A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

S is for Senses

When artists and writers have imagined the future, they have often predicted altered senses and sense-scapes. One of the key markers of these visions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that the future would see an increased isolation of the senses from each and from their environments. The explosion of material culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century had offered an ever growing number of objects that regulated the daily lives of each of the senses. Robert Seymour’s ‘Revolving Hat’ image from 1830 features two men surrounded by accoutrements appropriate the senses: cigar, scent-box, eye-glass, spectacles, and hearing trumpet. The explosion of new consumer trinkets and everyday items of use helped people to visualise the separate, distinctive, roles and traits of each of the five senses. The expanding range of objects that extended, limited, and mediated the senses took on an important role in urban locations that were more and more sensorially overwhelming. For example, several images of the future imagined that city streets, natural landscapes, and even dining rooms in homes would become be visual battlefields in which individuals were assaulted by a barrage of advertisements. The response, George Simmel predicted in 1903, was an increasingly ‘blasé attitude’ as urban-dwellers learned to desensitize themselves to the urban hubbub.

The cumulative result of this sensory overwhelm was, many early twentieth-century artists predicted, an increased separation from each other and from the environments in which people lived. In July 1905 W. K. Haselden’s vision of the ‘future of the race’ included people with thick, goggle-like, spectacles and extended, buzzing, trumpet mouths. The accompanying text noted that speakers at recent conference on public health had announced that ‘in two generations people will be half blind’ and they would ‘resemble gramophones’. The cause of all of this was clear: in the background smoke billows from chimneys and factories, representing the polluting and distorting impact of urban life on the sensorium. The image almost represents a curious, inverted, image of nineteenth-century experiments with sound and sight deprivation in prisons performed by L. F. Froriep or the early twentieth-century ‘isolator’ mask developed by Hugo Gernsback.Whilst many predicted that the senses would be less connected to their environments, this would be accompanied by a greater connection between individuals and different forms of media. Walter Crane’s ‘The Button Presser – Fancy Portrait of the Man of the Future’, found in his 1907 autobiography reminiscences, shows a man with all five senses hooked up to implements and prosthetics: elongated fingers with bells, lightbulbs, and screws; hearing tubes held up to his ears; tubes from nose and mouth connected to curious elixirs in bottles on the floor; spectacles seated on his nose; and feat typing away at a type-writer. The button presser is lost in his own world, always at one remove from an increasingly-mediated environment.

‘The Button-Presser – Fancy Portrait of the Man of the Future’, in Walter Crane, An Artist’s Reminiscences (London, 1907), p. 379.