The 1939 World's Fair was a lone bright spot during the most chaotic period of the 20th Century. With the Great Depression in the recent past and Nazi Germany on the rise in Europe, the 1939 World's Fair helped rekindle the American spirit by showing everyday people the great possibility of the future.
The idea for the fair was born out of the Great Depression – in 1935, a group of New York City business leaders formed a plan to bring the event to New York City, creating thousands of jobs and lifting the economy in the process. The massive construction effort, directed by the colossal Robert Moses, employed thousands and converted an enormous dump in Queens into what is now Flushing Meadows Park (cue the New York Mets jokes).
This World's Fair was the first of its kind with a futuristic theme and the exhibits were surprisingly prophetic. The 40 million attendees were enthralled by brand new innovations that would soon become household necessities – the television, fluorescent light bulb and long-distance telephone were introduced to the public at this fair. Farmers who had recently been on the brink of starvation would soon have light and electricity at their fingertips. Things were looking up!
Of course, not all technology that was introduced stuck around. Scentovision – a movie theater experience where smells wafted from pipes underneath viewers' seats – has been thankfully left in the past. And while we're on the subject of technology that needs to be forgotten, we can't forget the robot Elektro – a 265 pound humanoid monstrosity that could walk, talk and even smoke cigarettes! Predictably, there wasn't one of those in millions of houses by 1950.
General Motors' Futurama (yes, the namesake of the cartoon comedy) exhibit may have been the most inspiring. Visitors were transported through the exhibit on a fixed track, taking in an expansive model of a future concept city. The model turned out to be very accurate – it was the first to introduce the concept of a network of highways connecting cities, towns and suburbs. The newspapers of the time, like the Quanah Tribune-Chief, reported that GM executives wanted to change "a philosophy of discouragement and despair" that had gripped the American people during the Depression. The paper reported that visitors to Futurama were moved by the "hope and promise of a new and better future world in which to live."
But across the pond, Nazi Germany's aggression continued to grow. While the Fair could inspire hope, it could not fully distract – even on the opening day of the Fair, front page headlines were dominated by the troubles of Europe.
The war escalated in 1940 and began to affect the Fair during its second year. Even the Fair in New York wasn't safe from violence -- A bomb exploded in the British pavilion on July 4th 1940, killing two NYPD detectives and injuring several others.
Despite a thorough investigation, the crime remains unsolved to this day. This violence was the beginning of the end for many European countries' presence at the Fair -- countries affected by the war eventually ended their soon after the bombing.
Although the war soon engulfed the globe, there is no doubt that the 1939 World's Fair played a role in restoring hope and motivation in many Americans, at a time when hope was desperately needed.