building with a signal that could reach for a whole 25 miles. now, in reality, only about 1,000 people we think tuned in because there were only about 200 tvs in existence in new york at that time. mainly because this is what a television looked like at the time. a 5 inch screen, smaller than some of our cell phones today. it wasn't even technically black and white, it was actually a weird greenish hue and if you, the regular person wanted to buy themself a television, it cost
today's equivalent of about $4,000. and for that wooden box. but this was an incredible thing we now know in hind sight would really go on to introduce the world of tomorrow the irony here, and the one that would continue to haunt the entire world's fair was the fact that while this may have been the first broadcast in america, it was not so in germany, that beat us to it by three years. the first live television broadcast was the opening of the, or the opening ceremony of the 1936 olympics in berlin, where hitler featured prominently. and as an interesting thought experiment and side note, astro physicist carl sagan once
considered since this was the first mass tv broadcast sent out on radio waves, that might mean that perhaps the first message that aliens encounter, the first transmission from earth would be a picture of hitler. but back to roosevelt's speech, as exciting as this moment was, there were some storm clouds gathered. a reporter asked a fair representative, wouldn't a european war completely ruin the fair? and the representative responded, there will be no war. that's all newspaper talk. europe is excited about this fair, in fact it's all they're talking about, not about some war. well, not everyone would have agreed with that statement. the fair was open to all countries each country was invited to tind and build a
pavillion and build their industries, and hitler's germany was invited to build a pavilion in new york city and there was a lot of conversation on whether to allow nazi germany to even attend. two years earlier, at an expedition in paris the nazis also were invited and built a giant imposing building with swasticas all over it, and this was meant to be a bold splay of nazi germany's reimagined role within the global community. what they were projecting is that hitler's totalitarian form of rule was good, and not just good, but it was the way of the future that democracies were old and fading, a thing of the past, that national socialism, right,
naziism, was a new political project to be taken seriously, to be respected and even to be admired was the image they wanted to project. in fact, the guys in paris had put the nazi building on the left of this image and the building for the soviet union on the right directly facing off against each other. and germany leaned into this idea that national socialism was a welcome bulwark against the evils of communism. so right away, this illustrates one of the major clashes of 1939. the major fears that overshadowed not just the fair but overshadowed that moment in american life. the idea that was real at the time, that maybe we in america were about to be overtaken by
these two countries that offered alternative and more modern political systems. and to understand the reason this was a fear, let me go back for a moment to put this fair in the context of its time. which, of course, was in the midst of the great depression. pie the time the fair opened in 1939, the united states had been through ten years of economic calamity, a 27% unemployment rate at times. this is a time in american life when most families did without. without extra food, without an extra pair of shoes, without going to the dentist. a time before there was modern medicine or penicillin which meant a child or an adult, for that matter, could die of a sore throat or a simple cut that got
infected. this was a time when most roads in the nation were mod of dirt, not even gravel. like literally just dirt that turned completely to mud when it rained. in 1939, fewer than 25% of people living in rural areas had electricity. that should astonish you. this is 50 years after electricity is commercialized and still only 25% of people in rural areas in america have it. now, this is a time when the national emergency council reported that much of the southern united states was, and i'm quoting from the report, a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death from syphilis, hook worm, malnutrition, typhoid
fever and malaria, the u.s. south so under developed it's more akin to what we recognize today as a third world country. malaria, typhoid fever, malnutrition. so there was a growing understanding of the american population that as the depression dragged on and on and on for a decade that seemed to indicate, that seemed to prove that capitalism as an economic system was a failure and worse, overlaying that, that democracy as a governing system also failed, seemed unable to remedy the problem. democracy was old, slow, creaky, subject to the whims of the masses on the one hand and on the other hand held hostage by bickering politicians trying to pursue their own political interests. democracy was obsolete and in
contrast, a bold, and most importantly, new political system had arisen starting in europe in the 1920s, this system of fascism, originates in italy, spreads to germany, and the ideology argues that liberal democracies are doomed, they're past. that only a one-party state led by a strong leader in charge of a marshal law government that could tightly control the population, that only that government could respond effectively to economic problems and forge the positive national unity required for a stable, prosperous and orderly society. the problem was that approach seemed to be working in the 1930s, fascist italy and germany
seemed to be doing well, thriving, even, in 1935, the german autobon was opened, a full 30 years before the u.s. interstate system was even inaugurated. in 1936, the german economy in the midst of the global great depression, germany was roaring at full employment. and so there were many in the united states throughout the 1930s, including members of the united states government who pointed to nazi germany and thought that perhaps the way out of the great depression was for america to be more like germany. what's worse, that maybe fascism with its strict control of society wasn't quite your cup of tea, well that's okay, because there's yet another new alternative to democracy, communism. in the 1930s, the soviet economy
was also booming, rapidly industrializing so much so, there were russian recruiters working in the united states to recruit out of work americans to move to russia to work where there were more jobs than there were people and 10s of thousands of americans did move to russia in the 1930s in search of better jobs, a better way of life than what they at least thought they had in america which, what america offered at the time was a huge number of shanty towns populateding the outskirts of nearly every major american city. now the early 1930s, this is before we learned about the atrocities of the soviet union and to a lesser extent, nazi germany, seen as lesser respectable, prosperous nations,
so american style capitalism and democracy was under challenge and no one quite knew how things would turn out. maybe the fascists were right. many fascism and communism were the next logical steps in political development, they had solved the problem of politics. so to say most americans experienced these years as a constant stream of struggle and see existential fear would have been about right. to some, nazi germany was the positive model of the future in fact to most, up in arms in america about allowing a repressive, freedom-restricting german state to participate in this fair which was focused on freedom and the future.
