Literally the Best Thing Ever: Retro-futurism

Those flying cars were supposed to be here any day now.

Painting by German futurist Klaus Bürgle (1959)

It’s somewhat ironic, I guess, that if I had access to a time machine, the first place I’d travel would be the 1939 New York World’s Fair, an enormous exhibition dedicated to “the world of tomorrow.” Exhibits focused on robots, transportation, architecture, and even food, and the fair promised a future that was beyond bright. It was an optimistic love letter to the decades to come—a somewhat heartbreaking idea, when you consider that the shadow of World War II was already looming.

The reason I love the World’s Fair so much is that it’s a goldmine of retro-futurism. Retro-futurism is a somewhat mind-binding phenomenon that refers to depictions of the future that were created in the past—often the pre-1960 past. You follow? I find it so fascinating that we’re left with these relics of dreams already realized, and dreams that have not yet come to pass, if I can go semi-Galadriel on you—snapshots, essentially, of how past society pictured our present, or what they hoped it would be.

Check out the Monsanto House of the Future, a Disneyland attraction that opened in 1957 and enthused about a revolution in plastics! (It closed a decade later when attentions turned to the more exciting possibilities of space travel. Sorry, plastics.) But surely, someday, people will say the same thing about the Monsanto House’s modern-day Disneyland equivalent, the Innoventions Dream Home: “Oh my goodness, that is so hilariously dated.” (Actually, from the looks of it, we might say that next year.) Walt Disney was obviously obsessed with “tomorrow,” and essentially used the 1964 World’s Fair as a proto-Epcot (which, if you didn’t know, stands for Experimental Prototypical Community of Tomorrow, and was originally designed as a futuristic city).

Our ever-evolving ideas about transportation are also a wild ride of retro-futurism, perhaps best exemplified by the monorail (again, Disney alert!), which still hasn’t caught on as “the train of the future.” And the world of flying cars and floating highways that 1985’s Back to the Future Part II promised would arrive by 2015 is looking unlikely, unless something extreme happens in the next two years, but who knows how accurate all of this will be by 2062, the era of The Jetsons.

My favorite—and, in my opinion, the best—source for all things retro-futuristic is Smithsonian’s Paleofuture blog, written by Matt Novak. Novak is a brilliant collector of old videos, advertisements, postcards—basically anything to do with the subject of the future from the past 100 years or so—and he presents historical background as well as insight into how these ideas relate to the present day. The best thing about Novak’s collection is the way he treats the material—respectfully, as the terrain of dreamers and forward-thinking engineers. Sure, there are plenty of things that people got wrong, but often enough, there is a clear link between what was once simply a notion and is now a commonplace reality, like this clip from 1967 about online shopping. The music! The desk! The “video console”! The HAIR! And do the clothes floating across the computer screen remind you of anything? A ’90s contribution to the field, perhaps?

Novak’s blog trained my brain to seek out as many examples of retro-futurism as possible—so, for instance, this book about how to survive Y2K, the computer bug that was supposed to basically destroy the universe at the stroke of midnight at the turn of the millennium. (Spoiler alert: WE MADE IT! Shout-out to my dad, who was—no joke—on a “Y2K task force” for a major American insurance company.) Then there’s this cult-classic film The Apple, which hilariously takes place in the “future” of 1994, a world that resembled a weird, low-budget Lady Gaga video set in a ’70s-era mall. (On the other hand, watch the trailer and ask yourself: DOES Apple control our future, even if it’s not the same one?) There’s also the fashion depicted in the 1930s gem Eve, A.D. 2000!. Sample line: “Yet another designer believes that skirts will disappear entirely!”

Perhaps the best part about retro-futurism is that it allows us to understand the imagination of a time gone by—to see what society wanted, needed, dreamed about, and tried to create. It’s a powerful reminder that technology takes years—sometimes decades—to catch up with our ideas. NASA dreams big, but has to deal with the realities of funding and physics. We’ve wanted to put a person on Mars for a while now, but we also know it’s going to take more time and a lot of work to get there.

