Steampunk Americana and Secret Societies
This is a real gem of a discovery for me, and hopefully you’ll feel the same way. It’s the “stuff of the Internet” made available as an enjoyable physical product to savour. The only downside is that we’re over a hundred years beyond the point where any of these remarkable devices can be bought by mail-order. Unless you’re one of those rare individuals with physical time-travelling capabilities. So whether your interest is in historical invention, or just seeking a glimpse of Americana, or if like me you’re into the idea of practical jokes developed into beautifully crafted mechanical and electronic devices – and marketing towards the raft of secret societies that sprung up in the late 19th early 20th centuries, this item should tickle your frontal lobe.
About twenty years ago, American cartoonist and illustrator Julia R. Suits stumbled across a curious catalogue at an auction in Ohio. It turned out to be one of a series of catalogues sent out by the DeMoulin brothers, between the period of 1896 and 1930 from Illinois, to fraternal lodges around the country. In Julia R. Suits own words:
It was as if Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini took over [the classic US retailer] Montgomery Ward and branched out into “weird.”
Each page in the catalogue was wonderfully illustrated and each was stranger than the one before. The contraptions listed were designed to perform some kind of devilish prank: a life-sized stuffed goat on wheels wired to shock the rider, a mechanical spitting skeleton, an exploding spanking machine.
Digging deeper, Julia discovered that the DeMoulin brothers belonged to and serviced other, secret societies. Many of these devices were created and sold to be used within initiation ceremonies. Boys playing at being men, really acting like boys.
The magician and illusionist David Copperfield holds them in high regard:
The DeMoulin brothers are what would have happened if the Three Stooges had gone into the furniture business. They were subversive, the brothers, in the way artists are subversive. They satirized sobriety and high seriousness; they tossed pomp on its ass and made dignity pee its pants. They were Lords of Misrule and their marvelous devices were tools available to anyone who wanted to have fun at someone else’s expense, one of the finest forms of fun there is.
– David Copperfield – 2011
Julia has labored to get these Extraordinary Catalogs of Peculiar Inventions back in print (thanks to Perigee/Penguin) as an important piece of Americana.
Click on any of these three outlet links to buy the book:
Julia Ross Suits
Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Narrative Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle among many other places, and has been anthologized in several books. Julia is the person behind the popular Twitter account @TweetsofOld, which satisfies her love for obscure Americana and forgotten history.