Lori Walters thinks the future may be buried beneath a soccer field in Queens.
That’s where the University of Central Florida historian, who specializes in technology and science, believes workers may have buried the Underground House, an exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair, which millions attended 50 years ago this summer.
That fair, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair whose 75th anniversary has arrived with surprisingly scant attention, held out a promise of a “World of Tomorrow” in which technology would solve the many, many problems of their respective times.
Studying them, says Walters, offers a lesson in how that promise proved elusive.
World War II, nuclear weapons, and the Cold War followed the 1939 world’s fair; Vietnam, government corruption, and pollution came after the 1964 installment.
And in the wake of these two spectacles, says Walters, “we come to the realization that, in fact, technology is not going to make your life better.”
Built at the end of the Depression on the onetime ash dump made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the 1939 fair introduced Americans born before the widespread use of airplanes and who mostly didn’t own cars to the “wonder world” of far-off 1960, in which uncongested 14-lane superhighways rose above sparkling cities.
It showed them technological miracles including television, FM radio, color film, 3D motion pictures, fiberglass, nylon, rayon, fluorescent lights—even an early fax machine—in streamlined art deco pavilions. It paraded herds of cows into newfangled milking machines and, in the Westinghouse pavilion, pitted Mrs. Modern against Mrs. Drudge in a dishwashing contest; Mrs. Modern, with her brand-new Westinghouse dishwasher, always beat Mrs. Drudge and her porcelain sink. Then it sent fairgoers home, weary and astonished, wearing little blue buttons that read, “I have seen the future.”
Even on the eve of World War II, people were encouraged to believe that science and technology could give them everything from happy cows to rested housewives, and solve most of the rest of their problems. But it didn’t. It just created new ones.
Among the miracles of science introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair? Asbestos. Japan and China were at war before the spectacle had even opened. Before it closed at the end of that first summer, so were Italy and almost all the rest of Europe. And when it closed, the steel used to build it was melted down to make bombs.
“Almost every generation goes through this process of reinventing faith in technology, and the search for solutions to central problems through technology,” says Robert Rydell, a history professor at Montana State University and coauthor of Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. “And the fairs have been central to that. They’re held very much to offset people’s worries with ongoing dreams that there will be a better world of the future brought to you by the magic of science and technology.”
It would happen again in 1964, when rocketships and visions of moon bases rose from the same Queens landscape, along with the heliport and Unisphere now familiar from the movie Men in Black.
The big American companies that had exhibited their innovative products in 1939 were back in 1964, but poor management and bad design were already threatening their dominance. Rather than solving problems, technology had brought pollution and toxic waste, not to mention fear of nuclear annihilation—hence, the Underground House.
Visitors yet again saw visions of soaring skylines with wide elevated highways and giant parking garages, but by then cities were becoming blighted rather than utopian. Patriotism was giving way to racial protests and opposition to widening involvement in the Vietnam War. Mrs. Modern was becoming a feminist.
“I look at the ‘64 fair as the break point between, I don’t want to say the innocence of the ‘50s, but it was an era in which we did not question corporations and the government as much as one would do by the end of the 1960s,” Walters says. “It was a bridge between a more innocent America and the America that we were going to have.”
One pavilion imagined a vehicle whose front end would cut down the trees of the Amazon while its back-end laid down a highway to give access to the jungle’s riches.
“This was just a few years before the first Earth Day,” Walters says. “And it makes us really look at what technology is doing. There is still the idea of the utopian world, thanks to science and technology, but by the 1970s the visions are all dystopian.”
Despite their promises of progress through technology, when the world’s fairs closed, America would be “confronted solely with the actual world of tomorrow, which, from all indications, will be a harsh and comfortless contrast,” one newspaper said.
Back in Queens, Walters and other scholars hope to use ground-penetrating radar and endoscopic cameras to see if the Underground House is buried under Flushing Meadows Corona Park. She sees the project as a potential lesson for local middle-school students, teaching them about robotics and the science behind archaeological techniques.
See Lori Walters’ digital re-creation of the 1964 World’s Fair.
Photo courtesy of Queens Museum of Art