Yesterday’s World of Tomorrow: Predicting the Future in the 1930s

How did people imagine the future in the 1930s? Just like today, a person’s ideas about the future varied according to economic situations, social class, and access to technology.

The original owners of the autos of Rolling Sculpture would have been the early adopters of indoor plumbing and would have found this WPA poster for the “modern approved sanitary privy” outdated. However, for the people in nearby areas of the country just receiving electricity due to the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority, this poster may have been more relevant.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection, LC-USZC2-1592

In the spirit of celebrating the futuristic cars and motorcycles on view in the NCMA’s latest special exhibition, let’s consider the accuracy of some 1930s forecasts about the future.

The Future of Fashion

In 1939 the newsreel service British Path© produced this short on fashion designers’ predictions for the year 2000. While skirts did not disappear entirely, and I’m unaware of an electric headlamp that can detect an honest man, the predicted dresses made of transparent net would blend right in on today’s red carpet. As usual, men’s fashion is treated as an afterthought, but predictions that men would not shave and would wear phones on their bodies have some truth to them.

The Future in Literature and Popular Fiction

Many writers imagined the future as a response to current events.

Illustration of “Buck Rogers” operating the control board of an “air-ball,” a remotely controlled UAV. Amazing Stories (March 1929) via Wikimedia Commons

In 1919, when Robert H. Goddard’s paper “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” explained the engineering necessary for spacecraft travel, science fiction writers took notice. Philip Francis Nowlan helped popularize the idea of space exploration through stories about Buck Rogers, a World War I veteran who goes into a coma after a radioactive mining accident and wakes up in 2419. Rogers applies skills learned in the Air Force to operate spacecrafts in struggles against rival factions of Americans and aliens.

Aldous Huxley and H. G. Wells focused more on societal aspects of the future. Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) presents a dystopian forecast of a caste-based society transformed by mass production as championed by Henry Ford. He predicts (and warns against) reproductive technologies, mood-enhancing drugs, and the influence of money and personalities on politicians. H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933) anticipates world events from 1933 to 2016. He anticipated a second world war but was about a year behind actual events. He erroneously predicted that FDR would not be able to implement the New Deal.

New York World’s Fair, © 1937, 1939 incorporated; image, retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.13303000 (Accessed November 15, 2016)

Building the World of Tomorrow: The 1939 World’s Fair in New York

The 1939 World’s Fair was the first with a future theme. The fair’s organizers hoped to spur economic development by showcasing innovative consumer goods as part of a celebration of the best the world had to offer. Visitors could see works by Da Vinci and Rembrandt in the “Masterpieces of Art” pavilion–organized by the NCMA’s first director, William Valentiner–and attend a demonstration of Westinghouse’s smoking robot, Elektro, in the same day. The optimistic tone of the Fair shifted upon the outbreak of World War II, but the fair carried on through two seasons.

Westinghouse, Mechanical Man and Dog (Elektro and Sparko), (1935—45), Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-f10f-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

The most popular exhibit of the Fair was Futurama, presented by General Motors as part of the “Highways and Horizons” pavilion. In designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 35,768 square foot diorama, people sat in chairs on a moving platform that made them feel as if they were flying over the terrain of the United States circa 1960. Bel Geddes’s design advocated for the development of an interstate system to connect people and places at a time when paved roads with marked lanes and basic traffic safety were innovations.

The New York Public Library houses a comprehensive archive of artifacts from the Fair and features photos, documents, and essays about it on their website.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top