The War Game of Norman Bel Geddes

I somehow missed it about a year ago when The Believer ran a great piece on the wargaming obsession of famed American designer and futurist Norman Bel Geddes. While his name may not resonate outside circles of early 20th-century design enthusiasts, Geddes is responsible for much of what we commonly think of when terms like “Art Deco” and “streamlined” are used. Most of Geddes’s fame today is linked to his design of the General Motors-sponsored Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and an iconic Art Deco radio commemorated with a US postage stamp in 2011.

Much of Geddes’s work — including the Futurama’s “world of tomorrow” display — was achieved through his obsessive and highly-detailed miniatures modeling. As featured during his life in such varied publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Life Magazine, Popular Science, Ladies Home Journal and Arts & Decoration, Geddes poured an enormous amount of time and thousands of dollars of time into military scale modeling. Utilizing his extensive library of military books and journals (now held in the University of Texas archives), thousands of ships were crafted from brass with exacting detail and enormous topographically-accurate sea and land playing tables were constructed by Geddes in his family’s Manhattan apartment.

Geddes moved in prominent 1920s-40s New York social, professional and intellectual circles, which led to his hosted sessions of what was simply referred to as “The War Game” to be celebrated events reported on in local papers. Movie stars, socialites, politicians, foreign dignitaries and even rumored retired military brass are said to have been frequenters of the intense gaming sessions. The weekly games ran for months on end, used a rules system Geddes designed himself and were documented in immense detail on record cards, charts and maps run on the printing press Geddes kept in the house. The archive at the University of Texas just hints at the wealth of information on how The War Game grew over the two decades of play among Geddes and his circle.

Like the games played among H.G. Wells and his friends recounted in his book Little Wars, time spent reading through the many articles now archived online of Geddes and his games reveals a vast little-known era of gentlemanly wargaming in New York City. As I look ahead to another weekend of gaming with the Metropolitan Wargamers, I can’t help but feel the rippling tradition of small and obsessive battles waged in the basements of the city to this day.

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