Every time you chew a stick of Juicy Fruit, eat a hamburger, slip on a nylon, plug your phone into a wall socket, flick on a TV, withdraw money from an ATM, lick an ice-cream cone, switch on a computer, ride an escalator, play a DVR, watch a movie about dinosaurs, get fingerprinted, or pop a tranquilizer, you’re doing something that originated at a world’s fair or trade expo.
In fact, each new technology and every novel product that rocked America and rolled the world, from the Colt revolver and the Corvette to fax machines and flush toilets, started at trade fairs, a $100 billion industry that includes world expos, trade shows, and state fairs.
More than just promoting material things, however, trade fairs popularized and evangelized every social movement and cultural concept, too, including Manifest Destiny, the closing of the frontier, Nudism, Nazism, Fascism, eugenics, female suffrage, temperance, and technocracy.
This book covers, for example, the World’s Fair that featured a nudist colony (1935); Salvador Dali’s half-naked lobster women, their virtue barely secured by well-placed crustaceans (1939); a model of the Liberty Bell made of oranges (1893); and one of Thomas Edison’s lesser-known inventions, the prefabricated concrete home (1907);. More memorable and culturally iconic debuts discussed here include the Corvette, the X-ray machine, and even the vibrators displayed by health advocates at the 1900 World’s Fair.
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Charles Pappas is a senior writer at Exhibitor, where
for the last 15 years he has researched and written
the Archive column, which explores the unique
history of exhibiting. His new book, “Flying Cars,
Zombie Dogs, and Robot Overlords,” shows how,
when the world wants to see what the future will
bring it looks to world’s fairs and trade shows.