But sometimes we’re so busy concentrating on the things we don’t have yet that we forget how incredible the things we do have are. (Louis C.K. says this best.) While we most likely won’t get the Mattel hoverboards or self-drying clothes that Back to the Future wanted for us, we have a little thing called the internet. Marty McFly has a big-screen TV and a lot of fax machines (and yes, OK, an amazing pizza rehydrator). Technology is a gift—it allows us to visit the past without a flux capacitor. Just look at this article! I’m able to sit at my house, type all of these words out on a little machine, and send them through the air. (I know there’s a more accurate description of How the Internet Works, but I prefer to imagine it as floating bits of information, like in Willy Wonka’s television room, so whatevs, Trevs.) You may even be reading this on a tiny phone/computer that fits in your pocket. The future is NOW!

I don’t need a time machine to see the 1939 World’s Fair—I can go on YouTube and find images from 70 years ago, including The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, a Westinghouse-sponsored film that shows a “typical” family visiting the fair and viewing the exhibits. Aside from the gadgets, views of the fairground, and—let’s be real—fantastic fashions, the best part of the film is probably the romantic drama centered on daughter Babs and her skeptical boyfriend, Nick, who hates the World’s Fair and spends all effing day complaining about capitalism and propaganda. Their love is threatened by progress, y’all! And also by handsome Westinghouse employee Jim, who spouts out lines like “Machine production makes better and cheaper products. As a result, more people want and can buy them! That, in turn, creates a demand for more labor!” Nick hates Jim, naturally. This is the dumbest and greatest soap opera of all time.

My favorite Nick and Babs scene starts at around the 19-minute mark, and includes this hilarious exchange:

Babs: I guess we’re a little early! What do you want to do?
Nick: Anything but inspect this temple of capitalism.
Babs: Oh, Nick!
Nick: Look at them, their eyes popping out of their heads. Drooling over the very things that are taking their jobs!
Babs: Now, Nick, don’t get all excited. My family thinks that America is a pretty swell place, and I don’t want you to disillusion them.

Nick and Babs and Jim and their corporate-propaganda-vehicle love triangle 4eva! Also, please take a minute to witness Electro, the Westinghouse Moto-Man. Look at him…go. Kind of. He’s the ancient Siri, with the moves of a broken washing machine. He’s also a bit of a comedian, telling stupid jokes in a robot voice. The crowd LOVES him, and so do I.

I’m sure in 50 years, the computer I’m typing on, the screen you’re reading this on, and, really, everything around us will seem as quaint as rotary phones or typewriters. We’ll look back at the future we imagined, we’ll look forward at the future we envision, and somewhere in between, we’ll see what we got right, what we got wrong, and marvel at everything in our lives that we never even thought was possible. The Middletons thought Electro was the robot of the future, but the Roomba could kick his butt, then vacuum the floors and DJ. And, then of course, there’s us, the ultimate retro-futurists. What will we think of the people we thought we’d be after we become who we are? ♦


  • vintagewhimsy November 19th, 2012 3:07 PM

    I so want to ride in a flying car and have robots do everything for me. Sigh. I love this article.

  • Mary the freak November 19th, 2012 3:37 PM

    It’s so funny to watch all those old Star Trek episodes and realize how much has got real, like tha communicator. Old handy. The only thing that’s missing are the Starships (huge minus.). BUt I think we can work on that.
    I am so exited for the future.

    • SparklyVulcan November 19th, 2012 5:06 PM

      And the PADD in TNG. :) And I think we’re missing the replicators too. :(

  • christinachristina November 19th, 2012 3:44 PM


    • HollinsCollins November 19th, 2012 5:16 PM

      I think we’re best friends now because of your comment.


  • darksideoftherainbow November 19th, 2012 3:48 PM

    BEST: the fifth element and blade runner!!!

