Utopia, Technology, and...Pickles
NYPL: Why do you think that the 1939-40 World's Fair stands out among all of the World Fairs and exhibitions of the early 20th century as a particular point of interest for scholars and science fiction and comics writers?
HENRY JENKINS: Its mystique surely has to do with the theme, "The World of Tomorrow," a theme which at the time, coming out of the Depression era, encouraged people to look towards a brighter, better future, and which historically, has encouraged people to look backward towards what Joseph Corn called "yesterday's tomorrows," towards a future which never quite arrived in the form that we anticipated. In many ways, the 1939 World's Fair represents the moment when science fiction really entered American consciousness, after several decades of taking shape on the fringes — on the pages of pulp magazines or in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips — and became a tool through which average Americans made sense of their everyday experience. At the same time, it represented a moment where corporations could deploy the images and themes of science fiction as well as utopian and futurist design, as a vehicle for promoting a particular model of consumerism which would profoundly shape the post-war era.
Previously, the strands of technological utopianism (such as those represented by Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward) had assumed that society might be re-engineered through centralized state authorities, but the 1939 Fair hijacked these themes to construct a world where, as L'il Abner parodied this rhetoric, "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA."
Of course, the Fair also represents this magic moment, situated between the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War, and it is the very fragility of that transitional period which also contributes to the Fair's mystique.
NYPL: Can you discuss the implications of the coexistence of the utopian technological ideas of the Fair and the spectacle of the Amusements Area?
HENRY JENKINS: Technological utopianism, which is perhaps the dominant philosophy shaping the “serious” exhibits at the Fair, was based on the premise of human perfectibility through technological advancement. At the center of technological utopianism is the idea of the Engineer as King and of human society as a well-oiled machine. The goal was to displace the body and emotion and replace it with rationality — through social engineering and precise planning grounded in the social sciences and technology.
Subsequent generations have seen these ideals as "inhuman" and we can see signs of this debate in classic Star Trek episodes where the overarching logic is that improvements in transportation and communication technologies have led man to shed many of his baser impulses, but where the rational Spock and the emotional McCoy debate the merits of a world run on pure rationality.
Yet, this focus on the mind coexisted in practice with the bawdy, sensationalistic culture of the Midway, where amusement park rides and exhibitions of freaks, burlesque dancers, and nudists appealed to the bodily. Here, the ideals of the Fair's founders coexist with certain economic realities and the need to get enough return on investment to keep the Fair open. However they might imagine the man and woman of tomorrow, the people of the late 1930s wanted to have fun along with their education. Interestingly, we can see the Amusement section, as well, as one of the last gasps of many kinds of popular amusements that had thrived in the early 20th century and which would be gradually replaced by broadcast entertainment following the end of World War II. Collectors today are at least as interested in Billy Rose's Aquacade as they are with Futurama.
NYPL: Can you tell us about your personal interest in the Fair and share any personal anecdotes?
HJ: When I was a child, my Godfather and Godmother went to the 1964 New York World's Fair and brought back a program which described in detail each of the pavilions. I spent endless hours reading the descriptions and imagining what the buildings were like, somehow not quite grasping that the Fair itself was long gone.
As I've gotten older, though, my interests have been drawn towards the 1939 Fair, in part because of my intellectual engagement with science fiction as a genre, and in part because of my personal fascination with the style of that period. I have started to collect artifacts from the Fair — through antique shops when I am lucky, increasingly through eBay — which exist in my collection alongside other remains of older media practices: magic lantern slides, a 1920s-era Dictaphone, wax cylinder Victrola recordings, Victorian stereoscope slides, early comic strip pages.
Much of this constitutes residual media or what Bruce Sterling has called "dead media." I prefer residual media because it suggests the "undead" presence of such media in our culture, the sense that bits and pieces of past mediascapes have been left behind, shoved into the corners, gathering dust, often forgotten but still shaping the way we understand ourselves and the world.
A certificate of attendance, signed by Grover Whalen, is part of NYPL's collection of Fair ephemera.
My interest in the 1939 Fair has been fueled by the fact that my mother-in-law grew up in Brooklyn and came to the event as a child. She had valued a medallion shaped like a Heinz pickle, which had somehow gotten lost through the years. When my wife found the item on eBay, she ordered it and snuck it back into her mother's jewelry box, just to mess with her mind and see how long it would take her to find it. The item, a cheap disposable novelty at the time, was welcomed with tearful nostalgia and shared laughter.
As for myself, I was born far too late to have attended the 1939 Fair, so it remains only a mental construct — as much a space of fantasy as a historical reality — yet one which has become more material for me as I have been able to claim some bits and pieces from the Fair for my own collection. Ironically, one of the key events at the Fair was the creation of a time capsule which sought to choose representative items from the 1930s and preserve them for future generations. The time capsule is premised on the idea of scarcity — that much of the past will be lost — while today, so much of the junk people bought at the Fair is still in circulation, thanks to eBay. Rather than scarcity, we today experience a kind of plentitude where the Fair is concerned, as is well represented by the materials you are pulling together.