When Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum bought a 1901 home in Sharon, Massachusetts, they wanted to restore it top to bottom. And rather than force a modern interior design, they remodeled it with a Victorian twist.
In the kitchen, an antique cash register holds dog treats. A cast iron stove is retrofitted with a Miele cooktop and electric ovens. In the family room, a wooden mantle frames a sleek flat-screen TV, and hidden behind an enameled fireplace insert, salvaged from a Kansas City train station, glow LED lights from the home-entertainment system.
In doing so, the antique and obsolete got a new lease on life. Unknowingly, the Rosenbaums had “steampunked’’ their home.
For those of you not yet conversant in the genre, what they did was add anachronistic (and sometimes nonfunctioning) machinery like old gears, gauges, and other accoutrements that evoke the design principles of Victorian England and the Industrial Revolution.
But the Rosenbaums had no conception of steampunk before they retro-fitted their house. They just liked salvaging old things. And now they’ve been embraced by the steampunk community.
“When we started this three years ago, we didn’t even know what steampunk was,’’ said Bruce, 48. “An acquaintance came through the house and said ‘You guys are steampunkers.’ I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a whole group out there that enjoys blending the old and new.’’’
It’s not just the Rosenbaums turning turning old telephone hardware into iPhone chargers and cobbling together computer workstations from vintage cameras and manual typewriters. Enthusiasts are mounting steampunk exhibits, writing books, creating objets d’art, and dressing up in steampunk garb for live-action role playing games. And a surprising amount of steampunk activity has been generated by Boston’s brainy community of gamers, geeks and do-it-yourselfers.
To be sure, steampunk has been part of the cultural conversation for the past several years, as DIY-ers embraced the hand-wrought, Steam Age aesthetic over high-tech gloss. But recently, it seems to be gaining a wider appeal, especially in Beantown.
“Boston lends itself to steampunk,’’ said Kimberly Burk, who researched steampunk as a graduate student at Brandeis and wrote a Masters thesis entitled “Creating the Future-Past.” “You have the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) tinkerers, the co-ops in JP (Jamaica Plain), the eco-minded folks.’’
Both a pop culture genre and an artistic movement, steampunk has its roots in 19th- and early-20th-century science fiction like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Its fans reimagine the Industrial Revolution mashed-up with modern technologies, such as the computer, as Victorians might have made them. Dressing the part calls for corsets and lace-up boots for women, top hats and frock coats for men. Accessories include goggles, leather aviator caps, and the occasional ray gun.
There’s an equal nostalgia for the Age of Steam and the Age of Sepia. And there’s a hint of Sid Vicious and Mad Max in there, too.
Recent mainstream pop culture examples of steampunk include films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Golden Compass. Still, steampunk defies easy categorization. It can be something to watch, listen to, wear, build, or read, but it’s also a set of loose principles. Steampunk attracts not only those who dream of alternative history, but those who would revive the craft and manners of a material culture that was built to last.
“The acceleration of the present leaves many of us uncertain about the future and curious [about] a past that has informed our lives, but is little taught,’’ said Martha Swetzoff, an independent filmmaker on the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design who is directing a documentary on the subject. “Steampunk converses between past and present.’’
It also represents a “push back’’ against throw-away technologies, Swetzoff said, and a “culture hijacked by corporate interests.’’
For Burk, steampunk is more akin to the open source software movement than a retro-futuristic world to escape into. “Steampunk isn’t about how shiny your goggles are,’’ she said. “It’s about how cleverly you create something. That’s the cultural capital.’’
And if you’re an antiquer, a tailor or a DIY recycler, you might find, whether you like it or not, that your hobby will be embraced by the genre’s welcome arms.
The urge to rescue and repurpose forgotten things led the Rosenbaums to spread the steampunk gospel. They’ve founded two companies: Steampuffin and ModVic, which infuse and rework 19th-century objects and homes with modern technology. They’re working on a book about the history of steampunk design. And, hoping some steampunker might want to live in a pimped-out Victorian crib, they purchased a second home in North Attleboro, Mass., restored it using their “back home to the future’’ philosophy, and put it on the market.
Bruce is also curating two steampunk exhibits. One will be displayed at Patriot Place’s new “20,000 Leagues’’ attraction, an “hourlong, walk-though steampunk adventure,’’ scheduled to open in December, in the Boston suburb of Foxborough, according to creator Matt DuPlessie. “Guests solves puzzles andexplore the Nautilus in our Jules-Verne inspired immersive experience.”
Some of the cooler effects and puzzles include a deep sea elevator, a full motion diving bell, and an encounter with the fabled giant squid from Verne’s book. The rooms in the experience include the Library (in all its Victorian splendor), the Engine Room (moving parts galore!), the SeaLab (dangerous experiments taking place), and of course the Bridge of the Nautilus itself. There will be a total of eight rooms to explore.
“We are getting some great enthusiasm from the steampunk community, including a big party on February 5th to celebrate the show and the Steampunk gallery on our second floor,” DuPlessie said.