for one, the mayor of new york city never missed an opportunity to heckle hitler, claiming that if germany was allowed to attend, the fair also had to have a building he called the chamber of horrors. he said, quote, containing a figure of that brown shirted fanatic who is now menacing the peace of the world, end quote. the nation magazine said no swastikas at the world's fair. ultimately, despite these clashes, it would come to not, because the germans withdraw on their own from the fair at the last minute, partly, they claim it's because of the foreign exchange problem, didn't have enough money, but it was really as a protest and a front to what they saw as insults against their nation so many were happy
germany withdrew but perhaps their absence from a peaceful gathering of nations, maybe their absence should have been ominous in and of itself. down the road from where the nazi building was meant to have been constructed was the pavilion of the independent nation of poland, except we now know in hindsight just five months after the fair the nazis would invade and over take poland, by the end of the world's fair which runs until the end of 1940, the pavilion was draped in black because the country technically no longer existed, sold off by the exiled government to help pay the bills. soviet union, that other totalitarian state, also a relatively new country at the time, it was only officially recognized by the united states in 1933, just a handful of years earlier, but the soviets were
granted a prime location at the fair and they built a massive pavilion. the soviets too, were using the fair to project a positive image of communism. their official statement red, quote, the soviet union is a country which has ended the exploitation of men by men, eliminated racial and national animosities in which 171 million people of different nationalities are united in equal freedom. end quote. if i had told you that was the soviet union, you might think that's the united states using that kind of language, except five months later, the soviets would join with the nazis to invade and destroy poland. italy had a major pavilion, also
a fascist government at the time, in fact italy invents modern fascism with mussolini predating hitler ten years, five years later, mussolini sides with hitler. japan. japan's pavilion modelled to look like a shinto shrine which was a religious belief many americans thought encouraged aggressive and militaristic culture. japan already had war with china for eight years and had just two years earlier in 1937 committed an atrocity in nan ping where japanese soldiers murdered 300,000 civilians but in new york, their dedication at the fair read, quote, dedicated to
eternal peace and friendship between america and japan. end quote. except, americans probably should have already been suspicious about eternal peace and friendship between their nation and japan because on the grand opening day, the u.s. navy fleet was supposed to visit new york city as part of the ceremony, but because of aggressive moves being made by japan in the south china sea, the fleet visit was canceled and the u.s. navy was instead deployed to the pacific as a show of force against japan. you get the point. one year later, the japanese launch a massive surprise attack against the united states at pearl harbor. eternal peace and friendship, they said. so my goodness. if the 1939 world's fair was supposed to be this world of
tomorrow, this bright vision of the future, yieks. right? we couldn't have been more dead wrong. world war ii would break out five months into the fair and americans would be dragged into the war just about a year after that. in what became the most deadly war humanity had ever seen. this moment of hope had tuned into a moment of crisis, which was truly terrible because the world's fair was supposed to upset that and that's why april, 1939 was so exciting. because the world's fair was designed to leave the current doldrums behind and look to inspire a new future, that the decade of the terrible 1930s, the dirty '30s as it were were about to end and a better future
in the decade of the 1940s would unfold. the idea that the 1940s would be a don of a new era of peace and freedom. it's printed right there on the ticket stub. the designers of this 1939 world's fair truly tried to project a positive view of the future, a view of the future that was so far in the future that the westinghouse company even buried a time capsule. in fact, as a fun bar trivia, the very word time capsule was coined for this event. in fact, they buried two time capsules because they wanted some redundancy since these time capsuled weren't set to be open until the year 6939, not to be opened for five thousand years. that's how long americans thought this nation would last.
that's how far in the future they were looking, which, if you ask me, is a severe case of hubris, because even the roman empire, the most powerful and longest-lasting empire in the history of the world lasted about 1,000 years. and looking forward, as a side note, the area where this time capsule was buried is only about 7 feet above sea level so the projection is in the not so distant future, this will be underwater due to climate change. but they didn't know that back then, and this time capsule was meant to preserve a record of life in 1938. so they put in it what they said were 124 commonly used items, items like tooth powder. they had a mazda lamp, basically a light bulb, although today we call edison lights.
bad copies of magazines, they had a micky mouse watch, a gillette safety raiser, a new technology, not having to use a straight raiser and slit your neck with it, they had a cupie don't tell and i admit i had to look it up what it was, it's this creepy thing, hottest children's toy of the era. had a dollar in spare change, an asbestos shingle because why not, and of course, the coolest thing of all, cigarettes. give your throat a vacation, says this doctor. but they also included a letter from the famed scientist albert einstein who was appointed to be the science adviser for the fair, he was alive at this time and explained in the letter he
put in his time capsule that the the time he lived, his society had, i quote, learned to fly. and we are able to send messages and moves without any difficulty throughout the entire world through electronic waves. what he's talking about is the radio. which, was a technology that was relatively new at the time. in fact, one of the brand new technologies that was debuted at the fair was a faximele machine that could use rod i won't waves to transmit a newspaper to be printed out right in your home. it's kind of amazing, except the data transmission would take about 18 minutes per page to print. but, back then, you don't need a paper boy on a bicycle anymore and this is sort of today like us scrolling through our phones
to read the news right in the comfort of your own home. back to einstein, his letter also wrote some hard truths where he said, quote, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular intervals so that also for this reason, anyone who thinks of the future must live in fear and terror. end quote. not exactly an inspiring message for the future but einstein would be proved right and probably sooner than he would have thought because he more than most probably felt that fear for the future, einstein had already reannounced his original german citizenship in protest of hitler, and had left germany where he was living after hitler took power, effectively becoming a refugee and eventually landing in the united states.
