Steampunk Cuisine, Part 2: Evolutionary Silver Designs

The Steampunk Aesthetic is based largely on the design features of the Victorian Era, when use of decoration was foremost.  However, I like to think of the Steampunk Aesthetic as “fancier than it needs to be to be functional”.

While many Victorian/Steampunk items are fancier than they need to be, this concept is perhaps demonstrated most clearly in the design, decoration, and alleged function of Victorian silver.

In our more utilitarian times, tableware generally consists of a fork, a knife, and a spoon, maybe with a salad fork, soup spoon, or teaspoon added on if the dinner is fancier. And these utensils pretty much take care of all our needs.

However in the later part of the Victorian Era, the co-called Gilded Age, there was an explosion of various tableware and serving pieces each one specialized and required for each course, or sometimes, even each type of food on the plate. And each one was deemed essential for the proper table.

Today we would use a knife and form to serve and eat fish. However, the fish fork was designed to be optimized for the task. The fish fork’s leftmost tine was longer than the rest and sported a notch. These features were meant to simplify removing the fish’s bones and skin. Although I wonder how much easier this task became, and how much one was supposed to merely ogle at the hostess’s fancy silverware.

The variety of forks increased over time to include (beside the modern dinner and salad forks) luncheon forks, dessert forks, pastry forks, oyster forks, berry forks and ice-cream forks. All deemed crucial for using at fancy meals.

It’s really with the serving pieces that the wide diversity of forms reached its zenith.  Let’s start with the asparagus tongs, below.

I like these because the rectangular design is so unusual in flatware. There are some more usually shaped asparagus tongs, but they all allow serving the exotic asparagus spears without causing a mess.

Asparagus Tongs, Tiffany and Co.

The dangerous-looking utensil shown below is a cucumber server, although it can sometimes also used to serve tomatoes as well. The tines make it look like a spork turned 90 degrees, but I could not find the rationale for the tines. Perhaps they are only to ensure the cucumber slices don’t fall off while serving.

Cucumber Server

The fish server below consists of a wide fork and knife which are used to slice a piece from a larger fish and deliver it to the diner’s plate. The width, I assume, is to prevent the fish from separating while being transferred to the place. I suppose this serves the same function as a spatula would today, just with more style.

Fish Server

Desserts had their own assortment of specialized tableware. The bonbon scoop (below) seems to have been used to serve chocolate-covered goodies without untoward stickiness. The ice cream server looks more like it’s made for slicing than scooping, although there are period designs that are concave as well. In any case, the design is very different than the ice cream scoop of today.

Finally, there is the mango fork. This bizarre three-tined fork is inserted at the end of the mango and while holding the fork, the flesh is cut away. It’s a very elegant way of saying, “I’m not only rich enough to afford exotic tropical fruit, but also the specialized tableware with which to eat it.

Bonbon Scoop
Mango Forks

Obviously, very few working-class or even middle-class homes would have been equipped with any of these fancy utensils. Not when a knife, fork, and spoon will do the work just fine. Their main function was as a display of conspicuous consumption–to demonstrate that you are rich enough to possess the latest and most stylish tableware to impress your equally gilded friends.

So, although fancy silverware may satisfy the Steampunk “fancier than it needs to be to be functional”, I think iit exaggerates its functionality when one of its main functions is to impress.

Mooring Airships on the Empire State Building?

One oft-told story involves the use of the Empire State Building as a mooring mast for airships like the Hindenburg.  It sounds plausible. The spire of the Empire State Building certainly resembles a mooring mast, and if King Kong is not scaling the building, it appears that there’s plenty of room to moor. And no self-respecting steam- or diesel-punk would forgo the chance of mooring his airship at the Art Deco splendor of the Empire State Building.

However, oft-told stories can take on a life of their own in the cold and windy light of day.

The 1930s were the heyday of lighter-than-air dirigibles with the German airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg flying travelers around the globe in luxury that could only be compared to that of the most opulent hotels or glamorous trains.  Although the US and Britain had no commercial airships, they advanced the capabilities of military airships over time. Airships on the transatlantic route generally landed at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey which had the facilities needed to maintain and service the ships. However, Lakehurst is quite some distance from the passengers’ typical destination of New York City.  So, having a landing spot closer to New York would be a great benefit for transatlantic flights.

Composite photograph showing how the Navy airship Los Angeles would appear moored to the Empire State Building.
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Flowers and Stars

James Lick was one of those persons who, through hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and sometimes just good luck, managed to accomplish more than seems possible in one lifetime.  I find that many of these people seem to have lived during the Victorian Age, when opportunities were ripe, and a good dose of gumption could result in a dramatically improved situation.