Meanwhile, “Steampunk: Form and Function, an Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry’’ recently opened at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, a former textile mill already filled with steam engines and belt-driven machines. The first of its kind at any museum in America, “Form and Function’’ includes a juried show of steampunked objects (many by local artists) like a steam-electric hybrid motorcycle called “the Whirlygig,’’ an electric mixer powered by a miniature steam engine, and a flash drive made with brass, copper, and glass.
Perhaps the most impressive piece is a rehabbed pinball machine whose guts look like Frankenstein’s lab—down to the colored fluids bubbling through vintage glass tubes.
(The museum is also hosting a steampunkers “meet up” Dec. 19, and in the spring, the museum will offer a course in steampunking a clock, plus its second annual New England Steampunk Festival returns in April. Meanwhile, in nearby Warwick, Rhode Island, there’s convention called Templecon, devoted to all things “retro-futurist.”)
“I like giving things a new life,’’ said Charlotte McFarland of Allston, exhibiting her first-ever steampunk creation, “Spinning Wheel Generator.’’
Such functional art objects tap into a nostalgia for a mechanical, not electronic, age. Unlike the wireless signals, microwaves, and motherboards of today, the 19th century’s gears, pistons, and tubes were visible and visceral. While the workings of a laptop can seem impenetrable, we can fathom the reality of moving parts.
“As the world becomes more digital, the world less and less appreciates machines, which will be lost,’’ said Elln Hagney, the museum’s acting director. “We are trying to train a new generation to appreciate this and keep these machines running.’’
Some of the most committed local steampunkers dress up in period garb and take part in live-action role playing games. Most “LARPs’’ (think Dungeons & Dragons but in costume) are swords and sorcery-based, but Boston’s Steam & Cinders is one of only a couple of steampunk-themed LARPs anywhere.
Once a month, some 100 players gather for a weekend at a 4-H camp in Ashby. The game’s premise? A crashed dirigible has stranded folks at a frontier town called Iron City, next to a mysterious mine. Engineers, grenadiers, and aristocrats vie for supremacy. There are plenty of robots to fight (players dressed in cardboard costumes sprayed with metallic paint), and potions to mix (appealing to the mad scientist in us all). Players stay in character for 36 hours straight. The game is intensely diplomatic—like a “model UN” simulation, but staying in character, non-stop for 36 hours .
“Yes, it’s a fantasy world and it’s not England,’’ said Steam & Cinders founder Andrea DiPaolo of Saugus. “But getting to dress in British garb and speak in a British accent is something I enjoy.’’
Meanwhile, publishers are striking while the steampunk iron is hot (and perhaps, looking for the next fad. With any luck, the passion for zombies and pirates might finally be fading.)
“We can tap into the enthusiasm of a reader who can imagine an alternative version of the 19th century,’’ said Cambridge resident Ben H. Winters, author of this summer’s mash-up book Android Karenina.’
Winters steampunked Tolstoy’s novel by re-envisioning Anna Karenina in a 19th-century Russia with robotic butlers, mechanical wolves, and moon-bound rocket ships. Sample line: “When Anna emerged, her stylish feathered hat bent to fit inside the dome of the helmet, her pale and lovely hand holding the handle of her dainty ladies’-size oxygen tank . . .’’
“Hopefully,’’ explained Winters, who also wrote 2009’s Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, “we’ll be adding to the fandom of the mash-up novel by introducing a new fan base: the sci-fi crowd.’’
Climb to Bruce Rosenbaum’s third-floor study and you feel as if you’ve entered one of those mash-ups. The attic space feels like a submersible, packed with portholes, nautical compasses, and a bank vault door. His desk is ornate and phantasmagorical, ringed with pipes from a pipe organ.
Bruce talked with fervor about “the best part” of steampunk: “What is the purpose?” he often asks of his latest find, be it an old clock or optometry device. “What can it be?”
“There’s freedom with steampunk,’’ Melanie Rosenbaum added. “Almost anything goes. Time travel is possible.”
That attic space is like a time machine. It’s a place where you can imagine Captain Nemo banging out an ominous dirge. Or, where Jules Verne would feel quite at home, hammering out a few emails.
Boston-based steampunk stuff:
Templecon convention (Feb 4-6, 2011; Warwick, RI), templecon.org
Steam & Cinders live-action role-playing game (Boston), be-epic.com
Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation (Waltham, MA), crmi.org (“Steampunk: Form and Function” exhibit through May 10; Steampunkers “meet up” Dec. 19; steampunk course March, 2011; New England Steampunk Festival April 30-May 1, 2011)
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning travel memoir/pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. His blog “Geek Pride” is seen regularly on PsychologyToday.com and he has also been a guest on talk radio and at numerous conventions as a fantasy and escapism expert. He watches the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy at least once a year, and plays with his dice whenever he can. You can follow his adventures (and read more about the book) here.