two days before the fair opened, hitler would withdraw from the german/polish nonaggression pact and the storm clouds would continue to gather over europe. but i want to step back again for a moment to fill a bit of background here. because what even is a world's fair anymore? well, these things were created first in the late 1700s in france where it was meant to be held every five years kind of like the olympics, in fact the world's fair predates the modern olympics which only got started around the turn of the 1900s, created at a time where competition in europe was heating up, nations were battling each other for superiority so the french thought it would be good to have some sort of exhibition where each country could gather and show off how amazing it was, all
the culture and products and everything it excelled at to foster friendly competition instead of war and the world fair circuit was just as competitive, if not more competitive than the modern olympics are. host nation would build huge, ornate buildings to host the fair, each country put on elaborate exhibits. hundreds of thousands, millions would attend, and these fairs would be talked about the world over. they run for two years at a time, and ultimately, in 1939, 44 million people attended. these fairgrounds were so huge, it would often take multiple days, in fact it was recommended that if you attend the new york world's fair that you spend two weeks to see it all, multiple days. but really, these used to be
huge events and they sort of started to fizzle after the 1960s although i myself find out i'm surprised to find out there is a world's fair going on right now in dubai. last one in 2015 in italy, so they're still happening, just a shadow of their former glory. but back to 1939, it is the u.s.'s turn to host the fair again and the genesis came back in 1936 when the site's location was selected in queen's new york, an area, part of which at the time was a garbage dump, 15 stories tall, and the fact that the fair was constructed on top of a notorious garbage heap was maybe another unintended iron y of what the future would bring, in order for the fair to be
profitable, had to get major european nations to attend in a major way and this started off poorly, both britain and france agreed to construct very small pavilions and only on the condition that the united states paid for them. but then, a guy named grover whaling, president of the world's fair corporation would play a little dirty. he figured the path to success, the way to get the big, important, western european nations to come was to get in bed with their top rivals. that if wayland could get nazi germany or the soviet union to attend in a big way, britain or france or other european nations would have to step up their game in order to compete. so he promised the ussr a very large, and very favorable
location to show off the glories of the soviet union without even haggling over the price, stalin agreed to pay $4 million for the rights to build, which is about $75 million today. and wayland's trick worked. the very next morning, he got a call to come to paris to negotiate for a much bigger french presence. the french were not going to let the soviets take all the glory. but, cleverly, wayland decided that before he stopped in paris, he was going to make a little detour to italy to sell mussolini on the idea he couldn't possibly let those communists outshine the great fascist nation of italy. wayland would later write,
quote, as i entered the dictator's office, i saw a highly polished floor and 200 feet tall, off in the distance, mussolini stood with his back to me looking at the sunset through a massive window. end quote. paints a lovely scene but wayland continues to use flowery to sell the idea to mussolini saying new york's world of tomorrow was just like mussolini's vision for italy. mussolini was sceptical but that sort of sold him. he would claim to wayland that his vision for italy, using the government to build the country back up was no different than roosevelt's new deal, fascist,
american, same thing when the price agreed, wayland upped it, being a gambler, a low, low price of just $5 million. britain and france quickly increased their participation as well and ultimately 62 nations would attend, the fact that mainly juiced by the soviets and italians, this money flooded in and allowed the fair to expand and prosper at first. but it wasn't just countries attending the fair. partly, the fair was a means to hip repair the image of capitalism and corporations which had rightfully gotten a pretty bad rap during the great depression. a lot of people blamed big corporations for the economic doldrums in fact one proposal
that to get the economy juiced and people back to work again, the government should pay people to build things, to say build toasters that the government would then take away and bury in the landfill so you have this complete production line of construction and then garbage but that would keep people employed, building stuff that would end up getting thrown out, that it was the government's responsibility to keep production flowing no matter what. all that waste doesn't matter as long as the company's profitable. one public relations firm said, quote, the lack of confidence in capitalist democracy itself must be overcome in the public eye so major businesses were welcome to open exhibits as well. in fact, this is one of the first times, again, with wayland being clever about how to make money, he licensed the logo of
the world's fair to corporations to print on jackets and mugs and whatever they wanted. this was pretty atypical at the time, the corporate branding wasn't really a world's fair. whalen would brag about how much money was pouring in from these licensing deals that companies wanted to get in on the excitement and sell their wares. and none more so -- money were more welcome to open exhibits than general motors, the general, which spent $7 million, today's equivalent of about $132 million, to build an incredible pavilion. a temporary one. $132 million for just two years before they tore it down. but this was an astonishing, sweeping building that rose ten stories tall.
people waited for up to three hours to see the massive futuristic diorama that they had built inside, where they would fly over it in these chairs looking down at the world of 1960. this is what they were depicting the world of tomorrow. a world that might seem rather familiar to us today. they had skyscrapers. they had 14-lane super highways that they called express motorways where narrators explained that by using these curved ramps, cars could take corners at 50 miles an hour. that was an astonishing. the top speed -- the top speed, flat out pedal to the floor of most cars was 50 miles an hour.
this, you could go around 50. you don't need to stop at an intersection to turn n. fact, the car would have a radio projected beam out from the front bumper to keep it following with the cars ahead. that's what we have got today with the automated cruise controls. keep in mind, most roads were dirt or gravel, cars topped out at 45 miles an hour. most the skyscrapersh landing a pads on their roofs for flying cars that, too, was a shocking thing since not even helicopters existed yet. the first successful helicopter flight wouldn't come until six months after the fair opened. another similar exhibit inside that round paris fehr that was
the centerpiece of fair meant to project the future -- inside there they had an exhibit called democa-city, of course trying to play against nazis and the communists. this is democa-city, where it depicted people who would live outside the city centers in these leafy rural of course centers they called pleasant villes, whereby using these express motorways and private automobiles it would allow a man to live in the city but the ability to live outside the city center in a private single-family home in quiet and comfort. they are describing an american suburb eight years before the first suburb appears in america. and the idea, also, that it
would be normal for people to drive their own private cars to work. this was at a time when only one in five americans actually owned a car. most walked to work or to public transit. across the fair, there were displace of state-of-the-art high-speed railway trains. there were modern airplanes. there were no ocean liners. ford -- the ford motor company had brand-new sedans which fair-goers could drive themselves on the so-called road of tomorrow. part of the exhibit. you could get in the car and drive it around the test track. again, shocking. the majority of people in 1939 had never driven a car before. only one in five owned one. at the fair, in addition to cars you could drive, and dioramas you could go through, they had also what they called the world's longest electric
stairway which is just an escalator. but people lined up to ride this to the top, and then ride it back down again. i think the most hilarious thing of all was a giant robot they had on display that's -- its key feature was that it could smoke cigarettes. a robot they called electro. >> i present to you electro, the westinghouse mortal man. electro, come here. here he comes, ladies and gentlemen, walking up to greet you under his own power. all right, electro, will you tell your story, please.