  • Melisa November 19th, 2012 3:51 PM

    We think alike!! Sometimes I wonder about this too, like what will we view ourselves and the technology we have now in 50 years or so. I also wonder about the things we might have that we don’t have now, because I feel that the technologies of today is already so advanced that it may be as advanced as it’s gonna get! Anywho, that’s your cue to surprise me, tech inventors! Fascinating article Rookie!

    Also, this reminds me of an article I read a couple of months ago:

    LOL! I must give them credits for being so creative!

    • Tavi November 19th, 2012 4:58 PM

      OH MY, thank you for that link!

    • SweetSarahO November 19th, 2012 7:43 PM

      Thanks for this link! It totally blew my mind!

  • positif November 19th, 2012 3:52 PM

    Remember the Jetsons? Only 60 years left to flying cars and sassy robot housekeepers, yay!

  • ElleEstJolie November 19th, 2012 4:02 PM

    Too bad the past’s idea of the future is much more exciting and unproblematic than ours!

  • AliceinWonderland November 19th, 2012 4:07 PM

    I love retro-futurism. Reminds me of Disney. :)

  • AnaRuiz November 19th, 2012 4:36 PM

    I’m not such a futuristic person (something about grass and trees and flowers is missing in the picture for me) so the “we can’t appreciate what we have now because we’re concentrated on what we don’t have” was perfect!

  • Kathryn November 19th, 2012 5:07 PM

    I’m always fascinated by this sort of stuff!

    PS, I’m not really understanding the aesthetic of the backgrounds this month. They’re all beautiful, but I don’t see the connection. Is there one? Can someone please explain it to me?

  • Tambourelle November 19th, 2012 5:09 PM

    Just YESTERDAY, I was researching past predictions of the future (creepy)…

  • jenaimarley November 19th, 2012 5:19 PM

    Pixie, this is AWESOME!
    I’ve just been getting obsessed with retro-futurism (always loved sci-fi)!
    Like Brazil! Logan’s Run! 1984!

    • jenaimarley November 19th, 2012 5:21 PM

      Also Louis C.K. is rad. I found that piece referenced in this absolutely sweet book The Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life by Lama Marut.

  • katie_o November 19th, 2012 7:05 PM

    I’m so glad you posted about this!!! I’m obsessed with this retro-future stuff has a ton of information on this topic if you’re dying to learn more (:

  • anadigi November 19th, 2012 7:48 PM

    As a retro futurist fan, I truly enjoyed your post. I designed a collection of retro furturist inspired watches, called SPACE YOYA.
    I was amazed at how many of the references were the same as those that inspired me:
    If you actually have the patience to not SKIP the intro to the Space Yota collection (which is now extremely dated, but I left it up there in the spirit of retro futurism), you might have a chuckle.

  • spudzine November 19th, 2012 9:44 PM

    This inspired me to watch The Jetsons :D

  • Sputnick November 19th, 2012 9:51 PM

    Mary Shelley wrote a futuristic book, “The Last Man.” She predicts the end of the world, but she’s not very imaginative about future technology. Apparently, the year 2092 is exactly like the year 1826, except more bubonic plague-y. And no animated corpses.

  • Balbina November 19th, 2012 10:01 PM

    Pixie, the last line of your article was the absolute best! Thank you for thinking!

  • Lascelles November 19th, 2012 10:09 PM

    I don’t know if this counts but At&t did an amazing series of TV ads called “You Will” about the future. Disney’s Magic Highway style stuff is great but their Mars and Beyond cartoon, with the secretary, so great… :D

  • weetzie November 19th, 2012 10:40 PM

    this was a beautiful piece. that last line hit me hard. thanks, pixie!

