Would you wear and use a vintage pocket watch?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hold onto Yer Gear Spurs! -- A Gander at American Steampunk

     Since I brought up the topic of the wild west at SteamCon, it seems fitting that I should speak about their theme, "American Steampunk."  (The aspect of the genre based on the United States' wild West, not simply Americans who "do" steampunk!)

     It pictures a steam-powered society without the constraints of corsets and monarchs; the well-defined class structure of the Victorian era was replaced with new strata of society and associated conflicts between those groups.   Despite the difficulties that came with the country's growing pains, the American west allowed for almost unrestrained individualism.  Steam-driven locomotives running on tracks stretching thousands of miles across an entire country enabled the settlers of the American West to venture far out into what was then the wilderness.  When they arrive, the established a society fueled by entrepreneurial gusto.  They believed that those who sought success could work hard and with a little luck, find it.

     Societies all over the world made advances in the use of electricity, steam power, and more.  Technology is often a result of ideas put into use during war.  The Civil War in the United States brought about new inventions in several areas: sturdy and deadly guns aplenty, spy balloons, rudimentary aircraft and other "horseless" vehicles to transport people and supplies.
      "Necessity is the mother of invention" could have been coined in those times, as well.  People used what they had on hand to accomplish tasks in their daily lives.  They did not have fancy stores to which to go and purchase items; at most, their town might have a general store for the most basic necessities of life, and everything else was made by individual craftsmen.  If something broke or wore out, they fixed it themselves or had it repaired by a qualified craftsperson.  This spirit of extending the useful life of items also lies at the heart of steampunk, which helps make the period a tidy fit for the genre.

     If you want a connection of all three groups and places (wild west, native Americans, and Victorian England), Queen Victoria herself attended Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when they ventured over to Europe for a bit in the 1880's; the show included native Americans and cowboys alike performing amazing acts of shooting and horsemanship.
      About this time, cowboys (and girls!) and native Americans alike out West began to adopt some European fashion into their wardrobes.  In the absence of Twitter and Facebook, it is possible that the performers of Wild Bill's show liked the the Victorian fashion aesthetic that they saw, and brought back some of it to the West.

     The steampunk aspect comes into play when we delve into the history of that time and customize it to make something unique.  It is a celebration of what was, and an imagination of what might have been if a society had built today's devices with their level of technology and understanding.    This aspect of steampunk seems virtually untouched; I could find hardly any examples of it online, other than two large conventions coming up (SteamCon II and Wild West Con).

     As for what people can actually create that would be considered American steampunk, the possibilities are limitless.  Just take something from the wild, wild west and modify it to suit your desires along a steampunk aesthetic, and you're all set.  Perhaps a steam-driven single-action revolver.  A brass filigree tomahawk.  Or a clockwork bridle for a horse.  Limitless, I say!


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