The New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 is perhaps best known for its optimistic look at the future, with demonstrations of early television and the Futurama ride that showed regular people a glimpse of tomorrow. But there are some lesser known exhibits from the Fair that might surprise people who only think of the past as being filled with prudes.
Take, for example, this gyrating robot dancer, which may or may not be safe for work, depending on how your boss feels about robot nipples. These robots didn’t show up on the travel brochures that companies such as RCA and Greyhound were passing out.
This robo-burlesque show featured the unfortunately named “Dumb Doris” and “Nifty Dolores” who were there to entertain audiences with their moves. The film below appears to be ripped from amateur video available at the Internet Archive, and while there’s no original audio, it’s clear what the carnival barker is promoting by the way he’s gesturing.
We shouldn’t be surprised that there were scandalous exhibits in the 1930s, especially with robots. Any time a new technology comes onto the scene, humans will try to sexualise it. And as robots came to prominence in the popular imagination during the 1930s, there were plenty of reasons to be afraid, and at least a few reasons to be horny.
The Eisenhower era of the 1950s tried to purge anything titillating from American media, and did a pretty good job of giving people the impression that popular culture only got more “scandalous” as time went on. But that was historical revisionism passed along by the Baby Boomers who were only kids at the time. The 1930s had plenty of risque corners if you knew where to look.
In reality, the puritanical nature of visual culture in the 1950s, where married couples even slept in different beds and sex outside of marriage was shameful and had to be punished, was an aberration when compared with the images that were seen regularly in the 1930s.
We might think of the sexualisation of robots here in the 21st century as a weird and new invention. But old film like this from 1939 is a great reminder that humans have always been willing to fashion robots into sexbots. Even the 1920s had its own versions, like “robots for romantic old maids”.
It isn’t exactly Blade Runner 2049 though, is it?