Portrait of James Lick

James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 into fairly unexceptional circumstances; his father was a carpenter and young James followed suit.  He eventually learned the piano-making trade and after tuning his skills in New York, he shipped out to Buenos Aires which seemed to be a good market for pianos.

Unfortunately, Lick’s success was initially hampered by his inability to speak Spanish, as well as sporadic South American political unrest. He bounced around the continent for almost 30 years, his business becoming prosperous. Eventually, he tired of the social upheavals, leaving South America completely and ending up in San Francisco with his piano-making tools, $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate to sell for a friend. The chocolate sold quickly, prompting Lick to send a letter back to his friend Domingo Ghirardelli advising him to move his chocolate business up to California.

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The Victorian Television

Before the mid-1800s, the typical household owned very few, if any, illustrations.  Newspapers had no pictures; Periodicals had none until the 1840s. Books contained only expensive engravings. Photography was still a science experiment.

However, once photography became main-stream, a revolution occurred that enabled three-dimensional images from around the world to be available in almost every Victorian parlor—the stereoview.

A British scientist, Charles Wheatstone, first developed three-dimensional viewing using an optical instrument that would be recognizable today as a stereoscope. Wheatstone started his work before photography was developed, and experimented by making pairs of hand-drawn images that produced the 3-D effect. Wheatstone also had the advantage of being able to “free view”, i.e., to see the 3-D effect without using an instrument. (Remember those “Magic Eye” books from the 1990s where you had to make your eyes go all weird to see the 3-D effect.)

The trick is to fool your eyes into perceiving that a pair of photographs taken from two different angles appears to be a single three-dimensional image with the ability to see objects close and far away properly maintained. As one stereoview advertisement claimed:

When you look at it through the wonderful lenses of our stereoscope, the figures stand out so plainly that you almost expect to see them move. It’s just like being there.

Early British Stereoscopes, table top and hand-held models.
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Starry Starry Night

One stereotypical character of the Victorian Age is the “gentleman scientist”, men (and they were, with the exception of Lady Ada Lovelace, all men) with the financial wherewithal to putter around in their scientific pursuits without the need to actually work for a living.  Charles Darwin, Humphrey Davy, and Benjamin Franklin were all men of independent means and scientific interests.

Another was William Parsons.  Although less famous than the examples above, William Parsons was fortunate enough to inherit an earldom and a large estate in Ireland upon his father’s death. Now as the 3rd Earl of Rosse, he was free to concentrate on his astronomical pursuits.

Although Ireland may seem to have disadvantages as the site of an astronomical observatory—cloudy skies, moisture, and an elevation close to sea level come to mind—he had plenty of land there and plenty of money. So Lord Rosse started building increasingly larger telescopes at Birr Castle culminating in 1845 in a massive instrument with a 72-inch diameter mirror dubbed “The Leviathan of Parsonstown”. It was unlike any previous telescope, requiring massive machinery to move.  It wasn’t until 1918 when the 100-inch Mount Wilson telescope in California was built that a larger telescope was achieved.

The Leviathan of Parsonstown

Lord Rosse’s special interest was solving the nebula problem. Nebulae were faint fuzzy objects in the sky. One group of astronomers believed that they were gas clouds, while the opposition thought them clusters of stars which only appeared fuzzy when observed through telescopes of insufficient size.

And there was no telescope of more sufficient size than the Leviathan.  Observations were made.  Some nebulae were resolved into clusters of stars by the Leviathan’s colossal eye.  Others remained stubbornly fuzzy.  The issue was not resolved. (In fact, those objects in the sky called nebulae are two different things:  gas clouds, and galaxies filled with stars, but that wasn’t determined until even larger telescopes with cameras attached were developed.

And that last point is important.  When the Leviathan was built, photography was in its infancy, and astronomical photography even more so. Observations were recorded by making hand-drawn sketches. One of Lord Rosse’s most famous sketches was of the nebula numbered M-51 which he made in 1845. Lord Rosse drew a nebula with spiral arms and a second smaller nebula interacting with it.  The sketch was so much clearer than what had ever been seen before that it was widely reproduced and published in many popular astronomy books of the day throughout Europe.

