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.

On-line Resources for Writers

On-line resources

This page is based on a talk I gave at the 2018 Clockwork Alchemy con entitled “On-Line Research for Steampunk Novels”. During the course of writing my novels, I’ve discovered a number of great on-line resources that I found extremely useful in researching the Victorian Era, its technology, society and history, and of course, its cockeyed offspring Steampunk.

This list should be helpful for writers of both historical fiction and fictional history as we all want to get the details right–except when we don’t. Because my steampunk novels revolve around Victorian Britain, this list is starting off biased in that direction–but there are plenty of other ways to write steampunk.

I’ll keep the link to this list at the top of the front page of the blog and I invite you to leave your favorite on-line resource in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list (with appropriate credit, of course!).

Old House Idiosyncrasies #6–The Octagon House

In a blog post on Steampunk Architecture that I wrote almost three years ago (and which has consistently been one of my more popular posts), I included a picture of the Armour Steiner House in upstate New York which has the distinction of having an octagonal floor plan.  Prompted by a post in the always interesting website Atlas Obscura, I looked around for more examples of these unusually shaped buildings.  And it turns out there’s an interesting story behind them.

ArmourStiner

Armour-Stiner House, Irvington, New York. Source: JMReidy on panoramio.com

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The Shipwreck in a Corn Field

From the always entertaining and informative website, Atlas Obscura (if you’re not already reading it, you really should be…) comes the story of a sunken steamship that was discovered in the middle of a corn field in Missouri.  How the steamboat Great White Arabia ended up in the corn field is only half the story (the Missouri River shifted course, leaving it on, or rather under, dry land).

Dishes_Arabia_Steamboat_Museum

Some of the crockery excavated from the hold of the Arabia (Photo by Wikimedia user Johnmaxmena2).

The amazing part of the story is the amount and variety of immaculately preserved cargo found on board.  The Arabia was on its way upriver loaded with all the sundry items required for life on what must have been not too far from the American western frontier when it sank in 1856. Because the ship and its cargo has spent most of the time since underground and not underwater, they have been amazingly preserved.

The team that discovered and excavated the steamboat have opened the Arabia Steamboat Museum to display some of the 200 tons of cargo excavated before the field had to be replanted with corn. If I’m ever in that part of the country, I think it would be an extraordinarily interesting museum to explore.

Sounds of the Past

Before there were MP3 files, before CDs, before vinyl, there were waxed cylinders upon which were stored the faint tracings that could be replayed as sound.

Thomas Edison patented the first phonograph in 1880, and cylinders maintained their popularity until the 1910s when discs began to outsell them.   The University of California, Santa Barbara has archived and digitized over 10,000 of these cylinders and made them available on the web.

Rummaging through the collection gives a real taste of the turn of the (last) century. Most of the cylinders contain music. If you like marches, this was the time of John Philip Sousa. There are also some recordings of important speeches of the day, including several by Theodore Roosevelt, and a description of his journeys in Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton.

For the steampunk enthusiast, there’s also a recording from 1905 of a song titled, “Come, take a trip in my air-ship.” (And for a modern recording of this song, listen to Unwoman (a Steampunk favorite) sing it.  You can even buy her version on a cylinder, in case vinyl isn’t hip enough for you!)

Personally, I’ve used these recordings to give a bit of ambience as background music in a historic house museum I’m involved with. Most people don’t notice it, but it lends a bit more authenticity to the experience, I find. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time just perusing the archives, listening to the sounds of ghosts from the past.

Joseph Faber’s Talking Euphonia

Euphonia was an amazing machine that was ahead of her time, and who seems to have been the first victim of the “Uncanny Valley” into which falls those creations that seem a bit too real, and creep people out. (Think of the movie “The Polar Express” in which the animation was a bit too real and which turned Chris van Allsburg’s magical Christmas book into a vaguely unsettling computer animated movie.)

Irrational Geographic

Written mention of machines built to imitate human speech date as far back as the 13th century. Early devices, however, were deemed by the Church to be heretical and were often destroyed (in one instance, it is written, a talking device was smashed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself) or at least kept out of the public eye. It was not until the 18th century that the social climate was willing to permit the creation of mechanisms that imitated human elocution, safely protected under the umbrella of scientific pursuit.

19-YFY4RRA100

In 1846, a German astronomer living in The United States named Joseph Faber unveiled his cutting-edge Euphonia at London’s Egyptian Hall, having accompanied P.T. Barnum across the Atlantic. Faber had spent the previous seventeen years perfecting this remarkable oddity, and had even dashed an earlier machine to bits out of frustration after American audiences failed to pay him much attention…

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Dispelling Corset Myths

I’m the first to admit that I know little about sewing and almost as little about details of Victorian fashions, but I am keen on dispelling myths about the past, especially those that are endlessly repeated on the Interwebs or, even worse, by docents at historic homes and museums.

So, I found this article on myths of corsets both entertaining and informative.  Now, as a proper Victorian man, I wouldn’t be expected to know anything about corsets for the most part. But as an improper Steampunk man, well, Steampunk women wear their corsets on the outside, so they’re not as hidden as they would otherwise be.

The article busts (see what I did there?) the myths  of corsets and how they were supposedly worn using actual measurements of historic garments, and explaining how the illusion of the hourglass figure was created.  So the next time you come across an expert telling you about 18-inch Victorian waists and removing ribs and pushing organs around and the origin of the fainting couch, you’ll know better.