The unmistakably positive title and tone of America's two major world's fairs in the 1930s, Chicago's Century of Progress Exhibition (1933-1934) and New York's World of Tomorrow (1939-1940), confound those who envision Americans of that decade as essentially dispirited, relatively helpless victims of the Great Depression. Nearly 85 million people attended both world's fairs at a time when the population numbered less than 130 million. Apparently few of them were shocked or reacted disbelievingly to these displays of progressive human betterment in America. 1 Some at the New York fair actually sported giveaway buttons that bumptiously declared, "I Have Seen the Future." 2 That same audacious optimism was expressed when officials of the New York World's Fair interred a time capsule not to be opened for 5,000 years; it contained objects representative of American society in the 1930s. The ceremony occurred on September 23, 1938, at twelve noon on the exact moment of the autumn equinox and news of the event was disseminated widely by radio microphones over national radio networks. 3 Spokesmen for the New York World's Fair thereby consciously assumed civilizational responsibility to instruct distant progeny on the merits of their own time and place, America in the 1930s.
Both the positive themes of the fairs—that Americans had improved their lives impressively and would continue to do so under the aegis of science and technology—and the enthusiastic response of the fair's patrons were predictable. Each was solidly rooted in axioms of American experience that a mere decade of trial could not efface. As onetime immigrants and sometime frontiersmen and women, most Americans were futurists in degree, especially so as they turned a wilderness into the world's premier industrial nation. At that time in the early years of the twentieth century, successful