The Rise and Fall of World’s Fairs

Sixty years after Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition, world’s fairs have largely fallen out of fashion in the U.S.

Grant Fong – Smithsonian Magazine – 21 April 2022

“Sixty years ago, the “World of Tomorrow” was born.

On April 21, 1962, the city of Seattle opened its very own world’s fair: the Century 21 Exposition. Spanning 74 acres in the urban heart of Washington, the celebration of human ingenuity arrived at a pivotal point in American history, at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Greeted by the newly constructed Space Needle—a towering symbol of the U.S.’ outer space ambitions—visitors wandered through dozens of exhibitions and pavilions featuring the latest and greatest in American technology and entertainment. They gawked at prototype cars like General Motors’ Firebird III; admired paintings by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Renoir; and rode on a 95-foot-tall Ferris wheel to get a sky-high view of the fairgrounds.

Defined broadly as large, multicultural expositions showcasing the latest and greatest achievements of their host nation, “world’s fairs are generally part of a reaction to social dislocation, political upheaval and deep anxiety about the future,” says Robert W. Rydell, a cultural historian and the author of All the World’s a Fair. “When they first began back in the middle of the 19th century, they were overwhelmingly perceived by both organizers and visitors almost as ‘world’s universities.’”

At a world’s fair, visitors could find inventions testifying to the host nation’s industrial progress alongside exhibitions of wonders from around the globe: a replica of a Viking ship from Norway, Māori carvings, artifacts excavated during archaeological digs in Latin America. In the words of President William McKinley, “Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement [and] open mighty storehouses of information.”

By the time of Century 21, world’s fairs had transformed into “sites of entertainment,” says Rydell. Though entertainment, rather than education, was the main goal of later expositions, the fact remained that world’s fairs were “where people [could] go to learn about ways the world [was] heading.”

Also known as the Seattle World’s Fair, Century 21 was in many ways no different from its predecessors. Its showcases—designed by architects, corporate leaders and cultural tastemakers—spotlighted a glorious, Cold War–era vision of what the U.S. (and the world) might look like after embracing Space Age technology and mass consumption. Collectively, these displays asserted the strength of the American way of life.

But the confidence of Century 21 belied a deep-seated national fear. The Soviet Union was ahead in the Space Race after successfully launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. America, says Rydell, needed the world’s fair to reinstill its faith in itself.

In many ways, Century 21’s world of tomorrow has become the world of today. The U.S. emerged victorious in the Cold War and successfully shared the fair’s vision with the world: one of American ascendance, scientific progress and capitalist consumption. World’s fairs, meanwhile, have seemingly fallen out of fashion in America. The last time the U.S. hosted one was 38 years ago, in 1984, when New Orleans presented the Louisiana World Exposition.

“The purposes of the fair have been taken over by other mediums,” says Lydia Mattice Brandt, an architectural historian at the University of South Carolina. “The way that [fairs] offered fantasy … is today so easy to get in other ways, whether it’s physical experiences like theme parks or movies [and the] internet.”

Outside of the U.S., particularly in Europe and Asia, world’s fairs remain popular. In cities like Milan, Dubai and Shanghai, host nations have used these grand expositions to express their guiding values and show off the very best of their countries to the rest of the world. Today, this mission is more vital than ever, argues Mina Chow, an architecture expert at the University of Southern California and the director of the documentary Face of a Nation: What Happened to the World’s Fair?

“The world expo movement has always been about the best of human civilization,” says Chow. “Right now, we’re living through some of the worst of it. … [The world’s fair is] something that we need to celebrate why we belong together.”


Generally speaking, world’s fairs are split into three eras: industrialization (1851 to 1938), cultural exchange (1939 to 1987) and nation branding (1988 to the present). The first world’s fair took place in London in 1851. Dubbed the Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations, it was “an act of some hubris, … an expression of confidence when so many people were deeply anxious about where industrialization was taking the world,” says Rydell.

Held in the Crystal Palace, a massive cast iron and glass structure constructed especially for the occasion, the fair demonstrated the global reach and might of the British Empire through attractions such as a predecessor of the modern fax machine, the “Trophy Telescope” and what was then the world’s largest known diamond. Similarly ambitious expositions in Paris, Chicago, New York City and other metropolises followed; at these fairs, the spoils of colonialism often took center stage, with “human zoos” featuring Indigenous residents of colonized countries reinforcing racist conceptions of Western and white supremacy.

