Past Exhibition: Designing Tomorrow

America's World's Fairs of the 1930s

Grade Level: 2nd through 12th grade
Keywords: Design, exhibition, exposition, Great Depression, Industry, Industrial design, Innovation, modern, Pavilion, Production line, Streamline, Technology, World’s Fair.
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Suggested Exhibit for New York World's Fair designed by J. Caponnetto, 1937. Airbrushed watercolor and gouache on board. Museum of the City of New York, 41.44.205

New York’s celebrated World’s Fair of 1939-40, held in the newly built Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, drew millions of visitors with its promise to reveal “The World of Tomorrow.” As one of the last – and the largest – of six world’s fairs that were held in the United States in the 1930s, the New York fair was the culmination of years of planning that looked to design, science, and technology to alleviate the bleak conditions of the Depression and create a brighter future. While earlier world’s fairs had also showcased industrial growth and technological innovations, the modern world displayed in Chicago (1933-34), San Diego (1935-36), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936-37), San Francisco (1939-40), and New York was one where industry merged with artistry to envision post-Depression life.

Though local politicians and national corporations had major stakes in the fairs—hoping to boost tourism, consumerism, and civic morale—it was the architects, engineers, and designers who enabled fairgoers to imagine what a brighter future would look like and how it would operate. These “poets of the twentieth century”—as one fair guidebook called them—used scientific and technological advances to design buildings, modes of transportation, furniture and appliances that not only functioned more effectively, but also had a new modern aesthetic: houses made of glass, streamlined trains and toasters, and modular plastic furniture. More broadly, these innovators anticipated a nation of suburbs linked by superhighways. In their hands, the world’s fairs of the 1930s predicted tomorrows that look remarkably like contemporary America.