In the history of New York City, Queens has often seemed like a laggard compared to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Not the most populous, not the most famous, not (widely) considered the coolest, Queens sometimes struggles for prominence.
But did you know that on two separate occasions, in 1939 and again in 1964, Queens served as New York City’s ambassador to the world — and to the future?
Industrialization, immigration, and busy waterfronts caused Manhattan and Brooklyn to undergo rapid population increases and physical changes over the course of the 19th century. By 1900, Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn were dotted with the first wave of skyscrapers and had massive populations of 1.9 million and 1.2 million, respectively.
Queens, in contrast, was still largely farmland and small towns. It was the fourth most populous borough, with only 153,000 people. However, the first decades of the 20th century saw Queens grow rapidly, aided by more extensive subway access and spillover from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Between 1920 and 1940, the population of Queens nearly tripled, and the borough underwent a wave of construction, including the Triborough and Queensboro Bridges, LaGuardia Airport and numerous apartment buildings.
By the mid-1930′s, Queens was a changing and populous area, but still had open spaces ripe for development. When New York decided to hold a World’s Fair, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses cleared the Corona ash dump — made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby” — and built Flushing Meadow Park, which would first serve as the fairground and then become a permanent city park afterward.
The theme of the 1939 World’s Fair was “The Dawn of a New Day,” and as such the Fair was a big, glittering celebration of futurism, technology and more convenience in the years to come.
Sponsored in part by large corporations like Westinghouse, Borden, and General Motors, the Fair promised a future in which consumerism and technology would smooth out many of society’s ills, leaving humankind free to enjoy vast amounts of leisure time in peace.
The Fair featured fantastical inventions like the Rotolactor, a carousel that milked 50 cows in an astounding twelve minutes. It also displayed new or recent inventions that seemed incredible at the time, but soon became commonplace and essential, such as the television, air conditioner and color photography.
This focus on the future also meant reflecting on the past and present. Before the Fair opened, Westinghouse sponsored the creation of a time capsule, which was subsequently buried 50 feet underground in Flushing Meadow Park, to be opened 5000 years later in 6939.
The time capsule contained numerous objects considered emblematic of the era, including comic strips, a copy of Life Magazine, a kewpie doll, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Bible, a baseball, and several newspapers and popular books on microfilm. All told, the capsule contained more than 300 distinct items.
Many have noted the poignancy of the 1939 World’s Fair. Situated toward the end of a long economic depression and preceded by the gathering storm of war, the Fair was an optimistic moment in light of the time’s harsh realities.
The time capsule reflects this scrappy optimism as well. Far from just a publicity gimmick or an act of crass advertising, the time capsule was taken very seriously — organizers even solicited notes from major intellectuals like Albert Einstein to include in the vessel.
The capsule contained items from pop culture, but also extensive technological and industrial information, numerous textile samples and several examples of seeds and metal alloys.
A key to the capsule, “The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy,” was printed on special acid-free paper and deposited in prominent buildings and archives around the world. It is now also available online at http://openlibrary.org/. The book contains messages from prominent figures, as well as extensive instructions on phonetics and how to understand English.
Flushing Meadow Park played host to a World’s Fair again in 1964. Although there have been World’s Fairs held in the years that followed, in many ways 1964 was the last of the great utopian World’s Fairs.
The Fair’s original legacy lives on today most notably in Disney World, where specific displays and features of the Fair currently reside. More broadly, Disney World continues to trumpet that blend of hope for the future and trust in technology and consumption that the Fairs perfected.
The two World’s Fairs taken separately serve as snapshots of 1939 and 1964. Together they reflect a time when technology and consumerism were of paramount importance to the nation, and were perceived to be the keys to a better future.
This belief is still popular today, but has been eroded by concerns about the social, financial, and ecological costs of a society predicated on mass production, constant consumption of goods and unwavering trust in technology.
Queens’ own growth in the 20th century epitomized this way of thinking, and therefore was an apt showcase for further developments in technology and material goods.
What ideal may replace this older ethic, and how it will affect Queens residents and the city as a whole, is a question we’ll have to leave to the New Yorkers of 6939.
Katie Uva is a PhD candidate in History at the CUNY Graduate Center and the History Lesson columnist for the Queens Beat.