While rummaging through a box of my parents’ stuff the other day, I rediscovered a trove of postcards that my father had collected. “Collected” might be too formal of a word; I never witnessed my father actually purchase a postcard. In the mid-20th century, many places gladly gave them away for the free publicity they’d garner. To my dad, a depression-era baby, if it was free, it was for him.
Two cards in particular caught my attention: both postcards featured the General Motors exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, with one from 1939-1940, and the other from 1964-1965. My dad went to both. (He was born in Germany, immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 6, and lived in NYC from 1925 to 1981.)
As little as he talked about anything from the past, he enjoyed sharing the story of how, at the age of 21, he won a brand new 1940 Chevrolet at the World’s Fair. I believe he kept that car right up until the time he married my mom in 1950 and bought a Willys station wagon. I’m 100% certain about the ’64-’65 Fair, because he took the entire family six times! We have photos and video from those trips. I was 10, and it was my first time riding the NY Subway. We took the 7 line, and I have strong memory of numerous exhibits, especially the Ford Motor Company rides, the Sinclair dinosaurs, and the NY State Pavilion. I also saw a real baseball stadium for the first time when I got a glimpse of the new Shea Stadium from a vantage point within the Fair.
Back to 1939: the GM exhibit was huge. Named “Futurama”, it was GM’s attempt to predict a vision of life in the U.S. by 1960. This Futurama correctly predicted the interstate highway system, including multiple traffic lanes and higher roads speeds than existed in the late ‘30s.
As this Wikipedia entry details, the theme of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair was “The World of Tomorrow”, and the GM exhibit meshed nicely with that theme. Note the image on the postcard: this was a full-scale exhibit. The people walking along the elevated sidewalks and crosswalks were looking down at full-size vehicles positioned on the roadways below. Also note the rooftop parks, signifying a recognition that if the ground space is consumed by roadways, the greenery and outdoor entertainment needs to go somewhere else.
The obverse of the postcard doesn’t miss an opportunity for GM to pitch its “General Motors Installment Plan”, which “makes it easy to own a new car. Besides it saves him money and provides valuable insurance protection which he needs…” So the ladies of the house weren’t making the vehicular purchase decisions yet? Perhaps they were driving down to the Post Office to buy the one-cent stamps needed to mail a postcard.
The 1964 postcard displays what passed for futuristic architecture at that time. Whether coincidence or not, the GM pavilion was right along the highway (Grand Central Parkway? The exit sign in the photo reads “495 – Midtown Tun(nel) – Long Island”. Route 495 is the Long Island Expressway). The obverse of the card reads in part: “General Motors ‘Futurama’ presents the world of tomorrow. The popular Futurama Ride, with stereo sound, predicts the conversion of wastelands to benefit mankind;….” Note the thematic repetition from 25 years earlier. This website details the exhibits within the GM building, and some of the themes are tragically predictive: autonomous cars (highway only!), atomic-powered submarines, large-scale deforestation, and “plazas of urban living (rising) over freeways”.
Part of my daytime gig involves writing and editing articles which attempt to predict the future (autonomous driving has been a very popular topic of late). I’ve made the wry observation that it’s quite difficult to predict the future, and no one is really very good at it. Where are the flying cars? And who predicted the iPhone?
It’s fun to look at these General Motors postcards, printed 25 years apart. Their World of Tomorrow was all sunshine and flowers. Of course it would be: why try to predict World War II, the imported car invasion, 50,000 traffic deaths a year, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, two Arab oil embargoes, the Japanese auto revolution, bankruptcies, and bailouts? And to this child of the ‘60s, add the sad news, impossible to imagine as a boy, of the loss of Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Mercury. Yet we go on, enjoying our cars and trucks, embracing our present while still looking forward to a better tomorrow. It’s the way it should be.
All images are from my personal collection of postcards.