Putting aside our reverence for Superman, NASCAR, the
Olympic slalom, and a faster commute, many of us live somewhere between anxiety
and despair on the speed spectrum. And yes, we complain. Some of us complain a
lot. Incessantly. Even speedily. Our lives
flash before us on the screens of our smartphones. Being accessible 24/7 has
triggered in some a chronic state of low-level (or not so low-level) discomfort, a
suspicion that we’re sprinting faster than is sustainable, a certainty that any moment, we’re going to fall off the treadmill, and fall into the pit of…what? Slow
food, because we don’t know how to eat anymore? Weekend breathing workshops,
because we don’t do that right, either? Being kidnapped by a bevy of roving
But what about our celebration of that
aforementioned near-human whose defining characteristic (aside from his snazzy outfit)
is being faster than a speeding bullet? And what is it with fast cars, and fast
sports, and as long as we’re almost on the subject, the entire streamline
Do we hate speed or love it? Is it killing us or
keeping us engaged and alert?
It’s got the makings of quite the dysfunctional
And by the way, it’s not just us. It was them, too,
way back then. In between ambling around picking berries and tackling the odd
tiger, prehistoric man bitched about speed. Just ask Jeffrey T. Schnapp, who
curated the exhibition Speed Limits,
on view at The Wolfsonian in late 2010 and early 2011 and drawn from the collections of The Wolfsonian and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. “Contrary to what many like
to imagine about the cultural history of the idea of speed, it is not limited
to the era of industry,” said Schnapp, a cultural historian who is an affiliate
professor to the department of architecture and a professor of romance language
at Harvard, and who spoke with me when the exhibition was on view. “The idea of speed has centrally shaped human experience going back
to prehistoric times.”
Ideas about velocity are central to the belief
systems of many religions, and Schnapp explained that “speed is a definite
attribute of the Divine.” In particular, Judeo-Christian religions foster a
“kind of cult of speeding up that is part of the apocalyptic vision, this sense
that time is running out and that you better get on the right side before it’s
too late,” he said. That’s right, the sand is rushing to the bottom of the
salvation hourglass…but you already knew that.
Limits was organized to celebrate the hundredth
anniversary of Italian Futurism, which was nothing if not pro-speed. The 1909
manifesto proclaimed that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new
beauty: the beauty of speed.” And while Speed
Limits celebrated Futurism, Schnapp was careful to not align the show with
either side of the speed debate. Instead, he sought to “tell
the story, through material culture, about the ways in which the heroic culture
of speed has invaded every aspect of life in the modern era and to show the
reverse, to trace the rise of the sense that we are nearing or perhaps have
even passed the limits of speed’s effectiveness, this ongoing critique that
says there is something unnatural about this acceleration of life, that it
disrupts the quality of life, of social interactions, and of our ability to
Schnapp organized Speed Limits around five key areas of modern life: circulation and
transit; construction and the built environment; efficiency; the measurement
and representation of rapid motion; and the mind/body relationship.
It was his hope that viewers of the show—and readers
of the companion catalogue—would reflect critically on some of the fundamental
questions we face today as individuals and as a society. He didn’t seek to
provide answers, but instead to offer entry points and frameworks into ways of
thinking about our world.
To learn more about Speed Limits, you can: visit its webpage
on The Wolfsonian’s website; view the online
version of the library exhibition that complemented the
gallery show; or purchase the exhibition catalogue
from The Museum Shop.
How do you experience speed? Please share your
thoughts on our digital
complaints/solutions tool. Hurry over to the website’s homepage, sign up,
and let loose. In too much of a rush? Give our Complaints Line a quick ring at
Andrea Gollin is the writer/editor for special projects for The Wolfsonian, including the Power of Design website and blog.
1937. Benton Spruance, artist. Lithograph. The Wolfsonian–FIU,
The Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Collection.
While many people think of the civil
rights movement as beginning in the 1960s, historical artifacts in The
Wolfsonian’s collection are powerful visual reminders of earlier struggles for recognition
of basic human rights. One such item is a lithograph print by Hugo Gellert for
a portfolio of plates titled Comrade
Gulliver: an illustrated account of travel into that strange country the United
States of America. Gellert was a Hungarian-born American artist who put his
talents to work for progressive causes in the service of the Communist Party of
the United States of America (CPUSA). The lithograph pictured here protests the
all-too-common practice of lynching.
The depression decade (1929–1939)
was a dark time for people of color in America. Nearly 200,000 black
sharecroppers and tenant farmers were driven off the land in the mid-1930s,
while half of all black “breadwinners” were thrown out of work. For those
fortunate few not made homeless and/or jobless, Jim Crow laws and
state-sanctioned discrimination doomed most of them to menial, demeaning, and
low-paying employment in a hostile climate in which bigoted slogans proclaimed no
jobs for “Negroes” until every white man was back to work.
Worse still, lynchings continued
to light up too many dark nights in the South in horrific public spectacles of
racist torture and murder, often attended by children and by local sheriffs
unwilling to intervene. Only two groups, the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) and the CPUSA, actively fought for civil
rights and supported the Costian-Wagner bill, which proposed federal trials for law
enforcement officials who failed to exercise their duties during a lynching
incident. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a spirited advocate of the
anti-lynching legislation and a tireless crusader for civil rights in general.
