8/6/14

Steampunk Summer: Horsepower, Hair Curling, and the Evening News

Writing Steampunk Carnival, I got to make up some cool technology.  Steam-powered roller coasters.  Miniature water pumps for the outdoor bathrooms that offer the convenience of modern faucets.

But one thing that struck me about the research I did into the 1880's was how much great technology our Victorian ancestors already had.  I won't go into all of it here, but the next time you're surrounded by traffic, doing your hair, or reading the news, you might see it a little differently.

It's no secret that horses provided transportation power before the invention and wide-spread usage of cars.  But as individual, family-owned carriages could be expensive, horses also served as the muscle for public transportation.  Before buses and streetcars, there were horse-drawn streetcars.  Before there were UPS trucks and semis hauling everything from produce to televisions, horses pulled wagons full of the necessities of the day - ice, kerosene, freshly farmed food.  (You can see a sleek, shiny example of a kerosene-carrying tank wagon here.  For my fellow South Bend, IN, crowd, I dug up this 1906 ad from Studebaker, catering to farmers with their sturdily built wagons.)

For those of us who've become dependent on our personal vehicles or those who rely on buses and trains to get around, we know how it feels when that technology is suddenly out of order.  Do we call someone to get a ride?  Do we walk?  Do we wait until it's fixed to travel?

Now think of those sci-fi movies where modern society grinds to a halt.  No cars work.  No buses.  No trains.  No way to effectively and efficiently transport goods, people, or medicine.  That's what equine influenza did in 1872, starting in Toronto, Canada, and ravaging horses across the United States until it reached Cuba.  It's estimated that 80-99% of horses in those areas were affected, and 1-10% died from it.  Without horses to pull the fire engines, the Boston fire in November of that year had to be put out by hand and on foot.  Streetcars had to be stopped for lack of horses.  Reports of wide-spread panic filled the newspapers every day.  I'm not sure how the outbreak ended - suddenly or by dwindling - but all it took was 90 days to bring civilization to a halt.  (You can read about it in more detail here at the Heritage Restorations blog with great pictures and here at Wikisource if you want to see if your area was affected.)

I never would've thought to look up Victorian versions of curling irons for my book, but luckily, they weren't hard to find.  Victorian women's hair commonly had two things - curls and frizz - and they both came from the same place.

1880's Ad for Curling Irons (Courtesy of Hairdressers Journal International)
Today, using a curling iron is relatively easy.  Plug it in, wait for it to heat up, and find a good speed at which to set but not fry your hair.  Back then, not so easy.  Women heated their curling irons on the stove top, where finding the right temperature was a skill they developed at best or it remained a guessing game at worst.  Overheating the iron and leaving it on their hair too long resulted in the frizziness that's almost synonymous with Victorian hair.  Damaging or singeing hair was also a real danger (so common, it was featured in this vintage sonnet).  Hurray for electricity and controlled heat settings, huh?

Even if you're not familiar with the technology of the 1880's, you're probably aware of what they didn't have.  No TV, no Facebook, no radio.  All that time we spend before and after work catching up on the news, entertainment, and gossip, they had to fill another way.  We still have a lot of morning newspapers and even some that print in the afternoon, but what we lost over the years was the once-popular evening newspaper.

It might not be technology in the sense that transportation or personal care gadgets are, but evening newspapers served several purposes.  They contained local, society news (like Facebook for Victorians).  They offered jokes for entertainment.  Local and world news for education.  Opinions and editorials.  Classifieds and ads.  Pretty much everything we're used to now.

But somewhere between the rise of television and Americans wanting their news earlier in the day, evening newspapers passed into oblivion.  In Steampunk Carnival, the boarding house's newspaper of choice is the Indianapolis News, which ran from 1869 to 1999, providing evening news for 130 years.  (So when you read the book, you'll know Mrs. Weeks, the boarding house's owner, isn't far off the mark when she says if everybody buys the morning papers, it'll put the evenings ones out of business.)

In a nutshell, that's where some modern technology stood when it was "modern" over a hundred years ago.  If you missed reading my hand-picked excerpt from Steampunk Carnival featuring some of the steam-powered rides I created, you can read it on Girl Who Reads.

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