Shell Map of New York World’s Fair (1939)

Surprisingly, New York City had never hosted a world’s fair before 1939. New York officials and businessmen led by Grover Whalen hoped that the fair would spur economic development in a city still recovering from the Great Depression. The success of Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress strongly influenced the decisions to pursue a fair in New York, and the influence of Chicago futuristic architecture on the design of the New York fair is unmistakable. But New York’s “World of Tomorrow” thematic presentation was developed far more thoroughly and on a grander scale. Robert Moses, the powerful New York Parks Commissioner (among his many governmental roles), saw in the fair an opportunity to redevelop a marshy industrial wasteland in Queens known as Corona Park into attractive parkland. This was to be coordinated with an extensive system of superhighways.

As with previous fairs, exhibits showcasing industrial and agricultural innovations were among the major attractions, but the increased presence of service, communications, and transportation industries was a relatively new development. The petroleum and automobile industries enjoyed a particularly strong presence, a point underscored by Shell Oil’s sponsorship of this map of the fair. Among the most popular of all of the exhibits was the Futurama—a 36,000 square foot diorama and ride sponsored by General Motors. This ride captured theater designer Norman Bel Geddes’s vision of the metropolis of the near future, one organized around the automobile and superhighways not unlike those Moses had built to provide access to the fair. The fair’s vision of a better future through collective planning and industrial progress was undermined by the coming of a global war that exploited the same industrial and scientific developments the fair itself promoted. However, Bel Geddes’s vision of an automobile-dominated world of tomorrow would soon be realized after World War II.



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Shell Map of New York World's Fair, with Pictorial Road Map of Metropolitan New York (Chicago: H.M. Gousha for Shell Oil Company, 1939). The Newberry Library, Road Map4C G3804 .N4P2 1939 .S5