After carefully researching the meaning of “steampunk,” I have finally decided to borrow a line from Justice Potter Stewart who, in a Supreme Court decision regarding obscenity, said “I’ll know it when I see it.” So, on a dreary cool spring Saturday morning, I set out to attend the Watch City Steampunk Festival where I saw it and came to know it!
Steampunk involves integrating things Victorian including fashion, machinery, science, and artistic interests with modern technology. It includes lots of doodads and maybe a few computer chips thrown in for good measure. It can, as one person described it, be pretty much anything you want it to be.
In 2010, the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham (i.e. Watch City), held a fundraiser entitled, Steampunk: Form and Function, an Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry. After two successful years, the Museum turned the Steampunk Festival over to the community who now run it as a free event for families and everyone else.
But without any background, my friend and I stepped through the Looking Glass and onto Waltham Common. We entered at the same time as a man dressed in character, although what the character is, I will leave up to you. He had, as did most Victorian men, facial hair—his a waxed moustache. I am not sure what the message of his “uniform” was, but on his back was a mixture of brass and containers and interesting do-dads. He was most willing to be photographed, and one of the recurring pleasantries of the day was the camaraderie that developed from asking someone if you could take their picture and then watching them pose as we did. Unfortunately, it is only in retrospect that I wondered who they were and how they came to be here, but perhaps that is part of the mystery of Steampunk.
Some of the women were beautifully dressed in costumes that they had made themselves and were definitely of the Victorian age. And some of the surrounding booths offered corsets, boots, gloves, eyepieces, hats and feathers that could be used to create or embellish a costume.
Most of the booths kept with the theme of the day and they were quirky and perhaps more unique than those one usually sees at the summer fairs in a park or by the sea. My absolute favorite was Dark Rain Design, a husband and wife pair of artists who design “Critters” that react and move when touched. Their dinosaur was especially remarkable because its electronic innards cause it to respond affectionately to stroking and touching. A sign on the table noted that these are not toys for children, and I could imagine myself touching my not-a-toy elephant to see him raise and lower his trunk.
We also saw doll art, masks, canes and magic wands, assorted “junk” that could be used to embellish outfits, a beautifully crafted “Blessing Holders,” and even a Steampunk Barbie doll.
At this location and elsewhere were performers, including “the manipulation of fire”; Karnevil, the traveling sideshow; a stiltwalker and the Old Howard Troupe who performed a Music Hall Show that we missed. Fortunately we did not miss seeing some of their costumes, including the best hat on display that day. There were also some games and activities for children, as well, including an opportunity to learn sword fighting.
There were three especially absorbing exhibits. Prospect Hill Forge, a teaching smithy located in Waltham, set up a complete work station including a coal forge, a bench, a blacksmith’s vise, a machinist’s vise, a collection of hammers, punches, chisels, measuring tools, and more.
Those of us who have traveled up a mountain in a cog railway or funicular could especially appreciate Peppersass, the first mountain climbing cog railway train engine in the world. It was handcrafted in New Hampshire 150 years ago and used to climb Mount Washington. Can you just imagine sitting in the train behind it, probably covered in soot?
While Pepperpass was a passive display the exquisite working of 19th century engine models located next to it were puffing along under the power of steam. Their designer is Todd Cahill, an artist, mechanical engineer, model builder, and interpreter of the history of technology.
It was a great day, and I am having a fantasy of what costume I could put together for next year. I have the sense that, once one has heard of Steampunk, you will encounter it more than you expected. There are other festivals to attend and, if you get to New Zealand, be sure to stop by Oamaru where the Blue Penguins are famous and Steampunk HQ is a less expected and an even more fascinating stop.