>> who, me? >> yes, you. >> okay, toots. ladies and gentlemen, i will be very glad to tell my story. i am a smart fellow, as i have a very fine brain. >> that's the most remarkable thing i have ever seen. >> boy, what a guard that guy would make on my football team. >> electro, i know you enjoy these. i will give you a nice pleasure out of these. there you are. hold on to it. you may now smoke this cigarette. go on. oh, yes, electro, you do need a light, don't you? all right.
here you are. and folks, he's only 2 years old, too. just learning. pleasure -- >> that clip is from a promotional film, the westinghouse corporation, which built electro put out. but people were mesmerized pie -- by the futuristic technologies that were on display here. even the carrier corporation built an igloo to show off their brand-new technology, air-conditioning. the idea that humans, with the touch of a button, could cool themselves down on a hot summer day was astonishing. this was so ahead of its time that it wasn't until the 1970s when residential air-conditioning started to become commonplace in american homes. in fact, in light of all of these new technologies, the
narrator at the general motors exhibit said, quote, does it seem strange, fantastic, unbelievable? remember, this is the year of the 196 0s, end quote. a fantastic future, a world of tomorrow. the at&t corporation, the phone company, had even built and put on display the first device that could synthesize the sound of human voice, the first computerized voice, as it were. listen to it here. >> would you have it say, greetings, everybody. >> greetings, everybody. >> now will you have him repeat that in a high voice? >> greetings, everybody. >> and now in his deep voice. >> greetings, everybody.
>> "the new yorker" magazine described that exhibit probably the best, when they called it creeping, which it is. and perhaps, depending on how you see it, there was a whole section of the fair devoted to kind of creepy things, because it wasn't just countries or corporations on display. there was also an adult entertainment section. adult in every sense of the word, with nudie shows with an exhibit called, and i quote, oscar, the obscene octopus, which was a rubber octopus that used its tentacles to slowly strip the bathing suit off of female swimmers. there was also an exhibit called little miracle town featuring the world's greatest little people. 125 resident midgets who lived in this little mini town that
you could walk through and see. russia, as part of their exhibit, didn't do creepy. americans were the king of the creepy here. but russia didn't do little either. they went grandiose. they sent a replica of a subway station in moscow. why a subway station? because not only was this just built. it was one of the most modern metro systems in the world but it was also meant to highlight that their communist system of government was truly for the people. that instead of letting capitalist profits go to the wealthy or to creating frivolous things like a fake human speech generator, in communism, all the excess money, all the profits go back to the people in the form of public investments, investments like excellent and
beautiful public transit systems. this picture here is a subway station in moscow. it looks like a cathedral. and it was meant to. they thought the people in our society should be inspired by public works. do you want to compare? there is new york's subway, built by the government by the lowest bidder. and it looks like a ding y basement. but soviet communism showed their system was better, that this is where society should put its excess wealth. not so some rich guy who buy himself another sports car or a gold plated back scratcher while new yorkers who often have no choice but to take public transit are in a rat infested dimly lit ding y basement for
their subway. this challenge to western capitalism was real, and it was on display for everyone to see. and some of the people who saw it werewere dignitaries from ar around the world who arrived in new york to participate. this is the procession of sing george who sailed over to attend the fair. on that day, when the british king arrived 1 million of new york's school children were give the day off to go watch the procession. but ultimately, because we, with the benefit of hindsight know how things turned out, this fair, its vision for tomorrow was outdated before it even began. in september, 1938, the year before the fair opened, british prime minister had gone before the world, met with hitler, and
said this afterwards. >> this morning, i had another talk with the german chancellor heil hitler. and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. the settlement of the czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all europe may find peace. >> it is peace for our time declares chamberlain. he's talked to hitler. we've saved the scheck slovakia
from nazi aggression by coming to this pact, and we see peace and prosperity ahead. hitler is a man we can work with. except before the fair even opened, one month later -- sorry. one year later both scheck slovakia and austria were under nazi control. he violated his agreement, lied to the british prime minister, and the world. before the fair's end, belgium, denmark, france, the netherlands and others -- nearly half the european nations would be added to that list of having been crushed by nazi aggression. after the nazi takeover of czechoslovakia, mayor la guardia led the charge to raise $600,000 to help finish their pavilion despite the fact the germans demanded it be shut down because
the country was under their control now. and ultimately, the outbreak of war was a pal cast over the entire fair. when 1940 season rolled around -- so it runs for the spring and summer and fall of 1939, shuts down for the wirp, reopens for a sec year, when that second year came around, tenure epipen countries wouldn't return. those who had worked at polish pavilion, the first country to fall to nazi aggression did go back to europe in 1939, why wurn a country under nazi occupation. instead, they opened up a restaurant in new york city. they had nowhere else to go. the most notable nation not the return was the soviet union. they ordered their massive pavilion be torn down, crated up, and shipped back to russia.
