John Foster | Accidental Mysteries

The World of Tomorrow in 1939

Seventy five years ago this April, the 1939 New York World’s Fair (“Building the World of Tomorrow”) opened to the public in Flushing Meadows, NY. The fair attempted to project the approaching “machine-age” future through ideas, art, architecture, consumer products, demonstrations, and exhibits. Funded in part by corporate giants like AT&T, Westinghouse, General Motors, Ford, RCA, and many others, hindsight shows that it was as much a giant advertising campaign as fair — with each corporate sponsor exhibiting their version of the future. The spirit of the fair was personified by two giant architectural structures, the stark white Trylon, a 700 foot spire and the Perisphere, a gigantic orb “as large as a city block.” Visitors in that area of the fair were considered to be in the “Theme Center.”
It was the Futurama exhibit, designed by Norman Bell Geddes (1893-1958) that attempted to demonstrate what America would be like just 20 years later, in 1960. (See the YouTube video here.) It included futuristic homes, electric farms, fire-safe houses, and advanced highway systems (somewhat correctly predicting the coming U.S. superhighway interstate system). Futurama seated 552 viewers at a time on a moving conveyor belt, allowing spectators to look “through a continuous curved pane of glass towards the model. The virtue of this elevated position allowed spectators to see multiple scales simultaneously, viewing city blocks in proportion to a highway system as well as artificially controlled trees in glass domes.” Each seat had individual loudspeakers, taking in what was supposed to be 3,000 miles of advanced technology and prosperity. For a nation just coming out of the Great Depression and about to enter the Second World War, this fair is considered to be an important benchmark in visionary design thinking, and did much for New York City history and the culture of the nation.

This incredible archive of the 1939 New York World’s Fair is held at the Museum of The City of New York. The archive of materials was just launched in December of 2010, and includes original design drawings for the pavilions, rare color slides, photographs, postcards, and more. The archive currently offers over 100,000 images of New York City, thousands of which  have never been seen before, and more is being added everyday. If you haven’t explored this site, it is full of historical riches ready for discovery.

[Some of this information was found via the website at the American Studies Program at The University of Virginia.]

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Design for 1939 World’s Fair
Tempera painting on bristol board, 1938
20 1/4” x 14 7/8”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Design Drawing for Rayon & Silk Installation, 1938
Tempera painting on mat board of design and legend for the Rayon and Silk Exhibit, with a rayon fountain of various colors and cylindrical cases comparing silk and rayon processes; photographs have been cut and pasted onto the design.

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Proposed Aviation Building
George W. McLaughlin
Colored architectural perspective rendering of proposed Aviation building interior, showing central exhibit area with plane hanging overhead.
Gouache on board, 40” x 23-7/8”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Hugh Ferriss (1889 - 1962)
Black and white rendering of crowds at base of Theme Center (Trylon, Perisphere and Helicline) at night, New York World’s Fair 1939.
Charcoal drawing on board, 26-1/4” x 19-1/2”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
See My Shadow (Perisphere from top Trylon)
Richard Wurts, photographer
Gelatin silver print, 9-5/8” x 7-3/4"

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Trylon and Perishphere at Night
Samuel H. Gottscho (1875 -1971)
May 26, 1939
Gelatin silver print, 17” x 14-3/16”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Richard Wurts on the Job at [The World’s] Fair, 1938
Joseph G. Lootens, photographer
Gelatin silver print, 9-1/2” x 7-1/2”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Theme Center 1937-1939
Colored architectural elevation drawing of Theme Center, including skeletal Trylon before sheathing with gypsum, Perisphere, and Helicline.
Gouache and watercolor painting on board, 22” x 30”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Manhattan Card Publishing Company
General Motors Highways and Horizons Exhibit by Night, New York World's Fair, 1939
3-1/2” x 5-1/2”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Electric Motor Vehicle, ca. 1938
Diagonal view of blue and orange transportation cart with Trylon and Perisphere design on side.
Tempera on board, 17-1/2” x 22”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Design for Hall of Music, 1937-1939
John Wenrich, photographer
Photograph of perspective rendering for Hall of Music with design for Mural ornamentation on facade

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Proposed Concession Stand, Street No. 7 at Theme Plaza, 1937-1939
Nembhard N. Culin
Colored perspective drawing of concession stand at street No. 7 at Theme Place, showing two stands with towers of looped electric lights
Gouache and airbrush painting on board, 18-3/8” x 21-3/8”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
A Puff (Motor Transportation - Pylon), 1938
Richard Wurts, photographer
Gelatin silver print, 7-3/8” x 9-3/4”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Five New York World’s Fair Posters, 1937
Photostat, 19-7/8” x 30-1/8”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Mural Design (1938)
Eric Mose (1905 to ?)
Designed for a wall located at the entrance of the Chemical & Plastics Building.
Tempera on board, 10” x 29-1/2”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Model of the Aviation Building, ca. 1938
Gelatin silver print

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Venezuelan Pavilion, 1937-1939
John Moss
Reproduction of perspective drawing of interior of Venezuelan Pavilion, showing exhibit panels
28-3/8” x 20”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Automotive Building, 1938
Emrich Nicholson (1913 - 2001)
Tempera on board, 15” x 9” x 20” x 12”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Colored Shield in Felt Showing Head of the Statue of Liberty, 1936
Tempera on board
Shield-like design in blue and orange felt on white felt background showing Statue of Liberty head and torch with “1939” above; design element for New York World’s Fair.

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
Electric Farm at the 1939 New York World's Fair
Samuel H. Gottscho, photographer (1875 -1971)
Gelatin silver print, 11” x 18”

The World of Tomorrow in 1939
New Yorker Magazine, April 29 issue, 1939
by James Thurber (1894-1961)
Proof of the cover of the April 29, 1939 issue of the New Yorker, showing New York World’s Fair crowd looking at Trylon and Perisphere.
9” x 12-1/4”

Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, History

Comments [6]

My father drove all the way from rural Minnesota to see this. I still have the map "atlas" he used, featuring all states along his route--complete with photos, suggested tourist sites, motels, diners. I also have one postcard--a giant UNDERWOOD typewriter!

Small correction: correct spelling is Norman Bel Geddes.
James Sanders

John Foster is The Archiver of The Century.

Thank you =)
Rusty Dylan

Why thank you Mr. Dylan. It's a big ocean of information out there, and while I know that these things can be accessed by anyone, people usually do not look for such things unless there they have an interest. It is very time consuming. By bringing these things to the surface, Design Observer readers can get a glimpse of the treasures the libraries and museums hold, now accessible by internet for study. What I do is like walking on a beach and picking up shells and oddities that catch my eye, then bringing them home and placing them in the kitchen window.
John Foster

Mr. Foster, you are one of the reasons I visit DO...such attention to details and I suspect I can't unhook myself from this site.
Rusty Dylan

The imagery still captures the imagination. Look at the throwaway CGI version of the fair early in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger.

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