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Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

The Crown of Empress Marie Louise (made in 1810)

Although I often write about crowns, I have barely ever seen one.  I live in a republic and, sadly, I rarely go overseas where monarchs (and their headdresses) are located.  Today’s crown however is an exception.  I have seen it often at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The crown was created as a wedding gift from Napoleon to his second wife Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia von Habsburg-Lothringen (aka Marie Louise), Empress of the French from 1810 to 1814.  Napoleon divorced his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais for failing to provide a son and he then married Marie Louise, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I of Austria in order to provide both legitimacy for his royal dynasty and an heir.  Concerning his second wife Napoleon is said to have remarked that he “had married a womb.”

French Empress Marie Louise

Whatever his feelings, the crown Napoleon gave his second Empress is certainly lovely.  The crown itself is made of silver and encrusted with 950 diamonds. It originally had 79 large emeralds but these were replaced with Persian turquoise cabochons when the crown was purchased from from Archduchess Alice Elisabeth and her son Archduke Karl Stefan in the early 1950s by Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers. To quote allaboutgemstones.com:

The original emeralds were re-set by Van Cleef & Arpels into contemporary jewelry and marketed with the slogan, “An emerald for you from the historic Napoleonic tiara.” The Marie-Louise tiara is now located at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Although undoubtedly the original emeralds were lovely, I have always liked the distinctive look of the turquoise set among the diamonds.  Many 19th century crowns were made of the most precious gems, but no others have the unique silver and sky blue color scheme which resulted from the crown’s strange history.

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