Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars

By Joel Dinerstein | Go to book overview

8
THE WORLD OF
TOMORROW
IN THE GROOVE
SWINGING THE
NEW YORK'S WORLD'S
FAIR, 1939–40

Nearly all of the historical examination of the New York World's Fair of 1939–40 focuses on the first year and its theme of technological utopianism, “The World of Tomorrow.” 1 Since the London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, international expositions had been celebrations of technology, but in 1940 the escalating war in Europe had punctured this Fair's optimistic view of techno-progress. 2 The national vision implicit in industrial exhibits such as General Motors's Futurama (which have concerned scholars most) could no longer obscure the demands of the present: in Europe the most sophisticated machines were once again being put to the task of human destruction. After the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, the shape of the real world of tomorrow—politically, economically, geographically—was more unsure than ever. 3 In retrospect, the 1939 Fair's cryptic secondary slogan, “Time Tears On” (it appeared in huge blue block letters on its stationery) seems almost precious. By the Fair's second year, the excitement of technological futurism had ended for the moment. To freely adapt a common black vernacular phrase of the early 1940s, instead “now was the time.” 4

The World of Tomorrow had lost a significant amount of money in 1939. In an attempt to recoup its losses, the Fair corporation's board of directors altered its technological focus to promote the exposition's oldfashioned carnival aspects; its new motto, “A Fair for Peace and Freedom, ” spoke only superficially to political concerns. The symbol that best expressed the shift from socially engineered future to tense wartime

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