Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More:
Revolutions of 1848

THE PEOPLE WHO run the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York asked me if I’d like to conceive and curate a show. The notion was to recruit an outsider to “mine” their collection around some particular historical notion. I proposed drawing on the research for the novel I was just then starting to write. Thus: “Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More: Revolutions of 1848,” which opened in June, 2004, at the museum (5th Avenue at 91st Street) and ran until January, 2005.

There were eighty-odd objects from the period on display, about twenty of which I found by wandering around the astonishing Smithsonian storage facilities outside Washington, D.C.  If I start to mention favorites here – a miniature 3-D “peep  show” of London’s Crystal  Palace (1), a panoramic photographs of a construction site in Paris, possibly the first camera in America, a solid-gold brooch that looks like an 1850 dream of 1950 (2), a Constantin Guys watercolor of a prostitute, a slightly insane collage of lithographs – I’ll just go on and on.

peepshow, matchsafes, brooch

Here is my main, introductory wall text:

It is no coincidence that the word ‘modernity’ was coined at the midpoint of the nineteenth century; the industrial and technological revolutions and the idea of democracy had been gathering steam for decades. But then all at once— astonishingly, fantastically—the rate of change accelerated. In 1838, the only way to send messages was on foot or by coach or boat; rail lines were short, scattered, disorganized novelties. There were no mass media. By 1848, everything was different. There were popular manias for telegraphy, photography, and the railroads. Trips that had taken days now took hours. Communication was instantaneous across continents. With fast, new printing presses, newspapers, magazines, and books proliferated. Advertising and ‘show business’ and ‘bohemianism’ were born in the booming cities, which modernized apace: new buildings had cast-iron facades, plate-glass windows, gas lighting, and running water. 1848 was the emblematic year in this era of crazy new speed and change. In a single month, gold was discovered in California; the U.S. won its first foreign war, turning California—northern Mexico—into America’s west coast; The Communist Manifesto was published; and a democratic insurgency ousted the French monarchy, releasing a revolutionary contagion that transformed Europe overnight. Imagine the political and cultural tumult of the 1960s occurring concurrently with the technological boom of the 1990s— and multiply that by ten. Everything was strange. And for better or worse, nothing seemed impossible.

New York magazine and the Associated Press ran stories about the exhibit, and the New York Sun and the Washington Times ran good reviews. And the producers of my weekly public radio program, Studio 360, had the bright idea of devoting a whole show to the culutre of 1848.

By the way, this show would have been impossible if not for the unbelievably generous help and support of Barbara Bloemink, Lucy Commoner, Melanie Fox, Anne Kreamer, Roger Sherman, Paul Warwick Thompson, and Bess Williamson.

Peep show: Spooner’s Perspective View of the Great Exhibition
By George F. Bragg. Published by W. Spooner. England, 1851. Paper fold out diorama. Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Institution Library. PHOTO: Matt Flynn
Produced by Bryant & May, J. Hynam, Roche & Cie, The Diamond Match Company, and others. England, France, United States, 1850-1910. Tin-plated metal, paper, and other materials.
Probably England, 1870 – 1880. Gold. Gift of Janet Mavec, 2002-9-1. PHOTO: Matt Flynn