“Diversity characterized the expositions, and this heterogeneity was part of their attraction,” writes Rydell in All the World’s a Fair. “[But it] was inseparable from the larger constellation of ideas about race, nationality and progress that molded the fairs into ideologically coherent ‘symbolic universes’ confirming and extending the authority of the country’s … leadership.”

Like the Great Exhibition, Century 21 embodied a vision of imperial greatness: that of the U.S. at the height of the Cold War. Planning for the fair began in the mid-1950s, when Seattle civic leaders proposed a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (itself a world’s fair) to boost the city’s faltering economy.

Organizers formed a world’s fair commission; lobbied Congress for federal aid; and secured the official sanction of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), an international body formed in the 1920s to regulate and organize the hosting of world’s fairs. Funded by a $7.5 million bond (around $77 million today) matched by the state legislature, a $9 million investment by the U.S. government and corporate sponsorships, construction of the fairgrounds began in earnest, with the goal of opening in April 1962.

The exposition was tremendously popular, attracting almost ten million visitors over its six-month run. Commercials and promotional spotsmarketing the fair offer a sense of its grandeur, spotlighting its monumental architecture, displays of technological wonder and the latest consumer products, and mass entertainment.

The most striking—and lasting—aspect of this (and any other) world’s fair was its architecture, which imprinted organizers’ ideals and values onto the built environment. At Century 21, the fair’s motto, “Living in the Space Age,” was evident in its emblem: the 605-foot-tall Space Needle. “It was as if a spaceship from a friendly future had landed in our own backyard,” recalledfair attendee Knute Berger in 2012.

Constructed by architectural firm John Graham & Company in just eight months, the tower’s sleek design marked it as a monument to America’s vision of a technologically advanced, capitalist future. With a dizzying height, narrow frame and flying saucer­–shaped observation deck, the needle appeared poised to shoot into the stratosphere, visually assuring visitors that the U.S. would prevail in the Space Race. Other modern marvels, like the Seattle Center Monorail and the “Bubbleator” (a large, bubble-shaped hydraulic elevator), kept visitors impressed with the fair’s futurism while transporting them throughout the exposition.

Century 21 showcased the forefront of American scientific achievement. The federal government’s investment in the fair went primarily toward construction of a six-acre U.S. Science Pavilion. Dedicated to both educating and enthralling visitors, the pavilion boasted a planetarium that simulated a trip to outer space for up to 750 spectators four times an hour and a NASA exhibition featuring Friendship 7, the capsule that carried astronaut John Glenn on the U.S.’ first orbital spaceflight in 1961.

At the fair, technological wonder went hand in hand with consumerism. Like other international expositions, Century 21 was a tremendous advertising opportunity—a world’s stage on which companies could unveil their newest products. As a guidebook noted, “just as the fair offers a projected world of the future, so does [the] Oldsmobile”—Century 21’s official car—“in style, performance, luxury and comfort!” The Bell Telephone Company (now AT&T) produced “Century 21 Calling,” a short film depicting a boy and girl’s tour through the fair. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they express aw-shucks amazement at the speed of Bell’s newly invented push button phone dialing. Even the fair itself was a corporate product, with much of its landscaping designed in consultation with the Walt Disney Company.

Carnival rides, live shows and a wide range of entertainment options rounded out the fair’s offerings. At the “Gayway,” visitors chose from 20 rides, including a sideways roller coaster and the 95-foot-tall “Space Wheel.” In between stomach-dropping trips to the Gayway, guests could catch performances by Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and the Ringling Brothers Circus, in addition to two live telecasts of “The Ed Sullivan Show. Other attractions included Backstage USA, a stage production featuring scantily clad showgirls, and a 25,000-pound cake that stood 23 feet tall.

Taken together, these features of Century 21 celebrated a particularly American understanding of the world, premised upon the mastery the U.S. (supposedly) enjoyed over all things architectural, technological, commercial and cultural. Above all, the fair was nationalistic in the same way previous world’s fairs had been. It showcased a vision of America designed to reassure the country of its greatness and assert its vitality on the world stage. Century 21 was the built, experienced realization of postwar American ascendance.