leaving a gaping hole in the fair grounds. in this place, the americans opened up a big open space called the american commons dedicated to the perpetuation of an american ideal. but the american ideal might have been real for americans, but the fear was even more real. in boston, the dome of the state house, which was this beautiful gilded gold color -- when the war broke out, they painted it gray to make it harder for nazi bombers to spot if they were ever to attack the united states. the fear was real. after 1940, as the 1940 season opened with the british being last european country to bravely hold out against the nazis, with london being bombed nightly during the blitz, that british
pavilion in new york became a crowd favorite packed with people wanting to show support and learn about britain. in their exhibit, they had displayed an original magna carta from the year 1215, the first time it had ever left england. and with the outbreak of war, the government decided that it was probably safer to leave the magna cardia in the united states should england fall to the nazis. and it would stay in the u.s. secured away in fort knox until 1947. which was probably just as well, because it was also in the british pavilion where a time bomb was discovered planted in a back room next to a nazi flag. the police had managed to get this bomb out of the building that was still full of tourists. they carried it outside and
started to work on it before it exploded, killing two officers. the case was never solved. the only evidence was this swastika flag planted beside the bomb in the british pavilion. so maybe it's for the best that as the fair wound down in 1940, despite the concerns of the organizers and their idea that they didn't really want this to happen to the fair, their glorious vision of the future. instead, the buildings and exhibits were dismantled. its 40 million tons of steel were sent to be melted down and made into tanks. sent to fuel the war effort. this world of tomorrow literally ended up in the war. and that grand vision of the world of tomorrow seemed to collapse back into the ash heap that it was originally built on,
this garbage dump. but it will still remain, as we wrap up here, it will still remain this eye sonic moment, this iconic year that stands out in world history, even if the memory of the fair itself, and its hope for the future, has mostly receded into the background. for those of you who want to learn more about the 1939 world's fair, this is a great book "twilight at the world of tomorrow" and due credit, it is a back i have drawn a lot of information from to help build out this talk. but i'll wrap up my portion there. the floor is open for questions so we can continue the conversation. we can pull out any things you want expanded upon, or any other fascinating thing about this world of tomorrow or the world of 1939. so thanks for watching. i'll turn the mic back over to heather who is going to mod mate
the q and a here. >> thank you, allen. like allen said, please feel free to continue to put q questions in the q and a book on the screen. we already have quite a few. i will dive right in the you are all set. >> absolutely. >> someone -- i want to go back to kind the beginningish of your talk. you mentioned there were a lot of americans who went to the soviet union in search of a better life. someone's curious, do we know what became of those folks the did they have to come back? did they stay there? do we have any information about what happened with them? >> yeah, yeah, we do, actually. yeah. so there were huge numbers who went over in the depths of the great depression. the soviets specifically recruited people who worked in the automotive industry and the steel industry, industries they wanted to build up really rapitily. there are many many books on this, memoirs of people who went over and at first loved it, were
astonished, mainly because, like, this is a country on the move. it's building rapidly. it's industrializing. there is work to be done. the soviet people, the first generation seemed like happy and proud and patriotic that they were producing for the future. and it was good money compared to what they could make in the united states. the living accommodations were great. partly because the soviets wanted this partly as a propaganda effort. they gave them great apartments and all of these privileges. but probably what's most interesting is that there were thousands of african americans who were recruited to go to the soviet union. the soviets were pitching their idea not just as a political and economic project, but as a social project, that the soviet union, one of their things was the eliminate inequality. and so they welcomed african americans, these people who were, you know, heavily discriminated against back home. welcomed them into the soviet
union, partly again for propaganda that we are call here, we don't care about the color of your skin, we are not racist. some of the most fascinating memoirs are from african americans. there is a book called black on red. he talks about -- he had a great life in the soviet union at first. there is one story he tells that among the white americans who came over and worked from his factory, because they brought their racism with them, they jumped them and beat them off, he fought them off, and the police were called, and the police came and interviewed him. he was cowhering, because in america if you fight a white man you go to prison. there was no justice for colored people in america in the 1930s. but he was shocked to see the russian police officers treated him with respect, questioned
him, arrested the americans who committed this crime, deported them back to america and made this guy like a national hero in a way. so at first, life was great. and then it wasn't. so by the 19 -- late 1930s as the soviets get more repressive, but specifically with the outbreak of world war ii there is a lot of suspicion cast on these people. a lot of people left. after the rose colored glasses they realized that life in a totalitarian dictator ship isn't what it looks like on the surface. a lot of them were kicked out at the start of world war ii. there were many others, like the author of black on red, i believe it's him, who stays, meets a russian woman, gets married, has kits kids. has a wonderful life -- as wonderful as you can under stalinist russia. it is fascinating it is a story we don't often here about.
it shows the pull of communism in the early days before we learn about atrocities and see it doesn't really work as a system. it was alluing to americans who were out of work, impoverished and desperate at that time. the start a new life going to russia was a thing. >> great. thank you. okay. so you obviously mentioned that the fair was in queens on a dump site. someone is curious, was this the same location they used for the 1964 fair. >> it was. yeah, this former dump site which was cleaned up for the 1939 fair, all those buildings were torn down except for one. my understanding is they made it into a park between the years. and then in 1964, when the fair came back to the united states, they held it in the same location. in fact, it's plagiarism. they held it in the same location. they had the same theme.