Drawing by Lord Rosse of nebula M-51 (now called the Whirlpool Galaxy) through the 72-in Leviathan telescope.
The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

It does not take much imagination to recognize that Lord Rosse’s sketch of what we now know as the Whirlpool Galaxy greatly resembles the stellar swirls and eddies of Vincent van Gogh’s immortal painting “Starry Night”  Do we know for certain that van Gogh had seen Lord Ross’s sketch? No. Perhaps he did. Or perhaps his artistic vision could tap into the scientific discoveries being made during that time. The two men weren’t contemporaries—“Starry Night” was painted in 1889, forty-four years after Lord Rosse’s sketch—but the sketch was well known.

Perhaps, Lord Rosse and van Gogh approached the same subject from two different vantage points—science and art.  While “Starry Night” is now fixed for all time, progress on astronomical instruments and the observations they are able to make have continued.  Below is a photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy taken by the Hubble Telescope.  While the abstract billows and curls of Lord Rosse’s sketch appear to us different than they did in 1845, the majesty of the this immense galaxy still provokes awe, just as van Gogh’s does.

M-51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Moving Victorians

(Note: This post is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for my local Victorian home group. If you’re going to plagiarize someone, why not yourself?)

San Francisco Victorian Home on the Move. Photo from the San Jose Mercury News website.

A few weeks ago, a rare sight rolled down Franklin Street in San Francisco: a large Italianate Victorian house.  The house, called by some the Englander House, was built in 1882, but it was the last house left on its block–commercial buildings having taken over all others–and thus was inconveniently in the way of an planned eight-story apartment building.

The developer sold the house, instead of demolishing it (likely had to because of historic preservation laws), and the unoccupied house took a six block trip around the corner from 807 Franklin Street to 635 Fulton Street. The trip cost $400,000 to complete, including moving utility lines, trimming trees, and uprooting parking meters to allow the house to roll smoothly by.

Apparently, this house move was the first in San Francisco in 50 years, although vintage “mobile homes” were more common in the 1970s. Previously, older buildings were summarily demolished if they were in the path of a planned development. However, by the 1970s, it became so obvious that San Francisco was losing its historic houses when “urban renewal” was all the rage that historic preservation ordinances were passed.

House moving also occurred in San Francisco much earlier than the 1970s.  The house in the photo below was moved up Steiner Street in 1908. Where it eventually stopped moving is not known. One could assume that its move had something to do with the 1906 earthquake, but I could find no details about it. A careful examination of the downhill side of the house will show the means of hauling this building: a two-horsepower winch–literally two horses. Cables ran from the cribbing supporting the house to capstans driven into the ground. The horses circled the capstan, slowly rotating the capstans and winching the house along. San Francisco’s hills couldn’t have made it an easy task.

Horse-powered moving of a Victorian in San Francisco in 1908.

In fact, it was often the hills that created the need for moving houses. As the city grew, entire neighborhoods were re-graded in an attempt to flatten San Francisco’s infamous hills, sometimes leaving houses isolated and in need of moving to their newer, lower addresses.

Moving a house from its higher previous location to its new re-graded level.

Moving Victorians around town is relatively more common in flat San Jose (the larger and more populous yet less charismatic city at the south end of San Francisco Bay).  A dozen or so houses were moved from the site of the new City Hall into the midst of other Victorian homes in the Hensley Historic District and the Northside neighborhood. We got to watch two of them come past our house very early one morning.

The Houghton-Donner house, built in 1881, was home to Eliza Donner, one of the children in the infamous Donner Party, and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, who served in Congress. The house was moved in 1909 and negotiations were ongoing in 2007 to move it again when it was destroyed by a “highly suspicious” fire.

So how does all this relate to Steampunk? Between the time when horses provided the power to move houses, and when diesel truck did, steam tractors were the vehicle to use. Here’s a picture of a house in Winfield, Kansas, USA being moved by steam tractor.

Steampower!

If you’re interested in this topic, a great book with many photographs is: “San Francisco Relocated” by Diane C. Donovan, part of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing.

Gamble House Virtual Tour

The Gamble House in Pasadena, California demonstrates the epitome of the Arts and Crafts style. Designed by the noted architects Greene and Greene for David Gamble, the son of one of the founders of the Proctor and Gamble Company.

The Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, style encompasses natural forms and materials. The Gamble House uses several different species of woods, rocks from the nearby riverbed, and patterns of stained glass reflecting flowers and trees. The architects also designed custom furniture for the house.

Built in 1908, the house remained in the family until 1966. There had been interest from potential buyers–one wanted to paint the intricate woodwork interior white. In order to ensure the preservation of the craftsmanship and artistry of the house, it was donated to the City of Pasadena.

The Gamble House is normally open for tours, but in these Days of Covid, a virtual tour has been devised describing the architecture and history of the house.

So, how does the Gamble House connect with Steampunk? It made its screen debut as Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future.