August 20th, Art in Age of Mechanical Reproduction.– Pretty tickled by this presentation. Jacob [i.e. speaker Jacob Hellman] and I have, on numerous occasions, swapped ideas on the arcane beauty of both former Philadelphian industry and its currently-aching hell-neighborhoods. But rather than getting lost in the mythos and delirium, as I always have, Jacob remained admirably embedded in the history of it all; drawing from research, anecdotes, and his definitive resource, Philadelphia and its Manufactures, by Edwin T. Freedley.
In about half an hour, Hellman managed, what seemed to me, a great paleontology of the widget— or a glimpse of such a discipline. Clutching a ream of loose notes, he spoke of the objects of manufacturing— both products and the means of production— as the paleontologist would speak about flora and fauna… The morphology of widgets with their “arms of wood and teeth of iron.” A branching taxonomy of widgets that would neatly differentiate “hats” from “caps,” and at least five distinct phyla of “book.” Widgets that populated by-gone ecologies. Widgets that thrived, mutated, or faced certain extinction with deep shifts in American manufacturing.
Much of this was there in Freedley’s book, Hellman claimed. Published in 1859, the same year as On The Origins of Species, I imagine Philadelphia and its Manufactures is as much a document of a cultural moment, as it is simply a history of manufacturing. And with the curio cabinets on the wall, and the overall parlor aesthetic of Art in the Age, the whole exhibit really threw me back into the hubris of Victorian thinking, with its love of time and taxonomy.
Even when Hellman spoke about American industry moving over seas, I closed my eyes and pictured the widgets crossing seas and continents in search of easier climes. Workers and unions, that once thrived in symbiosis with these machines and objects, soon perished with the disappearance of their little metal symbiotes, or under the looming deathcloud of Automation.
Hellman never really summed up his lecture this way, or any other way. He just reeled off one “concrete universal” after another, bang, bang, bang; then passed the mic over to Phillip Taylor, a lithographer who told of the demise of his trade. Taylor seemed to me like one of the last speakers of a dying Native American language; which, figuratively speaking, he was. He knew the trade inside and out. Waxed about then-new, but now-forgotten innovations. The lost arts and dying idiom that this exhibit and lecture are doing their best to preserve.
The exhibit continues at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (116 North 3rd), until August 30th, and historically-minded folks can find the text of Philadelphia and its Manufactures online at:
Philadelphia and Its Manufactures.
1859 & 2009
Photographs and Objects
From Factories Here and Gone.
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.