instead the world of tomorrow, it was futurama. depicting this world of tomorrow. general motors came and did a big exhibit n. 1964, during that fair, everyone was obsessed about space travel. because that was the hot new technology. we hadn't yet gone to the moon. we had only just gone to space, broken the bounds of the atmosphere. that's a long winded way to say yes it was in the same location both of those fairs. some of you who may live in new york today, i don't know what came of it after that. is it a park? i don't know. >> we will come back to a couple of things you touched on in that answer actually. but before i move on, someone wanted to know if you are able to talk about the federal art project's involvement in the site. >> not really. like, i can't really speak about their involvement in the site aside from -- so part of the new
deal, the federal government is funding not just building roads, bridges, and setting up social security nets and trying to get people back to work -- there is a civilian conservation corps. basically, i think it is 100,000 people they send out building public works projects. so at least on the east coast one of the big promise, if any of you have been to the blue ridge parkway or the shenandoah national park, those were built as part of the new deal projects. there is a bunch of cabins up there. and they were built by roosevelt. but to help out-of-work artists, the government pays artists to go out and do all kinds of things. to do poetry, to set up classes in communities and teach art, to do big murals and paintings around the country, to go out and document stories and
musicians. so they pay artists. so i -- that's leading up to the fair. there are a bunch of art installations and there is a building, you know, dedicated to artistic pursuits. but i can't -- sorry, i can't speak specifically to their involvement on a -- piece for piece in world's fair. that i don't know. >> great context, though. thank you. okay. so a couple people are curious about the international exhibition of 1939 in san francisco. which -- do we know, there any connection between the two of them? >> there are competing world's fairs that year n. fact in that opening clip of roosevelt giving that speech he says i here by declare the world's fair -- the new york world's fares.
there are world's fares that are the big events every four or five years. and world expos that are on off years. the paris was an expo. the 1939 was a world's fair. for whatever reason -- there is no connection. it is not like the same organization that runs new york also runs san francisco. but they bid for and got an expo the same year the full world's fair was going on. so there was this sort of intercoastal competition, but the corporation that runs the new york is unconnected to the one that runs san francisco, by what i understand. >> wonderful. thank you. okay. so other than the company exhibits, so like general electric or any of the others, did the u.s. as a country have an exhibit or not, because it was hosting? >> the u.s. sets up their
pavilion as the parasphere. the round building where they are putting the democa city, that's meant to be the centerpiece of the fair and the u.s. contribution. the u.s. also exhibits a bunch of its technologies and a bunch of different expo buildings, the telephones, the light bulb, these things are on display as the u.s. contrex. typically what the countries bring are cultural displace, feats of science and technology and then products that their company excels in making. the soviets for example, their feat of science and technology was they had just recently conquered the arctic. they had been doing expeditions up to the arctic circle with flights and people going up there. so they put a big arctic display up with polar bears and planes, a wild display of the arctic as
their technological feats. yeah the u.s. has a number of exhibits but the centerpiece is the parasphere and the try lon, the big tower that they put up as a visual ground yoes things. like the olympics, the host country is supposed to show off and build these grandiose things. that's what they built. one side note, the parasphere was supposed to be engineered so it looked like it was floating up on this fountain that was floating up underneath it which would have looked really cool but they couldn't get the technology to work. so it just sat there on top of a pond. >> you mentioned in 1964 they had rockets and space stuff. someone is curious if there were any planes or rockets like that at the '39 world' fair? >> yes, there were. air travel. lots of exhibits about that,
showing off modern aircraft. so aluminum bodied aircraft rather than wood and fabric biplanes that they had in the 1920s. aircraft, sure, the big exhibits, the things people were most interested in were trains. they had a whole show -- i forgot the name of it is slipping my mind. but showing the evolution of railway travel from the old wild west to the modern sleek bullet trains. they even had a high-speed steam powered train running between i think it was baltimore and new york to bring people up to the fair. it was modern train which is were still steam powered although general motors did have on display the newest technology in locomotive, which was a see sell electric train, which is what we use today. i should have put a picture up. it looks like a modern train. what you would recognize as a
freight train engine. that's what it looks like. the trains are real big. but it is the cars, the automobiles, and the highways that people are just fascinated. little on space travel. little on rockets. rocketry was sort of seen as being amateur child's play through the 1920s. it wasn't big yet until, really, after world war ii when, again, hitler overshadows this whole fair. when hitler proves in the war with their vengeance weapons that rocketry can work, as a weapon, an effective weapon. where the u.s. devotes enormous underiffing to the development of the atomic bomb as our super weapon. hitler develops rocket launches to cap a bomb with and launch at london. so, yeah, less about space travel. that doesn't become a thing until the 1950s when people get fascinated with it. even what we know about space,
h.g. wells and war of the worlds and all of that stuff. but less so about that. >> great. thank you. okay. so someone wanted to know, who are some of the maybe now famous architects that were commissioned to design some of the pavilions? is there anyone that stands out? or is more of a household name, i guess? >> no idea. someone is interested in the architecture. that's i don't understand the realm of what i know. if we are looking at world's fairs in general, in the 1800s, i think the 1893 chicago world's fair there was a big amount of hoopla over the fact that a woman had scienced one of the buildings. that was in the 1800s. but, yeah, i -- i -- i don't know about architects specifically. but they did typically build in these architects who built these big grandiose designs. architecturally one of the
problems was how do you build a building -- the gm building, ten stories tall, the parasphere and trilon, build it cheaply because you are going to tear it down in two years. there were all sorts of problems of buildings being flimsy because they are going to scrap it two years later and buildings would blow over in the window. the parasphere, a wind storm blow off parts of it because you don't need these glass sides for more than two years and they were just stuck on. i don't know who built them. >> you maengsed attendance surging at the uk pavilion. someone is curious, what was the attendance in general in 1940 compared to 1939?