In the decades since the Seattle World’s Fair, theme parks and the Olympic Games have fulfilled many of the purposes of world’s fairs, replicating the lived sensations and awe-inspiring architecture that made Century 21 exciting. The Disney World theme park Epcot, for instance, is practically a permanent world’s fair, boasting a “World’s Showcase” of 11 countries and a massive geodesic sphere modeled after the Biosphere designed by Buckminster Fuller for Expo 67 in Montreal. The park’s name originally stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, clearly echoing the “World of Tomorrow” embodied by Century 21.

As scholar Steve Nelson wrote in 1986, Epcot is one of many “sophisticated entertainment complexes in which performance and theatrical techniques play vital roles in communicating cultural and political messages.” In Nelson’s view, the “performative attractions of Epcot … are the descendants of traditional world’s fair presentations.”

Communications scholar Luca Massidda, meanwhile, links the rise of television to the decline of the world’s fair and its replacement by a profitable mega-sporting event: the Olympic Games. Beyond signaling a shift away from cultural expositions, the international competition offers countries a chance to test their mettle against other nations while expressing pride in their singular history and traditions. For host countries, architecture plays a key role in establishing the tone and vision of a specific Games, leaving a tangible legacy much like the physical remnants of past world’s fairs.

Despite their diminishing popularity in the U.S., world’s fairs continue to take place across the globe. They remain popular for the same reasons they were in 1851: Simply put, fairs act as powerful affirmations of national identity that reassure host countries and dazzle international audiences. In 2010, an expo in Shanghai welcomed over 73 million visitors to the largest world’s fairgrounds ever, spanning a staggering 2.5 square miles. Delayed due to Covid-19, Expo 2020, in Dubai, concluded less than a month ago with a spectacular closing ceremony. The fair hosted more than 24 million visitorsover its six-month run.

The Keefe family of Niles, Michigan, strolls past the Unisphere at the 1964 World's Fair.
The Keefe family of Niles, Michigan, strolls past the Unisphere at the 1964 World’s Fair. Bettmann / Getty Images

According to Chow, America hasn’t hosted a world’s fair since 1984 because it simply hasn’t seen the medium as worthy of investment. Following the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. emerged as the world’s sole superpower, it became difficult to justify the cost of hosting a grand exposition for the sake of national reassurance and public diplomacy. (Century 21 turned a profit, but a 1964 fair in New York lost a significant amount of money.) What more was there to prove to the public? The U.S. had already won.

Chow’s documentary The Face of a Nation follows the decline of the American world’s fair at the governmental level, exploring how the State Department has increasingly sold its pavilions—spaces representing the U.S. at other nations’ expos—to the lowest corporate bidders. “The film asks what is the image Americans portray to the world,” said Chow in a 2014 statement. “We’ve stopped participating in one of the biggest soft power exercises there is.”

Adding to the financial risk of hosting a world’s fair is the rise of mass media, which has replaced expositions as a way of showcasing new technologies and products. “[This was] the kind of thing that would’ve happened at a world’s fair before,” says Brandt.

The world’s fair could still stage a comeback in the U.S., albeit in a new form better suited to the Information Age. World’s fairs loom large in the popular imagination. And, in 2017, the U.S. made a serious bid to host Expo 2023 in Minnesota, with the theme of “Healthy People, Healthy Planet.” Though it lost out to Argentina, the U.S. has renewed its bid for 2027.

The future of the world’s fair in America remains uncertain. According to Rydell, however, the uncertainty of the era might actually make its return more likely. He asks:

Are Americans satisfied with their economy? Are they optimistic about the future? Do they have any anxieties about social justice, about climate change, about nuclear warfare? Or have all of those issues just disappeared? Are Americans basically happy in each other’s company? If the answer is yes, then no, there will never be another fair in America. But if the answer is things are still unsettled, and people are still anxious to some large degree about where America and the world might be headed, then I would be positively shocked if there isn’t another world’s fair in America’s future, probably sooner than a lot of people expect.

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