an outpost of wizardry and wonder

Crystal PalaceI am enjoying Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. It is, to a large extent, the answer to my call, made four years ago, for books on “material history.” Bryson is a funny storyteller with a good eye for the sort of details that make history compelling and good sense of how to bring those details together into an absorbing narrative.

I find it interesting, however, that in this passage from chapter 1, where Bryson describes first the creation of Joseph Paxton‘s Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and then the American section of the exhibition, he at first does seem to grasp the impact of taxes on wealth and innovation and then doesn’t.

Here he does:

Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass — so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days after being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed — sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but it cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically in limitless volumes.

Allied with this was the timely abolition of two long-standing taxes: the window tax and glass tax (which, strictly speaking, was an excise duty). The window tax dated from 1696 and was sufficiently punishing that people really did avoid putting windows in buildings where they could. The bricked-up window openings that are such a feature of many period buildings in Britain today were once usually painted to look like windows. (It is sometimes rather a shame that they aren’t still.) The tax, sorely resented as “a tax on air and light,” meant that many servants and others of constrained means were condemned to live in airless rooms.

The second duty, introduced in 1746, was based not on the number of windows but on the weight of the glass within them, so glass was made thin and weak throughout the Georgian period, and window frames had to be compensatingly sturdy. The well-known bull’s-eye panes also became a feature at this time. They are a consequence of the type of glass-making that produced what was known as crown glass (so called because it is slightly convex, or crown-shaped). The bull’s-eye marked the place on a sheet of glass where the blower’s pontil — the blowing tool — had been attached. Because that part of the glass was flawed, it escaped the tax and so developed a certain appeal among the frugal. Bull’s-eye panes became popular in cheap inns and businesses, and at the backs of private homes where quality was not an issue. The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half. This, along with the technological changes that independently boosted production, made the Crystal Palace possible.

Here he doesn’t:

The United States’ section almost didn’t get filled at all. Congress, in a mood of parsimony, refused to extend funds, so the money had to be raised privately. Unfortunately, when the American products arrived in London it was discovered that the organizers had paid only enough to get the goods to the docks and not onward to Hyde Park. Nor evidently had any money been set aside to erect the displays and man them for five and a half months. Fortunately, the American philanthropist George Peabody, living in London, stepped in and provided $15,000 in emergency funding, rescuing the American delegation from its self-generated crisis. All this reinforced the more or less universal conviction that Americans were little more than amiable backwoodsmen not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage.

So when the displays were erected it came as something of a surprise to discover that the American section was an outpost of wizardry and wonder. Nearly all the American machines did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do — stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles — but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking. Elias Howe’s sewing machine dazzled the ladies and held out the impossible promise that one of the great drudge pastimes of domestic life could actually be made exciting and fun. Cyrus McCormick displayed a reaper that could do the work of forty men — a claim so improbably bold that almost no one believed it until the reaper was taken out to a farm in the Home Counties and shown to do all that it promised it could. Most exciting of all was Samuel Colt’s repeat-action revolver, which was not only marvelously lethal but made from interchangeable parts, a method of manufacture so distinctive that it became known as “the American system.” Only one homegrown creation could match these virtuoso qualities of novelty, utility, and machine-age precision — Paxton’s great hall itself, and that was to disappear when the show was over. For many Europeans this was the first unsettling hint that those tobacco-chewing rustics across the water were quietly creating the next industrial colossus — a transformation so improbable that most wouldn’t believe it even as it was happening.

Bryson doesn’t seem to see any connection between Congress’s “mood of parsimony,” the emergency funding of American philanthropist George Peabody, and the American “outpost of wizardry and wonder.”

I don’t think anything in this brief history proves the connection between 19th-century America’s low federal spending on the one hand and the combination of American philanthropy and the “unsettling hint that those tobacco-chewing rustics across the water were quietly creating the next industrial colossus,” but Paxton doesn’t even entertain the idea — doesn’t even seem to see the possible connection clearly enough even to openly refrain from entertaining it.

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