did as many people come the second year? or not so much. >> the attendance of these things -- like everything like this, the projections were wild. we are going to get 60 to 80 million people attending the fair. and they ended up getting -- i don't recall how it broke down each year, like 25 million one year and around that or a little bit less the second year. the numbers -- one of the thing they tried, is because they had projected 60 million people and that's kinds of what they needed to make good on their financial promises, their -- the attendance never hit anywhere near what they thought it would. so right at the ends i think of season one, and certainly in season two, they lowered the price, which did bring in some more people, but, again, it kind of fizzled a little bit. the problem with lowering the price was they had presold a bunch of seasons passes at the higher prices and now people
wanted refunds because they think they are getting ripped off. attendancewise, this became kinds of a calamity. they expected 1 million people on opening day. they got 200,000, and i think 44 million overall, which is nothing to sneeze at, but it's not the 60 million they needed. there were -- in overall attendance -- it was not a flop, 4 million is certainly not a flop. but it didn't reach the level they hoped. inside the fair there was all kinds of competition over, yeah, whose exhibit is going to be the best. in season two, the british exhibit became really popular. right after the invasion of poland, the polish exhibit became really popular, was swarmed with people. but overall, the number one exhibit with highest attendance was the general motors exhibit. people would way three hours to get into it. it averaged about 30,000 people a day riding the -- it was a
ride you rode through the building to look at this amazing display of what the 1960s would look like. so general motors takes the cake as being the best-attended exhibit at the fair. >> great. thank you. so someone did ask if it was a financial success. from your answer, i am assuming it wasn't? >> it was not. it wasn't a complete bust, but it's very rare -- like the olympics. it is very rare that these things make money. the corporation had borrowed a bunch of money with the promise of paying it back at certain interest rates, and then started trying to convince the people -- often it was corporation who is got speed funding in there first, when it was clear they weren't going to get paid back, they tried to use it as a pr thing, yes, i support the fair because it is a good civic project. but, yeah, financially it was not profitable. >> and what was the public
reaction or opinion to the fair? >> that's a good question because it kinds of ties in with the lack of profitability in that one of the public's reactions was that it was too expensive. this is the midst of the great depression. ticket prices they thought were too high. but the biggest complaints were that the food prices inside the fair were way too high. it's always funny today. they were complaining that a hamburger cost a dime. that was too much money. and so while people were -- you know, they were fascinated by this, people, you know cried during gm exhibit. they just -- it was really overwhelming in a way. people were attracted to the technologies and all of that, but you know, it is still the midst of the great depression. and people complained about the price and the food so much that, yeah, the ticket sales -- the rice was cut. and then the fair had to promise that later that year they would
have cheaper food options available inside the fair, that it wouldn't be such a, you know, a money grab. people were cheap. that seems to be the -- you read the media accounts, they were plain complaining a lot about the price of the fair. partly -- not to say it was underwell. ing. but part of the reasons they never hit the attendance targets they had hoped is they just didn't generate the buzz. we will never know if that's because the war breaks out and people are pulling back on their spending, around willing to have a fun celebratory thing. >> funny, hasn't changed much. you go to disney world. >> an $11 beer at the stadium. >> yeah. we will always complain about the price of food. someone else wanted to know, could new york or some other u.s. metropolis make a latter-day world's fair or expo
a financial success? or has the magic of every day technologies and permanent exhibitions like diz niece' epcot rendered world fairs and expos passe. >> no, and yes. i think part of the reason these things fizzled is they are enormously expensive. they almost never turn a profit. they take all of these resources to build. what, really, it has become is that countries don't need this anymore. we don't really do this. we don't need a huge exposition to show off how great we are and get all of these countries together. i think partly it has become is up pland planted by the olympics. we have the same complaints, expensive, countries lose a bunch of money on it. then you are left with infrastructure you can't use afterwards. things get torn down. i think that's a big part of it. i think also now in most major
countries there is just not these huge swaths of open lands available in the cities anymore which is where they used to built it. in philadelphia they built it sort of in the middle of the city. in new york, it is just on long island. but space -- these are huge fairs, huge, unbelievably huge. so thing that's one of the thing. i think the person who asked that question is right. maybe we have gotten jaded or we are just like -- i can't even think of a technology now that excites me the way -- from what i have read -- i wasn't around in the 1960s but the way that the space race excited people. electronics excited people, robots excited people in that way. now it is like, what the most exciting thing is virtual reality and the metaverse, which is entirely lame, if you ask me. i am not going to go to world's fair to put on goggles and look around and see a fake world around me. i think that -- you know, and
mainly the fact that we have less time, life is more busy, and there is just such a plethora of entertainment options that i am not going to spend two weeks going to a world's fair to walk around for the day to see things that i already see. so that's on one hand. actually as i am talking this through i think even now it used to be exciting in an era before mass advertising and commercialization which comes up really after the 1950s. it was exciting to go to the fair, go to a corporate exhibit and see general motors cars. i mean, they were just giant advertising platforms. but that was cool, to see all the new things on offer. so, yeah, i think it's -- we have lost our sense of childlike hope for future in that way. and we numb ourselves with the endless entertainment available. and the personal note here is i, too, when i started researching world's fairs a number of years ago, was kind of surprised to
see that they are still going on. the one in -- and even that, like one of the things i study a lot and love the research of is food. and the 2015 world's fair in italy surrounded -- or revolved around food. and as a researcher on the topic, i didn't even know this thing was going on. i might have gone to it. just didn't know. didn't know that right now there's one going on. it has lost its allure. i am not sure this thing will ever come back in a big way that inspires people like it used to. >> speaking of food we have actually got a question or two surrounding food from the fairs. so first of all, how did food displays represent the future of food production preparation and consumption, if they did at all? >> oh, that' a good question. i don't know off the top of my head that i recall they represented the future of food production and consumption. from what i have come across
