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Building “The World of Tomorrow”: How the 1939 World’s Fair Envisioned the Future

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Friday, December 3, 2021 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1J0139
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The Perisphere and Trylon, futuristic symbols of the 1939 World’s Fair

In 1939, New York City hosted the World's Fair, drawing huge crowds to a former Queens dumping ground transformed into Flushing Meadow. After a decade of the Great Depression, the fair’s theme of “Building the World of Tomorrow” was to be a celebration of humanity's progress and welcome for the dawn of a new era of peace, progress, and freedom.

But not every country was on the same page about what tomorrow would look like. The Soviet Union’s grand pavilion carried the message that the Great Depression had proven that capitalism was a failure, and Soviet-style communism was the way forward. Fascist Italy had an exhibit, as did the empire of Japan, which dedicated their pavilion to "Eternal peace and friendship between America and Japan.”

The only major nation not represented was Nazi Germany, which withdrew after planning to participate. This absence from the gathering of the global community, was, in hindsight, an ominous signal of what would come. The Second World War broke out just months after the fair began when Germany attacked Poland. With their country no longer in existence, the Polish government in exile ended up selling off most of the exhibits from their pavilion in New York. By 1940, the second season of the fair, the Soviets (then in a short-lived alliance with Germany) had withdrawn and torn down their pavilion. When the fair ended in 1940, scores of Europeans who had come to America to staff the fair couldn’t return home, as much of Western Europe was under Nazi occupation.

Join historian Allen Pietrobon, an assistant professor of global affairs at Trinity Washington University, as he explores the 1939 World’s Fair’s most notable distinction: Although its vision of a coming decade of peace and prosperity collapsed into the fires of WWII, this memorable event did indeed provide a captivating glimpse into the science, technology, and innovation of the “World of Tomorrow.”

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.