decorated initial 'W' hen most of us think of Victorian style or design, at least as the term Victorian is most often used, we think of ornateness, abundance, and even clutter. As the objects on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 reveal, these qualities do in fact characterize much popular design. Several factors explain the prevalence of such ornate clutter in Victorian design, the first of which involes the availability of new materials. Victorian designers of things for both home and industry found themselves enthralled by the possibilities of new, easily malleable materials that lent themselves to both ornate decoration and easy reproducibility. Cast iron, for example, permitted the mass production of highly ornate implements and machinery, as did the discovery at this time of other materials for furniture and household items, such as papier maché and gutta percha (rubber). Although such cast, molded, and machined materials did not possess the uniqueness — what Walter Benjamin termed the "aura" of a one-of-a-kind object — they offered several compensations for newly prosperous members of the middle classes: they were affordable, they answered a human need for decoration and embellishment, and they demonstrated that the owner had arrived at that stage of life in which it was economically possible to pay attention to aesthetic pleasures. Unfortunately most, though not all, of the resulting objects proved ugly and vulgar — a fact that led to Ruskinian critique and to the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum and its accompanying art schools in South Kensington.

Even though the characteristic embellishment of domestic and industrial objects with elaborate decoration struck Ruskin and other arbiters of Victorian taste as perfectly dreadful, this approach to embellisment nonetheless has much in common with his criticism in The Stones of Venice of Rennaissance and Neoclassical architecture and design as too elitist. Like Ruskin and Morris, the designers, purveyors, and purchasers of ornate material goods believed that everyone should live in aestheticized surroundings. One therefore encounters elaborate decoration on all sorts of utilitarian objects and machinery, such as steam tractors, but there is one place where designers took an entirely different approach — the railway locomotive, a machine that for many represented the essence of what was good and bad about the Victorian age.

J. E. McConnell's "Bloomer" Express Locomotive (1851) — an example of mid-Victorian locomotive design. Compare the clean lines of this locomotive to the ornateness of pre-Arts-and-Crafts-furniture during the Victorian age.

From very early days, British-designed locomotives always appeared more smooth, elegant, and even streamlined than American ones. Although North American locomotives had exposed piping, compressors, and various mechanical devices, British steam engines generally kept all these things hidden under a smooth housing, which, furthermore, was often painted in bright colors. What explains these different approaches toward industrial design? Probably the most important factor here is that engineers designed these locomotives, and they obviously did not believe that they had to appeal to customers in the same way that desigtners of furniture and even other machinery did. The bridges of Brunel and the Stephensons had a kind of simple elegance that seems to have created a separate aesthetic tradition, one quite different than the aggressively functionalist one found in America.

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Last modified 10 June 2024