there was no like futuristic space foods available at this time. especially then. it was essentially most of the countries would in their pavilions have cafeterias that highlighted their own national dishes. i am trying to think of an example -- i wish i had sort of flipped through my notes to think of an example of a food that was on display that you you could go to a cafeteria and eat. the thing i know, eating at the cafeteria was more expensive than eating on the fair grounds outside the buildings. people complained about that. but it was more about we are coming to show you our foreign foods. they put on their national dishes. the fair did make a show out of saying they were going to offer cheaper hot dogs and hamburgers to the masses. but i can't think of any food corporation that put on a new
display. it was really the big corporate giants like general motors, and goodyear tires that set up. it was firestone tires that set up an actual factory that showed you how a tire was made. of course they called it the tire of tomorrow. but you had a working factory which i guess is cool the look at. but it would be neat if they had food factories. even then, the mechanization of food hits in the 1950s and after world war ii. yeah, that's another thing i can't give specifics on. >> so someone excitedly put into the q and a, the belgian waffle. maybe that was one? >> the technologies they displayed was an electric waffle iron. yeah, if you can use the iron to make waffles, that might have been exciting. you can do this in your own home. yeah, that is a food product on display. >> and someone else said that
you always hear about how the ice cream cone was invented for or at the chicago world's fair. are there any innovations that were created at the 1939 new york world's fair? like something that wasn't put on display necessarily, but kind of came out of it anyway? >> specifically in terms of food, not that i'm aware of. it is often world's fairs that sort of launch new food innovations. the ice cream cone. the hamburger was launched at -- one of the many origin stories, it was launched at the 1904 fair where they wanted to take a beef patty and put it between two pieces of bread and walk around while munching on it. it wasn't popular in the u.s. before that. i can tell you what the organizers wanted to do but didn't. as a marketing thing, they wanted to make hot dogs and hot dog bups this the shape of the
trilon, the tri-sided to your. they were going to do that as a marking thing. maybe that would have been cool and maybe hot dogs would be triangle shapes today if that had taken off. but what comes out of fair not on the food side, television, skyrockets, takes off after the 1950s. the new modern automobiles, definitely the highway system that they put on display there. takes 20 years but becomes now ubiquitous, it is how we drive around these days on these clover leaf interchanges and super highways, even with radar-guided cars with collision avoidance and things like that. there are some things that have come out and stuck around out of the world's fair. >> i think we have time for maybe two more questions. and then i am going to ask you one question after that that's
not could be tent related but somebody noticed something in your backgrounds that they want me to touch on. you probably know what it is. >> i can guess. >> somebody wanted to know how many structures and buildings built for the fair are still standing today. i know you alluded to you are not sure. if you don't know, let me know. but we have gotten a few people who wrote in about this. >> yeah. one. there is one building that remained, it was constructed with the intention it would remain after the fair. i think it is a government building today. there is one. maybe this relates back to the person who asked about the architecture. the infamous robert moses, a designer in new york city who had a hand in designing the fair. he wanted after the fair was over to turn this into a big park much like signal park. i understand parts of it were, maybe even to this day. almost all of the buildings, save for that one central one
were torn down and skrped, which was common in the context of world's fairs. you would keep one little centerpiece and the rest gets thrown in the trash n this case, melted do unand made into bullets and tanks. some of the countries dismantle their pavilions, they are made to be easily -- to take apart and they ship them back home. famously i mentioned russia ships theirs back home. i am going to get this mixed up, whether it is the 1937 or the 1939, but they always tended to at the peak of the towers on their buildings put this huge bronze statue of a man and woman charging into the future in communityist glory. that element is now in a park in moscow on a fair grounds in moscow. they -- so some countries keep pieces of them. most famously, the eiffel tower in paris was the centerpiece of
their 1889 world's fair. it, too, was meant to be torn down after the world's fair, but they kept it up and now it is an icon in paris. good they left it off. there is nothing left iconic of the fair in new york. >> looks like we have a few new yorkers in the audience. they say it is now fleshing meadows park. anyone who want to go and see how it turned out. >> flushing meadows. >> final content question. you showed a bunch of technologies and you might have alluded to the answers a little bit. but out of the technologies that were shown at the fair, which was the most successful? which was the least successful, now that we have hindsight. >> i mean, the television i think is the most successful. i mean that -- of course it dominates our life today. it wasn't invented at the fair. as i mentioned it wasn't even
debuted technically at the fair. the nazis beat us to that. but this ability to transmit images, news, and everything stalls out because of world war ii, and then by the 1950s is just rocketing. so, certainly, the television. the least successful i think is that notion of like flying cars. is it something that they talked about in the 1930s. they certainly play up in the 1950s that this idea is just around the corner. we talk about now there are flying cars just around the corner. there are companies working to develop them. and it is not going to happen. starting in 1939 they were talking about building buildings with landing pads for everyone as private flying car. so the flying part of the car didn't work out. the radar -- the ability for a car to track the car ahead of it and speed up and slow down, cars have that now. it is still relatively recent so
that took 80, 90 years to come to fruition. but, certainly, the highway system is, as i mentioned earlier, the ideas of the suburbs, that you would live outside the city and commute in in your private car. that vision worked. and part of me -- as i was doing this research i wish they kind of would have kept some of these exhibits. i wish gm and the parasphere and the derks, moca city was put in a museum today so we could go back and look at what they thought the future would be. because i think if you went through the gm exhibit of today it would look a lot like today, minus the flying cars, of course. >> fair enough. okay, now the non-content question. someone is curious if you use the typewriter and the rotary phone behind you? >> the typewriter, yes. it works. it is a 1926. the rotary phone, no.
it works -- i would assume. i haven't used it in years. but, yeah, the phone was my father's. the typewriter -- i don't know where that one came from. i have a number of typewriters. the phone, no, but typewriter, yes. like i'm stuck in 1939, i am a consummate historian, i use it to write letters to friends and family. so it's functional. >> you a some of thank you so much. that is all the time we have today. thank you to the audience for joining us and thank you for your great questions. and thank you, allen, for another exciting and fascinating presentation. there are a lot of places to get political information. but only at c-span do you get it straight from the source. no matter where you are from, or where you stand on the issues, c-span is america's network. unfiltered, unbiased, word for word. if it happens here or here or here