Brunel Meets Brunelleschi
NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA was famous for its machines. It also became famous for turning those machines into richly decorated works of art. Factory engines were painted bright red and green or made to resemble Roman and Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals, with classical columns, Doric-order entablatures, and pointed arches. Machine tools were covered with swirling arabesques or fanciful floral and animal images. Sewing machines were adorned with Egyptian sphinxes. Why?
The idea of placing embellishment on machines was not new. Sixteenth-century treatises in Italy and France contained illustrations of ornamented lathes, saws, and hoisting devices. Eighteenth-century craftsmen produced elaborately decorated scientific instruments for wealthy clients. But as the eighteenth century came to a close, ornament began to spread from the craftsman’s workshop to massproduced products of industry. The ornamenting of machines reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, alongside America’s rapid growth in industrial production and outpouring of inventive ingenuity. Engines that provided power for factories, mills, ironworks, waterworks, and steamships were framed with decorative details. James Watt’s early engines had been made of wood and unadorned cast iron, but by the 1830s and continuing for decades after, steam-engine manufacturers in Europe and America used architectural features in designing their frames.
In a century preoccupied with notions of social progress, ornamented steam engines used in waterworks and gasworks served as symbols of national and civic pride. As in England, such engines were sometimes designed as “temples of steam.” Railroad locomotives, factory engines, and machine tools were also decorated with painted patterns. American and European cast-iron stoves were often embellished with neoclassical motifs, flowers, and fanciful figures, reflecting the century’s love of ornament.
THE PRACTICE WAS NOT universally applauded. Americans received high praise for the ingenuity of their inventions, but some foreign commentators were less impressed by America’s habit of making them look like florid works of art. The British journal Engineering , reviewing American machine tools at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876, wrote, “It is extremely difficult to understand how among a people so practical in most things, there is maintained a tolerance of the grotesque ornaments and gaudy colours, which as a rule rather than an exception distinguish American machines.”
Important social and cultural factors helped explain that look of gaudiness. The historian John Kouwenhoven has written that America’s early machines at times reflected a “cultivated” European tradition, in which wooden models for machine tools were created by cabinetmakers accustomed to including such flourishes in their work. The historian John Kasson argues that ornament not only added sales appeal to mysterious new devices but also represented the honored status of machines in America’s national life. And there were other factors: decorated engines lent prestige to the firms that used them and helped raise the public’s regard for machines, while easing people’s concerns about their dangerousness.
By the 1840s factory and mill owners and public institutions knew that their power plants could be an important element in what we now call public relations. Visitors were invited to admire the engines, which were set in architectural splendor, kept clean and highly polished, and proudly displayed as emblems of a firm’s technological modernity. In Brooklyn, New York, the Pratt Institute displayed its steam engines in a resplendent walnut-lined room complete with balcony, which allowed the public to view the engines with their fluted cylinders and polished brass—and they’re still there in that room (see “They’re Still There,” Summer 1985).
Neoclassical, Egyptian, and Gothic styles helped give manufacturing firms—and the engines themselves—an aura of dignity and grandeur. Neoclassical design meant tradition, social legitimacy, prestige, and permanence and therefore was particularly well suited for new industries and technologies.
Ornamentation also helped manufacturers heighten their machines’ social standing by associating the new devices with aristocracy and tradition. Like America’s burgeoning class of nouveaux riches, these new machines and products were brash upstarts in old neighborhoods and thus suspected of vulgarity and lack of breeding. Cloaked in historical dress, they acquired cachet, appearing genteel and stately.
Neoclassicism and Gothic imagery resonated with associations of stability and order, helping to counter fears of speed and accidents like boiler explosions, disintegrating flywheels, and runaway trains. A resemblance to a neoclassical temple suggested that the tremors of new technologies were safely under control.
By the 1870s designers, toolmakers, and engineers began calling for the banishment of excessive ornamentation and the adoption of an aesthetic appropriate to the functional requirements of manufacture and better suited to a newly industrialized society. Once it became clear that the Industrial Revolution was here to stay, a lively debate erupted over what constituted beauty in engineering design. Some American technical journals began attacking ornament as diminishing the dignity of machines. Henri Haber, in the Chicago journal Engineering News , suggested that too much ornamental painting tended to “destroy the impressions of repose, earnestness, and dignity belonging purely to works of engineering.”
THE AMERICAN ENGINEER John H. Barr wrote in the engineering magazine Cassier’s in 1892 that while designers should take some care about appearance, he was not calling for “floral decorations, for Corinthian columns, for moldings and cornices, or for red paint and yellow stripes.” He advocated “easy, natural lines and harmonious proportions,” insisting that “ornamentation for the sake of ornament is to be rigidly avoided. It is a very bad design, like disagreeable medicine, that needs a sugar coating.” A designer’s primary concerns, he said, should be utility, affordability, durability, appropriate materials, and convenient operation.
By the end of the century elaborate decoration on American-made machines had all but vanished, although phonograph horns in 1908 still bore elegantly painted flowers and sewing machines continued to be ornamented into the 1930s. Engines that looked like classical temples had given way to plain machinery. Classical ornament was replaced by classical simplicity.
This shift reflected a variety of changing social and aesthetic currents: calls for reform in industrial design by engineers, art critics, and social commentators alike; the waning popularity of extravagant patterns on decorative wares; the praise for ornament-free simplicity by European architects such as Austria’s Adolf Loos; and the emphasis on spare, unadorned geometries that would become the central tenet of twentiethcentury modernist design.
But the shift to simpler designs also reflected in its way the success of ornament. With the help of decoration, nineteenth-century manufacturers and designers had managed to integrate factory and domestic machines into the social fabric. After a century in fancy dress, those machines had now achieved their own dignity. In the early decades of the twentieth century, they would emerge as icons of the modern age. Soon artists and photographers would find their inspiration in factories and industrial equipment; the architect Le Corbusier would write of a house as “a machine for living in”; and, in the final irony, modernist public buildings, skyscrapers, and even churches would be modeled after the machines that had once imitated their predecessors.