  • Lila Gracie November 20th, 2012 12:15 AM

    this post is literally the best thing ever. i am in love with retro futurism and 60′s futuristic stuff, y’know, all that.

    you guys should watch the film adaption of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, so much pretty 60′s hair and clothes mixed with monorails and wacky futuristic inventions (like firemans poles that you slide up instead of down? what’s going on with that? i don’t even know, man, i don’t even know)

  • streaked lights November 20th, 2012 1:11 AM

    Retro-futurism is my favourite thing in the world. It’s just so optimistic compared to what a lot of people today believe our future will be like; a bleak, unforgiving wasteland.

    The Jetsons and Meet the Robinsons are my fave!

  • lua November 20th, 2012 1:12 AM

    I love this article!
    Not so long ago I read on Wikipedia about how much the 1939 World’s Fair impressed the 5 year old Carl Sagan:

    “Sagan recalls that one of his best experiences was when he was four or five years old, his parents took him to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The exhibits became a turning point in his life. He later recalled the moving map of the “America of Tomorrow” exhibit: “It showed beautiful highways and cloverleaves and little General Motors cars all carrying people to skyscrapers, buildings with lovely spires, flying buttresses—and it looked great!”[7]:14 At other exhibits, he remembered how a flashlight that shined on a photoelectric cell created a cracking sound, and how the sound from a tuning fork became a wave on an oscilloscope. He also witnessed the future media technology that would replace radio: television. Sagan wrote:
    Plainly, the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise?[7]:14
    He also saw one of the Fair’s most publicized events, the burial of a time capsule at Flushing Meadows, which contained mementos of the 1930s to be recovered by Earth’s descendants in a future millennium. “The time capsule thrilled Carl,” writes Davidson. As an adult, Sagan and his colleagues created similar time capsules, but ones that would be sent out into the galaxy. These were the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record records, all of which were spinoffs of Sagan’s memories of the World Fair.”

  • lylsoy November 20th, 2012 6:52 AM

    I love the images and vids about ‘the future’. But all this aside, the environmentalist inside of me does not understand how scientists and all these people, governments etc. who made this world what it is now did spend all this money on projects like- is there life on Mars? or Could we live on another planet? when we have the perfect planet right here. And keep destroying it. All that money could’ve been spent more useful and if something doesn’t change soon, there’ll be no planet in 50 years time. I hope superstorm Sandy taught some people a lesson in global warming!
    PS. sorry for making this sound so negative! I’m just passionate…

  • Sorcha M November 20th, 2012 4:33 PM

    When I was younger I read this Malorie Blackman book where she goes to the future and it’s the year 2012 or something and EVERYONE’S WATCHING YOU and the wallpaper CHANGES COLOUR AT YOUR TOUCH and real books are VALUABLE BECAUSE ELECTRONIC BOOKS ARE THE ONLY ONES LEFT and in 2008 everyone had tracking microchips put in their necks. Actually, that sounds pretty similar to nowadays. Oh well. I wonder if people in the future will read The Hunger Games. They’ll either laugh, or look fondly nostalgic and condescending towards us, or they’ll feel sad because the allegory has become reality. Ugh, I just want Fritz Lang highways stretching through the sky. I thought we’d at least be sending clever people to live on Mars and be wearing shiny jumpsuits. But I wear shiny jumpsuits anyway. Rambling. I liked this piece.

  • Sophii November 20th, 2012 5:58 PM

    Woah, last sentence; mind blowing. I’m just waiting for the hover boards in Back to the Future: I want one so bad! I love the last paragraph of this x

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild November 21st, 2012 9:33 AM

    I absolutely love seeing artists are writers renditions of what they expected the world to be like today!

    <3 Melissa

  • cancercowboy November 21st, 2012 11:33 AM

    ah, yesteryear’s visions. amazing how both Jim and Nick were right. automation rationalized the workplace, telecommunications made it as easy to communicate with your coworkers in Shenzhen as it was when they were just down the corridor, all resulting in job cuts; and the Western World drowns in used products aka trash.
    funny fact: America’s biggest export to China is literally garbage: