I’ve now taken a look at four of these old marketing books – and more is on the way, depending on what books turn up – and I feel like the question of “why” should be addressed. Why look at books for Singer and City Investing, both gone for more than 50 years? Why look at a book for Broadway Chambers, when I’ve never worked on the building?
Architects and engineers working on old buildings occupy a strange niche because we have to understand the way people in our professions did their jobs at the time that any given building we work on was built. In effect, we have to be reasonably familiar with the way our jobs were done for as long as the buildings we work on have been in existence. For me, for example, that means knowing structural engineering and construction practice in New York and the northeast for the last 180 to 200 years. It’s hard to come up with an analogy in the work of other professionals. Doctors have to know about the recent history of their work so that they can understand the medical histories of their patients, but that span of time is clearly self-limiting. Lawyers may need to know the history of individual laws, but their practice generally concerns laws as enacted now or in the recent past. Teachers generally follow current pedagogical theory. But the AEC fields, as they related to existing buildings, have to work with the built representation of past theory and methods. Unfortunately, our predecessors left only partial records of what they were thinking, for the same reason that we don’t today write down every step of our thought processes: it’s unnecessary to do the work.
I find that I learn far more about past practice looking at ordinary books from the past – college textbooks, for example – than I do looking at either histories or formal discussions in, say, the Proceedings of the ASCE. The issues that people think are important at any given moment are not necessarily representative of what is actually getting built, while the textbooks given to engineering students are usually very close to the ordinary standard of practice. Design handbooks are another good source, not of theory or discussion, but of daily practice.
The marketing books show, in a similar manner, the way that the public perceived the new idea and the new technology of large steel-framed buildings. The language used was meant to attract businessmen to rent space or, in the case of the Broadway Chambers book, to hire a specific construction company. The details discussed – elevator speeds, the miles of electric wiring used, the type of toilet flush-valve used – should be seen in the same light as a current-day ad discussing the specs for a new cell phone. Complicated new technology is being packaged for public consumption. The Broadway Chambers book takes it a step further: it shows what aspects of the new technology were considered to be worthy of inclusion in an international fair. The facade support details in yesterday’s post were included because they were then new and interesting. The fact that they became standards (the picture above is from a 1914 terra cotta catalog) shortly afterwards suggests they were better (easier to build, stronger, cheaper) than other available options. And that is a fact worth knowing.