“The American Machines Did Things that the World Earnestly Wished Machines to Do”

(p. 22) . . . 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 (p. 23) 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 inter-changeable 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.

The most popular feature at the Great Exhibition was not an exhibition at all, but rather the elegant “retiring rooms,” where visitors could relieve themselves in comfort, an offer taken up with gratitude and enthusiasm by 827,000 people–11,000 of them on a single day. Public facilities in London were woefully lacking in 1851. At the British Museum, up to 30,000 daily visitors had to share just two outside privies. At the Crystal Palace the toilets actually flushed, enchanting visitors so much that It started a vogue for installing flushing toilets at home– . . .

Source:
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
(Note: ellipses added.)

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