A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Morris and the Machine

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair Machinery Hall
via http://industrialartifactsreview.com/
Standing in the Machinery Hall of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, Henry Adams, Great-Grandson of the second President of the United States, suddenly realized that science and machinery had “electrocuted Santa Claus.” William Morris died in 1896, just three years after Adams's realization, and already there were signs that “the machine” was coming to dominate human minds and lives. Automobile development was blooming, H.G. Wells's Time Machine came out in 1895, and in 1896, a wireless telegraphic message (precursor to the radio), was successfully sent nearly nine miles across the Bristol channel.

It's easy to think that Morris wasn't ready for the 20th century; that it was somehow fitting for him to pass away before the next wave of technology engulfed the wealthy part of the world. After all, he'd spent most of his life battling the ugly effects of industrialization. He'd even said himself that the leading passion of his life, apart from a desire to make beautiful things, was a “hatred of modern civilisation.”

But he's often misunderstood in this sense. Although he had been among the first Victorians to decry the loss of old ways of life, he was more pragmatic about it than many of us realize. In his 1888 essay, “The Revival of Handicraft,” he gently mocked those who would have everything done by hand, without regard for the craftsmen doing the work: “it is not uncommon to hear regrets for the hand-labour in the fields, now fast disappearing from even backward districts of civilized countries. The scythe, the sickle, and even the flail are lamented over … although I must avow myself a sharer in the above-mentioned reactionary regrets, I must at the outset disclaim the mere aesthetic point of view which looks upon … the reaper, his work, his wife, and his dinner, as so many elements which compose a pretty tapestry hanging.”

He did think that machine labor was degrading, but he laid the blame for this at man's door, and pointed out (in another lecture) that machines could relieve degradation as well as create it: “I have spoken of machinery being used freely for releasing people from the more mechanical and repulsive part of necessary labour; and I know that to some ... machinery is particularly distasteful, and they will be apt to say you will never get your surroundings pleasant so long as you are surrounded by machinery. I don't quite admit that; it is the allowing machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays...”

These concessions were limited: his long-term hope was for the reign of Socialism, the simplification of life, and the limitation of machinery once again. But in the the short-term, he quite admitted that “as an instrument for forcing on us better conditions of life, it [machinery] has been, and for some time yet will be, indispensable.”  


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