While FDR was personally supportive, publicly and politically the New Yorker adopted
a more cautious attitude. Believing the bill would not garner sufficient votes
to pass in Congress and wary of alienating the southern conservative
“Dixiecrat” wing of his party and jeopardizing other of his progressive
programs and his political future, the president chose not to campaign for its
After the anti-lynching bill died
in Congress in 1935, the CPUSA tried to win over left-leaning liberals,
progressives, and radicals, and to recruit African-Americans to the cause by
making civil rights and black liberation part of its party platform. The party attempted
to organize integrated unions of black and white sharecroppers in the South,
put African-American James Ford on their national vice-presidential ticket, and
secured the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys—nine African-American youths
falsely accused of gang-raping two white women in Alabama and enduring what
amounted to a “legal lynching.”
Hugo Gellert’s lithograph,
ironically titled “Stake in the Commonwealth,” is an expression of righteous indignation.
Its title implies that being “burned at the stake” in a lynching was the only
“stake” blacks had in the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as other southern
states that openly sanctioned racism, segregation, disenfranchisement, and even
countenanced extra-legal murder.
The complaints and political
pressure made by the first lady, the NAACP, the CPUSA, and African-Americans
may not have achieved their goal of immediately ending discrimination and lynching,
but they did help shape FDR’s progressive New Deal programs. Blacks were ten
percent of the population, and Roosevelt insisted that an equal portion of Civilian
Conservation Corps (CCC) jobs be reserved for African-American youths (although
CCC camps in Southern states remained segregated and were staffed by white
officers). An equal proportion of federal relief program jobs were mandated to
go to African-Americans, and the federal government set an important precedent
by insisting that regardless of race, these employees were to
receive equal pay for equal work. The Federal Theatre Project pushed the
envelope the furthest by enforcing the equal pay provisions, firing racist
employees, and requiring integrated audiences for all federally funded theatre
productions. Such provisions caused the defection of many southern Democrats
and earned the Roosevelt administration the enmity of powerful politicians
like Martin Dies of Texas. As head of the House Un-American Activities
Committee, Dies spearheaded the attack against the New Deal at the end of the
Francis X. Luca is chief librarian of The Wolfsonian and an adjunct
professor of history at Florida International University. He maintains the
library’s heavily illustrated blog, providing regular
updates on library happenings and holdings. Read it!
Caption: Portfolio plate,
“Stake in the Commonwealth,” from Comrade
Gulliver: An Illustrated Account of Travel into that Strange Country the United
States of America, 1936. Hugo Gellert (American, b. Hungary, 1892–1985), author
and illustrator. New York. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.
The Jumo lamp can
be found in a group of small early-twentieth-century appliances in The Wolfsonian’s
fifth-floor galleries that are all made partly out of the famous early plastic
called Bakelite or its derivatives, without which none of them would have existed.
Bakelite was invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in
response to several complaints about manufactured goods. Frequently, new electrical
appliances of the era would break down due to poor insulation materials that
allowed products to overheat or become dangerous to touch or adjust when in
use. Complaints about the production costs and timely manufacture of naturally derived
materials such as celluloid and shellac to protect exterior appliance surfaces
from water, scratching, dents, and other wear also spurred Baekeland to seek a
fully synthetic solution.
The Jumo lamp uses Bakelite-derived plastic
in several key places. The base, outer shell of the lamp hood, and panels on
each side of the lamp arm are all made of the material, allowing the user to
adjust the height and position of the lamp when open and turned on without
burning herself. When closed, the hood and base form a unified, streamlined,
pod-like shape that hides the other components, reflecting the styling of the
era and adding portability and ease of storage. Aesthetically, the plastic’s amber
hue gives the components a warm, glowing color that appears jewel-like and yet
technologically advanced. The color blends well with other popular furniture
materials such as wood; ironically, complaints about Bakelite’s uniform brown
tone due to the resins it contains helped prompt the development of similar
kinds of plastics that were not as limited in hue.
Peter Clericuzio is The Wolfsonian's academic programs manager.
Caption: Lamp, Jumo, 1945. Jumo Breveté, France, manufacturer. Molded plastic, metal. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.
Sometimes complaints lead to solutions. And sometimes those
solutions make things worse.
The leaders of the Soviet Union after the 1917 Russian
Revolution had a complaint about the countryside. Most of these leaders were
intellectuals. Some of them had working-class backgrounds. But very few of them
came from the group that represented the overwhelming majority of the
population—the peasantry. The leaders shared a view that the ways of life of
peasants and, above all, their ways of working the land were a problem. A
problem not just for rural people themselves, but for the entire country—which
could not catch up with, let alone surpass, its capitalist rivals as an
industrial power as long as agriculture remained unproductive.
This plate—one of many propaganda porcelains produced by the
Soviet regime following the Revolution—depicts the countryside as Communist
leaders hoped it would become. “They have swapped horses for steel steeds,” the
text declares, a reference to the tractors that Soviet factories were beginning
to produce and that the Communists believed would vastly increase grain
The same year the plate was decorated, 1928, the regime
launched a campaign to realize this vision. The idea was to seize the land of
rich peasants and encourage their neighbors to combine this land with their own
allotments and make large collective farms, which could purchase tractors and
make other improvements to production. The reality was massive resistance on
the part of peasants of all classes and extreme coercion on the part of the
state, including arrests, shootings, and deportations. The Soviet “solution” to
agricultural backwardness brought social chaos, contributed to a famine that killed
millions of people, and resulted in an agricultural sector that remained
inefficient for decades to come.
Jon Mogul is The Wolfsonian's assistant director for research and academic initiatives.
Caption: Plate, They Swapped Horses for Steel Steeds, 1928. Trifon Zakharovic Podriabinnikov, designer. Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, maker. Glazed porcelain. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Collection.