This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
It was a financial failure and—being unsanctioned—not even a real “world’s fair.” It stands as little more than yet one more piece of Baby Boomer nostalgia. But, in fairness, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair that opened 50 years ago this month was itself a bit of Greatest Generation nostalgia: One of the motivations in the endeavor was to recreate the energy and promise of the 1939-40 “World of Tomorrow,” the great fair that opened on the same site in Flushing Meadows, Queens just 25 eventful years earlier. Parents of the 1960s literally wanted their children to experience the wonders of the future. As a Baby Boomer child of a mother who walked to the 1939 Fair from her Flushing home, I’d be one .
My mother did a good job in not revealing how much the 1964 Fair was a reprise of 1939. The forbidding Art Deco architecture of the popular 1939 General Motors “Futurama” exhibit was modified, but the pavilion’s feature of moving chairs gazing down on gleaming future cities remained the same in 1964.
Only now, the projected superhighways had become a reality, and the newer exhibit optimistically showcased the use of chemicals, lasers, and nuclear power for “stretching a highway of progress” through the rainforests (“the jungle”). Westinghouse created a new time capsule for this fair, recognizing that, ”in a quarter of a century, man split the atom,, danced the twist, ran the four-minute mile, scaled Mt. Everest, fought another World War and began to probe space and the seas.” The 1960s time capsule successfully characterized the modern age by including credit cards, antibiotics and birth control pills, a rechargeable battery and superconducting wire, a Beatles record and transistor radio, contact lenses and a bikini bathing suit, and a computer memory unit.
Criticized by the sophisticated for its kitsch, the 1964-65 World’s Fair nonetheless stands as an optimistic take on the promise of the Space Age, an early taste of the digital world, a culminating celebration of plastics and synthetics, and the beginnings of modern theme-park entertainment.
Looking backward, its legacy is mixed and quirky: Computers were prominent in a fair that emphasized future technology, but, even at the IBM pavilion, they were presented as nonthreatening machines that thought logically as we did, only faster. And yet, when fairgoers came to the end of IBM’s pathway “to the fascinating world of computers,” they were brought to the pavilion’s main interactive feature, a “Typewriter Bar” where they could try out the new Selectric typewriter. RCA dotted the fairgrounds with color television sets while the Bell System outfitted it with touch-tone phone booths.
The AT&T pavilion also previewed the Picturephone. The latter innovation was helpful to those who used American Sign Language, but, overall, the lack of privacy inherent in the novelty was not embraced by fairgoers. Their older selves would at least find some occasions to Skype.
Before it was more commonly known as the AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons co-sponsored the Dynamic Maturity pavilion that stood between the 7-Up and Coca Cola buildings.
Their brochure also included a fact sheet for visitors, noting that admission was $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for children. A 21st century onlooker cannot help remarking that there was no senior rate. The Sinclair Oil Company’s large papier mâché dinosaurs and ubiquitous plastic dinosaur souvenirs continued their success in product identification. Decades after Sinclair gas stations disappeared from the East Coast, the association of dinosaurs and Sinclair remained in the minds of a generation of fairgoers.
One can wager that for most visitors to the 1964-65 World’s Fair, three distinct memories come to mind: Gazing reverently at Michelangelo’s marble sculpture, Pietà, elaborately lit on a moving sidewalk at the Vatican pavilion, gliding along in a boat while being serenaded by dolls singing the relentlessly catchy “It’s a small world (after all),” and splurging one-dollar on a berry and whipped cream-covered waffle at the Belgian Village.
The presence of the “Belgian waffle” on diner menus and, most recently, on the city’s waffle carts, is a direct legacy of the 1964-65 World’s Fair. “It’s a Small World—Pepsi’s Salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children,” one of four popular Walt Disney creations at the Fair, made its way to Disneyland.
Eventually, the various exhibitions’ components and technologies were incorporated at Florida’s Epcot Center, Disney’s attempt—successful or not, for better or worse—at making permanent the magic of our World’s Fair experience.