The lost NY Times steampunk feature

Richard Morgan's "Steampunk: Remembering Yesterday's Tomorrow" is an excellent, long feature on the steampunk phenomenon that was commissioned by the New York Times, but ultimately cut. He's put the whole piece online anyway:
Sara Brumfield, a software designer in Austin, Tex., agrees. “The Victorian home was a haven away from all the industrial changes. So machines would be invited into your home instead of just invading your home,” she explains, before admitting, “Look, I work with software all day. So much of the technology we have is not perfect at all; it’s just good enough to work. So we should stop worshipping it.”

She keeps her home steampunk and heavy on antique styling. Her website, The Steampunk Home, recently gushed over the analog dials on Kenmore’s new PRO Series refrigerators.

Her living room features a chemical flask as a vase, a brass steamship clock (a wedding gift), a three-foot-tall 1930s-era radio she found at a garage sale, an ornate brass lamp with red glass she bought at a bazaar in Istanbul, thick red velvet curtains, dark wood flooring, a dulcimer handmade by her husband’s grandfather and distressed Victorian floorlamps with frosted bowls. For a few dollars a pound, she scrounged a salvage yard for a sack of gears that she is using to replace the knobs on her bedside tables. Her bed itself is lit with a brass swing-arm lamp she bought at a thrift store for $10. Her pride and joy is a self-made sun jar in her kitchen, a shredded $6 solar light she put in a frosted hermetic jar to use as a nightlight (it charges during the day and glows at night).

Link (Thanks, Richard!)

See also: Steampunk in the New York Times


  1. “The Victorian home was a haven away from all the industrial changes…”

    The Victorian home was only possible because of these changes. The Victorian era gave rise to an industrialized, mass produced, factorization of the British culture. The goods that the emerging working middle class could now afford to buy were artifacts that came out of the factory. “Faux” ruling class was a popular decorating trend at this time and has more to do with celebrating affordable goods and the success of cheap labor than quality. Now, by my way of thinking, Steampunk has more to do with the Arts and Crafts period (started in G.B. by William Morris and McIntosh) at least as far as the construction ethic goes. The Arts and Crafts period was a celebration of handmade goods and a return to kind of quality that the guilds produced, and a direct rejection of the Victorians need for cheap. Reminds me of America’s need for cheap.

  2. “For a few dollars a pound, she scrounged a salvage yard for a sack of gears that she is using to replace the knobs on her bedside tables”

    THAT’s my only problem with Steampunk: functionless gears!!! Please, please, please: gears were meant to do something – anything!

    As an aesthetic statement the poor gear has been gnashed into brass bits by some cruel steam-driven Victorian hammer thing, made in San Francisco to boot!

    This is coming from someone whose favorite film of all time is “City of Lost Children”… I’m with you, really I am, just stop it already with the gears as knobs/lapels/buttons/flowers etc.

    “He who smells of rotting apples, must be Polomoche”
    aka Gear Advocate

  3. #2 “Please, please, please: gears were meant to do something – anything!”

    Exactly. I could also go for a bit more, y’know, actual steam to move those little gears around :)

  4. > a sack of gears that she is using to replace
    > the knobs

    Brass, no doubt.

    Wash hands immediately after handling brass.

    Brass keys, for example:

    “… source of lead exposure was determined to be my brass office key and my brass house key which I let her play with and chew on. … are unplated brass with a lead content 4.5 times the allowable level if it were a toy or jewelry.”

  5. Oh it’s great to see this see the light of day! I spent a very pleasant afternoon with Richard and his photog in my shop last year.

    Richard was on to this Steampunk thing way ahead of the others.

    #2 – you know, I felt that way at first too, but I’m starting to like some of the gears-as-decoration I see.

  6. Decorative gears are fine. Artist and jewellers have often re-purposed old parts such as circuit boards for cuff links or vacuum tube pendants. Some may not like the look, but to reuse a once functional component as a decorative piece is a valid means of expression.

  7. I’m taking up a collection to send polomoche a big box of superfluous gears. Anyone in with me?

  8. Well, according to Wikipedia:

    Some prototypical steampunk stories were essentially cyberpunk tales that were set in the past, using steam-era technology rather than the ubiquitous cybernetics of cyberpunk but maintaining those stories’ “punkish” attitudes towards authority figures and human nature. Originally, like cyberpunk, steampunk was often dystopian, sometimes with noir and pulp fiction themes as in cyberpunk.

  9. Your article is a lot better than what they ran this week. No wonder they killed it. As most long-time NYT readers know, by the time the Gray Lady gets on to something, it’s usually over.

    So, Richard, do you think they’re going to ask for their kill fee back?

  10. It’s wonderful to be able to finally see this article.

    Sara Brumfield is one of the great reasons that steampunk has become so popular.

