Steampunk is a genre in itself


Of all the design aesthetics that have fluctuated over the years, few generate the reaction of steampunk. Many people identify it as an unfortunate outgrowth from the hippie era, and indeed this is the period in which the name was coined. Nevertheless, the roots of steampunk go back to the Industrial Revolution when designers began to incorporate elements of the past with those of the future. This is all a bit confusing, but we’ll sort it out below.

At the end of the 19th century, life in America and elsewhere was very different from what it was at the beginning. Growth, technology, and warfare had combined to introduce a level of novelty to almost every level of society. People were already moving from their farms to the cities, and giant clouds of black smoke bore witness to this new era of urban industry. Recognizing the change, some cutting-edge designers sought to combine elements of the waning Victorian era (Queen Victoria died in 1901) with those of the future. It was a strange marriage and the rest today, but for many it had a certain appeal.

Since then, steampunk has crossed the ages, mixing the pieces of yesterday with those of tomorrow. The first use of the term “steampunk” did not occur until the 1970s, when a science fiction writer, in search of a holistic term to describe this strange fusion, proposed the word as an offshoot of “cyberpunk”. He saw steampunk as something born out of the onset of the Victorian era. Whether this is true or not, steampunk has become a cultural star, subject to tedious scrutiny as academics attempt to analyze exactly how it came about and what it means to the world. I don’t know either, but he certainly looks here to stay.

Repurposed rotary dial phones produce colored lights in a steampunk fashion.

In addition to the Western world’s membership in steampunk, it is particularly popular in Japan with its membership in manga comics and anime shows. Manga comics with their retro-futuristic stories began to emerge after WWII, no doubt influenced by the many comics left behind by American GIs.

The genre grew rapidly, and the 1970s spawned animated TV shows at a time when TV cartoons were a staple of Saturday morning life in America. Over the past several decades, games such as Pokémon and characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have become international sensations directly associated with steampunk culture.

Closer to home, steampunk today continues to combine elements of the old and the new. Timepieces, rotary dial phones, typewriters, and sewing machines are all examples of old technology that steampunk artists are using to create new art. The fact that these elements have moving parts that do not move in many steampunk designs is an interesting statement on the world today. The message seems to be that there is a better and more efficient way of doing things, that the gears, hinges and cords are outdated and play little role in today’s everyday devices. For elders like me, this appeal is mixed. However, it’s hard to fault the creativity or miss the messages embedded in many steampunk designs. It’s a new / old world.

Bellows cameras are obsolete, except when used as part of a steampunk table lamp.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award winning catalog publisher and author of seven books as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Antique Galleries in Palm Springs. His antiques column appears on Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Send him a message at [email protected]

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