Designing Tomorrow: The 1939 World’s Fair at MCNY

designing tomorrow bookDesigning Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s at the Museum of the City of New York is an exhibition about yesterday’s visions of the future.  Through the lens of six fairs, Chicago (1933/34), San Diego (1935/36), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936/37), San Francisco (1939/40), and New York (1939/40), we see what depression-era Americans imagined their nation would look like in the years to come, when financial hardships were overcome and prosperity once again reigned over our land.

Many of these dreams became realities, the spread of highways leading to outward suburban sprawl as well as the upward reach of skyscrapers that allowed Americans to live and work in the sky.  Modern conveniences such has toasters, washing machines, and televisions, introduced at the fairs, became everyday household items.  This exhibition, which originated at the National Building Museum in Washington DC, shows an optimism at odds with the general tone of its era but is characteristic of the ambition Americans have shown in hard times.

trylon and perisphereThis far-reaching ambition is also at the core of Trylon and Perisphere: The 1939 World’s Fair, by New York Bound Books’ own Barbara Cohen, along with Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast.  This oversized, lavishly illustrated volume tells the story of the New York fair through archival photographs and ephemera, and also includes personal remembrances of the fair from fair attendees:

The later joys of travel, amusements, and other experiences never equaled the thrills of 1939.  I’m almost fifty-eight years old and can recall with vivid detail Heinz, Elsie the Borden cow, Hostess, the Lightning, and so on. I can’t hear the “Skater’s Waltz” without adding the lyrics “Tenderleaf Tea.” I could probably draw a map of the pavilions.  But we didn’t visit the U.S.S.R. exhibit—my parents were staunch anti-communists.
—Lydia Stoopenkoff, San Francisco

ussrAs a side note, The Soviet Pavilion to which Stoopenkoff refers, topped by “Joe the Worker” as pictured in this promotional poster, was removed after the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 and replaced with a space called the “American Common.”  A wealth of similar images and remembrances can be found on the MCNY exhibition’s Tumblr page.

Trylon and Perisphere is only one of numerous excellent books about the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  Barbara Cohen, the book’s co-author, has prepared a list for further reading about the fair (see below).  Another excellent take on the Fair is E.L. Doctorow’s 1985 novel World’s Fair, from which he will read excerpts and discuss at MCNY on March 11 at 6:30.

The catalog for the exhibition, the insightful Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s, edited by Robert W. Rydell and Laura Burd Schiavo, with contributions by Robert Bennett, Matthew Bokovoy, Robert Alexander Gonzalez, Neil Harris, Lisa D. Schrenk, Kristina Wilson, and Richard Guy Wilson is available from Yale University Press.

For further in-depth research , The New York Public Library’s New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Records collection contains the records of the New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated, and the finding aid for the collection provides a concise overview of the fair from its planning stages through demolition.

Finally, there is an excellent review of the exhibition on CU Arts blog by Gavin McGown entitled, “The Past’s Future,” as well as one by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times entitled, “Yesterday’s Tomorrows, Full of Rosy Visions: World’s Fairs of 1930s Showed Boundless Vision of Prosperity.

The exhibition runs through March 5, 2013.  For further information visit


Further Reading

Cohen, Barbara, Steven Heller, and Seymour Chwast. Trylon and Perisphere: The 1939 New York World’s Fair. New York: Abrams, 1989.
Doctorow, E L. World’s Fair. New York: Random House, 1985.
Gelertner, David.  1939. The Lost World of the Fair.  New York: The Free Press, 1995.
Harrison, Helen, ed.  Dawn of a New Day.  The New York World’s Fair 1939/1940. New York: New York University Press, 1980.
Rydell, Robert W. and Laura Burd Schiavo. Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Wurts, Richard, and Stanley Appelbaum. The New York World’s Fair, 1939/1940 in 155 Photographs. New York: Dover Publications, 1977


Tags: , , ,


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *