1879: Inspirations 3

Continuing the series of where the product line’s inspiration comes from, and what research we’ve done, let’s tackle the next three books and documentaries.


The Victorian City, by Judith Flanders: While the primary focus is on the London of Dickens’ era, a generation or so before the Gilded Age, this volume lays a considerable foundation for the city that was to follow. Knowing that at one time, Temple Bar was a considerable impediment to traffic, before its removal to a country estate as an objet d’art and the widening of the street, allows for cultural reference and a note as to the progress of the city. Other details of transit include not only mention of the penny steamers, but the names of many of the vessels and the companies that ran them, and what wharf they departed from bound for which destination. An entire chapter on water quality delves into the politics and economics behind the problems and their solutions. Considerable attention gets paid to details of daily life – food delivery from saloons and chop houses, street entertainers, the highs and lows of gin palaces. Another entire chapter goes to the Tooley Street Fire, that gave 1879 a memorial and a famous ghost. The extensive bibliography could keep the avid historian reading for many years.

A Burglar’s Guide to the City, by Geoff Manaugh: Burglary, this book claims, is the most sincere form of architectural criticism. Manaugh discusses how burglars move through buildings and the city surrounding them, disdaining the ordinary door for the window, the air-shaft, and going straight through the wall. He puts forth his ideas on how burglary, while possible in rural settings, is a crime mostly perpetrated in urban surroundings due specifically to the environment lending itself to the activity. An entire chapter is given over to the Tools of the Trade, describing lockpicking and its progress from a useful skill for the would-be burglar to a hobby practiced by honest people all around the world. (I have yet to visit the John Mossman lock collection in Manhattan, despite living in the city for a year, shame on me.) Further along, he talks about doors, and how to get rid of them, and panic rooms, and whether or not they’re actually useful. The sections on having an inside man and planning the escape route present keys to success that far too many would-be burglars have overlooked, earning them swift capture. If you plan to play a Dodger, or a Brassman, I strongly recommend this slim volume, only 290 pages in a size that would fit neatly in a coat pocket.

Cities of Empire, by Tristran Hunt: Not a volume for the casual reader or the dilettante, this chunky volume (516 pages in hardcover) paces its measured way through the history of the British Empire by the stories of the cities that anchored it. Victoria ruled over an Empire of trade, well established by her predecessors, its routes guarded by a fierce navy and its endpoints garrisoned by troops frequently mistreated but rarely disloyal nonetheless. From Boston and Bridgetown and the start of empire, through Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, and Bombay as military-backed colonialism wrapped its tentacles around the planet, and finally to Melbourne, New Delhi, and Liverpool, as the final consolidations were made and the Empire began to wane, each city’s story is told not only for itself but in the context of the larger story it supports. Extensively footnoted, with a sizable bibliography, Hunt’s work takes that slightly acerbic tone to the subject matter that we see more and more often these days, the British author disapproving of the rapacious actions of his ancestors, cataloging their sins and considering how we got where we are now and what the price of it all was. If you’re looking for a deeper delve into the foundations and the story and the final days of the British Empire, you could do much worse than this volume. It’s certainly one I’ll be referring back to, and chasing down some of the primary sources cited.


BBC History of Scotland, with Neil Oliver: Oh yes, this series had some major controversy surrounding it. Auntie Beeb’s decision to front it with an archaeologist instead of a historian raised a stink, but an unholier row went up over the presentation itself, and its anglocentrism. Some of that got revised out before the show made it to air, some didn’t. A couple of history professors quit the advisory board, one before the first episode’s script was even approved. But this series takes a ten episode deep dive into Scotland’s past, and pokes at a lot of uncomfortable topics, like the fact that the Tobacco Lords who resurrected Scotland’s economy did so on the backs of African slaves, and became the One Percent, living in splendid luxury while their fellow Scots barely had food, clothing, and shelter. I’m doing follow-up research, but the series gave me considerable direction and plenty of topics for it – like Rev. John Witherspoon, who gave up on Scotland and came to America, helped get Princeton University on its feet, and went on to be a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The affable nebbish he’s played as in 1776 is a far cry from the man whose preaching was so compelling he raised over five thousand pounds for the University in a single appearance. Watch this with a salt shaker at the ready if you feel you must, but watch it, and chase down anything that sounds iffy, that’s what historians do.

Fred Dibnah’s Age of Steam: Fred’s not your usual presenter, not a media personality at all, but a steeplejack who turned out to have a delightful gift for gab. Filmed in 1978 while he was making repairs to Bolton Town Hall, Dibnah’s measured Lancastrian delivery made a big impression on viewers, and lo and behold, he turned out to have an amazing private collection of steam equipment in various stages of repair and refurbishment. Age of Steam was one of his last works before his death in 2004 from cancer. Rather than babble on about the series, I’ll just tell you to go watch it, and see a man who knows and loves the technology of the era present his favorite subject.

Noodle Road: I get a lot of ribbing and derision over this one. Yes, it’s a six part documentary about noodles. Ken Hom traces the origin of pasta making to China, where the right combination of grain and mineralized groundwater allowed the development of gluten that makes traditional wheat pasta possible. From there, he follows the expansion of the dish, and its impact on cultures and economies, across Asia, into Europe as Muslim traders brought pasta to what is now Italy hundreds of years ago. Hom discusses how the ability to make and then dry noodles allowed the easy transportation of ready carbs on trade routes. He talks about the noodle stands that became the world’s first fast-foot eateries. The footage of noodle spinners on the streets in modern-day China just has to be seen, as these street-food vendors turn pasta into performance art. Yes, it’s deep nerdery, but if you weren’t looking for that sort of thing, you wouldn’t have read this far to begin with.

Tally Ho!