  11. “The division of labor in lumber camps led to several specialized jobs on logging crews – such as whistle punk, chaser, and high climber. The whistle punk’s job was to sound a whistle as a signal to the yarder operator controlling the movement of logs and act as a safety lookout, and a good whistle punk had to be alert and think fast as the safety of the others depended on him. The high climber (also known as a tree topper) used iron climbing hooks and rope to ascend a tall tree in the landing area of the logging site, where he would chop off limbs as he climbed, chop off the top of the tree, and finally attach pulleys and rigging to the tree so it could be used as a spar so logs could be skidded into the landing. High climbers and whistle punks were both phased out in the 1960s to early 1970s when portable steel towers replaced spar trees and radio equipment replaced steam whistles for communication”

    “Steam donkeys acquired their name from the animals they replaced. They were classified by their type (simplex, duplex, logging engine, 3-drum, 2-drum, etc.) and their different uses (high-lead yarder, ground-lead yarder, roader, snubber, incline hoist, etc.)

    A steam donkey comprised at least one powered winch around which was wound hemp rope or (later) steel cable, and usually a boiler. They were usually equipped with skids, or sleds made from logs, to aid them during transit from one “setting” to the next. The larger steam donkeys often had a “donkey house” (a makeshift shelter for the crew) built either on the skids or as a separate structure. Usually a water tank, and sometimes a fuel oil tank was mounted on the back of the sled. In rare cases, steam donkeys were also mounted on wheels. Later steam donkeys were built with multiple horizontally-mounted drums/spools, on which were wound heavy steel cable instead of the original rope.”

  12. Whistle punk, chaser, and high climber. Steam donkey. Steampunk is taken; that leaves Whistlechaser, perhaps. How about High Punk Donkeychaser?

  13. Wow, this was so much better than the actual NYT article. Was it canned for having too much integrity and useful information? I imagine the photos wouldn’t have been as obsessed solely with half-hearted attempts at the steampunk fashion aesthetic, either.

  14. “Paul Di Filippo, the author of ‘The Steampunk Trilogy,’ the historical science fiction novellas that lent the culture its name.”

    Oh, please, NYT. Is K.W. Jeter (who, ahem, only coined the word) ever gonna get any respect? First he’s misidentified in another thread, and now this.

    I mean, for some of us steampunk jumped the shark when Di Filippo got hold of it. . . .

  15. @ 9 & 12 re: what is steampunk?

    (Not trying for a shameless plug here, but) the new Steampunk anthology from Tachyon Publications has an intro as to what Steampunk was and what it has become. Here’s the pithiest quote I can find:

    ‘Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays . . . . [It] rarely offers a solution to the problems it describes — for steampunk, there is no solution — but for both punk and steampunk the criticism must be made before the change can come.

    ‘[M]ost second generation steampunk is not true steampunk — there is little to nothing “punk” about it. The politics of the punk position have largely disappeared . . . , and most of it is more accurately described as “steam sci-fi” or, following John Clute, “gaslight romance.”‘

    As to the stories: can’t speak to them, yet. Hopefully they’re as good as the intro.

    Haven’t read the NYT article so will keep quiet on steampunk’s devolution from a narrative form to a fashion affectation.

  16. “steampunk’s devolution from a narrative form to a fashion affectation.”

    Many styles and art movements transcend their original media. Art Nouveau spanned typography, architecture and fashion. There was Pop Art film, fashion and novels, beyond just painting and lithographs.

    This is not typically seen as devolution, but a reasonable progression of any interesting and evocative genre.

  17. Now, having read the article, it seems Morgan got a few things wrong, specifically what steampunk is and conflating it with (what can only be rightly called) “The Gernsback Continuum.”

    How does Art Deco (1925-ish), Bauhaus (1919), the 1939 World’s Fair and it’s streamlined futurism play into the steampunk aesthetic? As I understand it, (and not just from Jess Nevin’s intro) steampunk encompasses the Victorian and (I would argue) the early-Edwardian eras, with the whole sensibility crashing to a stop when it meets the wall of Modernism. The two are wholly incompatible: a mechanistic, knowable! fixable! clockwork world vs. a relativistic universe full of indeterminism and maybes.

    And if not cooled by Modernism, Steampunk’s boilers are certainly cold with the beginning of WWI.

    The critical problem with Morgan’s article is unintentionally summarized by interviewee Chris Boysha: “It [steampunk] is whatever you want it to be, the way punk music or rock music is. It can be a lot of things.”

    Nope. Steampunk is steampunk. Once beyond the genre’s temporal and philosophical parameters, the style — narrative and fashion — becomes something else.

    So — gotta disagree with this one, Cory: There’s so much weird/wrong information in Morgan’s story, it’s understandable that the NYT killed it.

    DrHaggis: point taken. Mine had to do with the loss of substance and meaning — the interesting and evocative parts being overlooked in favor of the shiny brass ones. It’s like when a major US retailer ran TV commercials featuring Devo’s “Beautiful World.” Some Ad Exec liked the tune and early lyrics, but failed to grasp the song’s full meaning. Instead of looking smart and ultra-hip, the retailer looked plain silly. Same with the bird houses built from bits of shapely iron junk being heralded as steampunk. The birds might like it, but how is it steampunk?

  18. They probably went with the other story because it showed a commercial side to steampunk: a new store opening in New York! Lets all go buy stuff! Richards story is focused on the individuality and inventiveness of it all, which may not have been media-friendly. You can’t talk about really cool stuff and not point readers to a source for it all!

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