Good Bye Tomorrow and Hello Yesterday: Is Steampunk Truly Victorian?

Today, we think of steampunk as a movement-it entails literature, fashion, history, science and a little bit, alright-a lot, of imagination to form a blend of science fiction and fantasy that is based in the mid-Victorian Era.  Coinciding with the rise of the 1868-dedericksteamman600-3American industrial revolution at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the ideology of “steampunk” combined the new technologies of the time that had begun to change the world-i.e. steam powered everything, and the reverie of where that very technology could take us in the future.  While combining steam engines that powered Victorian life, with science fiction ideologies such as time travel, journeys to the moon, and mechanical re purposing, the steampunk movement forced you to think of a time that didn’t necessarily exist. steampunk has quickly become the flesh and blood embodiment of imagination.  

Confused as to what steampunk truly is? You find yourself sitting on your front porch, with a slight breeze and the sun warming your face, it is Spring of 1897 and you are musing over the idea of what the world will look like in only a few short decades.  How will the steam that powers the radiator in my home, the engine in my steam car, the trains that brought me to Colorado in the 1880s, the ships that allowed me to cross the oceans to see the world around me….how will that simple invention, that has changed my life exponentially already, continue to shape my future?  In the world of steampunk, you are able to travel by way of a time machine and your imagination, thanks to the author H.G. Wells, to the year 1997 where the world is an invariably different place! Women, most notably-they’re wearing pants and other parts of men’s clothing, absolutely unheard of in the 1890s! You’ve grabbed a few pieces and added them to your ever changing wardrobe-time travel is immensely hard on cotton fabrics, one could only imagine. You’ve
the_steam_man_of_the_prairies_2_bigseen with your own eyes something that you’ve never even dreamed to someday become real, inventions that seem almost unimaginable even after seeing the feats accomplished at the Chicago World’s Fair. Your imagination gets the better of you and you continue in your time machine to 2050, collecting more clothing and trinkets along the way. Finding yourself headed back to “home” in the year 1897, your new futuristic treasures no longer blend into your surroundings; your clothing has become something that you would hardly notice in a different time.  Steampunk, is a bygone time period that never existed, except for in the imagination of those who have found themselves influenced by the ideas of a history in which Victorian engineering and technology reigns supreme, even above our modern technology. The entire notion of “steampunk” in and of itself, is the difficulty in defining it.  This lack of definition actually strengthens the movement in which it can’t define, allowing participants to place themselves into the culture however they choose, “for, in truth, the whole idea of ‘punk’ is to stray and swerve from the norm and be yourself.” (Ashley)

Literature has played a major role in the steampunk world and its imagery. Dime novels were an extremely popular form of reading in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This genre of books reflect their relatively cheap pricing, and were geared towards a lower level of reading capabilities within society. These types of publications become extremely popular with middle to lower class workers and families.  The first known instance of imagining a world in which the steam powered technological advancements of the Victorian era could change the world and the future, were known as “Edisonade” novels.  Although this term was coined in 1993, this sub genre has its roots in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, seeing its apex at the turn of the century.    One of the most famous of these science fiction dime novels at the time was The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis, the basic plot of which is two men who meet a young boy who has invented a man of steam to take him and his carriage across the prairie and onto many adventures.  First published in 1868, some believe that this was one of the first novels of its type to combine the new technologies of the present and imagine where those technologies would take us in the future.  It would be around this same time that Zadoc Dederick, would invent his own Steam Man. This true to life, Victorian invention, showed how pre-occupied people were with, “where can this technology take us!”.  Another well known dime novel of the time was The Steam House  by Jules Verne in 1880, considered one of the founding fathers of the steampunk movement, The Steam House seems to encapsulate the balance between technological imagination and the Victorian world, by following British colonists on their adventure by way of a “gigantic steam-powered elephant” (Ashley).  These novels were considered only Science Fiction at the time, but laid the foundation for the steampunk genre to emerge in the 1970s, building itself on the same ideological foundations as the Edisonade authors that came nearly a century before them.  To truly classify a piece of literature as steampunk, it typically includes the following:

  • An essentially urban setting-typically London
  • Focus on the realistic hardships of the Victorian Era.  
    • Ironically enough, this idea is more prominent in the more modern, 21st century, steampunk novels.  Edisonade novels celebrated the accomplishments, rather than hardships, of Victorian life.
  • Dystopian societies that focus on a cynical populous and large amounts of pollution.
  • Inventors are the heroes, not the villains.

“The greatest marvel of steampunk does not lie in its literature.  It lies in the nonfiction, the real, the present. And IT IS EVERYWHERE. Steampunk, since the very beginning of the 21st century, has morphed into a cultural revolution rivaling that of the punk scene in the 70s and 80s.  Borrowing its inspiration, mindset, and child-like fascination of the “what-could-have-been” curiosity from its literary roots, this new sub-culture has burst into mainstream society with a fervor unmatched. Steampunk has consumed the art, design, fashion, music, movie, and internet scene for the past decade, and it shows no signs of slowing down.”

Literature may have been the origins of the steampunk culture, but the imaginative fashion that has been created to go along with it is one of the defining characteristics.  One of the most obvious links to the Victorian roots of steampunk, the fashion lays the foundation for your creativity to jump off.  Despite the varying subcultures, it is the heavy reliance on victorian fashion as the base of your costume, that can be seen across the steampunk Universe.  Based on where in time your travels take you, and the varying adventures you’ve run into, your costume would reflect all of those changes; the beauty-and underlying foundation of steampunk-is the heavy reliance on imaginative creations.  

Our most recent Thirsty Thursday event was “A Steampunk Christmas” and left many wondering, how Victorian is steampunk, anyways? Historians know that if the Victorians love one thing, it is Christmas. Christmas as we think of it today, is almost purely a Victorian ideal; the original Christmas tree had made its way to England through King George the I, a man of German heritage, who established the House of Windsor. While the holiday of Yule had been celebrated for centuries, the imagery and iconography of Christmas came about because of these Germanic influences.  Queen Victoria, King George I’s great-great-gdscn2922randdaughter, had recorded in her diary as a young girl seeing two tabletop trees decorated for the holiday.  It was an image that would stick with her, and that she would make iconic in 1848, when an etching of the Royal Christmas began to circulate throughout the country. It prominently featured a regal tree, decorated in candles, spun-glass, glazed cherries and sugar plums and a stack of presents filling thequeen-victorias-christmas-3 empty space underneath.  It is this image, of a home overtly decorated for a holiday, that began to spread across the world.  The prominence of the Christmas tree in a Victorian holiday would seep into christian and pagan celebrations for the rest of history. We expanded on this idea of a Victorian Christmas by adding our own mechanical and steam powered components! Featuring the entirety of the Molly Brown House Museum dressed to the brim in all of our traditional decorations, we were able to transform the third floor into a steampunk paradise thanks to all of our guests who brought every ounce of their imagination with them.

Savannah R. Reeves
Education Programs Associate

2017 Thirsty Thursday Events::

Canons of Steampunk:

Infernal Devices K.W. Jeter
The Anubis Gates Tim Powers
The Time Machine H.G. Wells
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The Prophecy Machine Neal Barrett Jr.
The Steampunk Trilogy Paul Di Filippo

Direct Quote Sources:
Ashley, Mike. Steampunk Prime. New York: Nonstop Press, 2010.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us here at the Molly Brown House Museum!

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2017-11-24T18:05:07+00:00