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When the 'past' came to Century 21

Forget Elvis. The real featured visitor to the Seattle world's fair was the region's past. Roy Rogers, Paul Bunyan, an Indian village, and a parade of old-timers were there to sell a version of "progress." On Tuesday, HistoryLink.org will bring a lot of the world's fair history back to life at its annual banquet.

A Seattle statue of Suquamish Chief Sealth, gay pride flag in hand, after the Suquamish community vote to pass gay marriage.

A Seattle statue of Suquamish Chief Sealth, gay pride flag in hand, after the Suquamish community vote to pass gay marriage. Heather Purser

The French pavilion at Seattle's Century 21 Exposition made the statement that "The present springs out of the past. And today makes tomorrow. But what will our tomorrow be like?" That perfectly fit the theme of the future-focused expo. But it also suggested something you see a lot of in coverage of the 1962 world's fair, that is using the past as a yardstick of progress.

The fair featured a teepee Indian village, cowboy gunfights, and a giant cake with Paul Bunyan on top. There were many hat-tips to the past, and part of it was for entertainment, but it was also a way to compare how far we'd come. Newspaper stories frequently featured interviews with old timers who were at the fair and asked for their impressions. One result was the realization that Seattle's frontier past was very close at hand.

National press coverage of the fair frequently made reference to the discovery of a transformed old frontier. Newsweek called Century 21 "the biggest regional event since the arrival of Lewis & Clark." Time magazine exhorted America, Horace Greeley-style: "Go West, everybody." LIFE magazine used the past to highlight the modernity of Seattle's fair: "The lovely Washington metropolis, heretofore associated in the public mind, if at all, with tall timber and Klondike gold rushes, picked the most contemporary of themes — the space age — and brought off an exposition of soaring beauty and unique impact."

The Seattle fair was partly inspired by the desire to mark progress by hosting an expo on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. One of the fathers of the fair was Seattle city councilman Al Rochester, who had worked at the earlier event as a waiter. Fairs are often loosely tied to historic commemorations, such as Chicago's World Columbian Exposition in 1893 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. The 1939 New York World's Fair celebrating the "World of Tomorrow" was officially held to honor the 150th anniversary of George's Washington's inauguration.

Historic anniversaries are almost always over-shadowed by the fairs themselves, yet are often ceremonially re-enacted. In Seattle's case, there was an official AYP Day when Rochester and a group of old-timers showed up in hand-crank vintage '09 cars and period costumes. The VIP's included Victory Denny, head of the Seattle Historical Society, and Henry Broderick, the only surviving member of the AYP board of trustees and a Century 21 board member as well. "Yesterdays are yesterday," Broderick said. "They don't seem so very long ago." In this case, it was true: the Gold Rush and the turn-of-the-century AYP were well within living memory.

Daniel Hicks, age 92, of Umatilla County, Oregon visited the fair, and his experiences warranted a press write-up. His trip was his first visit outside of Pilot Rock since 1877 when, the Seattle Times reported, "he took a trip to Missouri after riding horseback 30 days to Ogden, Utah, to catch a train." He was awed by the Space Needle views. "I had never been higher than the saddle on a horse before," he admitted. 

Another fair visitor was an Englishman, Casper Vashon Baker, who was the great-great grandson of Lt. Joseph Baker, who was on Captain George Vancouver's ship Discovery when it explored Puget Sound in 1792, the first European expedition to do so. Mt. Baker, which you can spy from the Space Needle, was named after Lt. Baker. Casper Baker's great-great-great grandfather was the British admiral for whom Vashon Island was named. Even the Age of Discovery wasn't many generations past.

Revisiting the past was a way to give the fair context and continuity, to show how far we'd come, and to reinforce frontier themes such as exploration and colonization for a new century. In the future, the New Frontier was space, and the solar system was the new Wild West.

Native Americans were presented at the fair in ways that connected the region to a "living" past, and one that sought to reconcile whites and Indians who had historically been in conflict. A major exhibit of Northwest Indian art was curated by the University of Washington's Erna Gunther, and received praise from critics. The Chief Seattle statue near the fairgrounds at 5th and Cedar was cleaned and refurbished for the fair. A popular photographic view was to juxtaposed Seattle's namesake against the Space Needle. In 1962, the statue was not enclosed by trees.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Sep 19, 4:34 a.m. Inappropriate

wow

donnie

Posted Mon, Sep 19, 7:48 a.m. Inappropriate

I just checked on Amazon and The Future Remembered is not listed for pre-purchase. Is it only available through historylink.org?

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Sep 19, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Very nice piece underscoring the ambivalent tension in worlds fairs as they wove webs that tried to define the future while leaning on the past. The display of "primitive" folks did this too since their conversion to modern ways (as their pay in Seattle predicted)was implicit even at the "1904" (note the correct date) fair in St. Louis.

MJH

Posted Mon, Sep 19, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

@dbreneman, it's not yet on Amazon, but Google Books does have a page for it -- http://books.google.com/books?id=giHvtgAACAAJ -- from which I see that Barnes & Noble has it for pre-order. The ISBN is 061546940X, and I'm sure a local indie such as the University Book Store, Third Place, Elliott Bay, etc., would be more than happy to take a pre-order from you...

Posted Mon, Sep 19, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

MJH: Noted and fixed.

Posted Mon, Sep 19, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

@dbreneman and @Benjamin Lukoff, the book will be released on October 21st by Seattle Center Foundation. You can pre-order it on the website for The Next Fifty (the 50th anniversary celebration of the Seattle World's Fair); see the link on http://www.TheNextFifty.org. It will also be available on Amazon and such as well as at local bookstores, but you can pick it up yourself at The Gift Shop at Seattle Center between the Monorail and Space Needle (starting 10/21). All proceeds from the sale of this book will support the 50th anniversary celebration. HistoryLink.org did an amazing job with this book, so I know you'll enjoy it!

tburley

Posted Tue, Sep 20, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

tburley, Thanks for the information. I certainly intend to get a copy. The World's Fair was a pivotal event in my life. I have a lot of memories from it, even though I was only three at the time. It inspired what over the years became my deep-seated belief in the future as a better place; and that science and technology, along with personal and economic freedom, were going to make it so.

That's a belief that many find quaint; but those who believe the future to be worse than today are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are literally living in the past. An inviting future will come from freedom, innovation and human ingenuity. We can't control, regulate and "make do" our way into a better world.

dbreneman

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