One weekend a year, the steampunks come out in the streets of Waltham, and it feels like home. In the much-preserved 19th century factory town just outside Boston — with displays of linotype machines the size of refrigerators, reanimated steam engines, and clocks, lots and lots of antique clocks —you can feel like you’ve sort of fallen out of time.
Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is a part-literary genre, part-fashion trend that reimagines the Industrial revolution with heightened technology and a Jules Verne sense of adventure. It involves a lot of fancy clothes, dirigibles, submarines, and more often than not welding goggles. The aesthetic is turn-of-the-century, ornate but coal-stained.
So when members of the devoted subculture came across the abandoned steam-powered factories of Waltham in 2010, it was love at first sight.
Elln Hagney, executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, first hosted a humble gathering by request in 2010, not knowing quite what to expect. It was almost cancelled when a flood did more than $500,000 worth of damage to the museum, which resides in the boiler room of Frances Cabot Lowell’s historic 19th century textile mill — a hub of the American Industrial Revolution.
Hagney was told steampunk has streaks of post-apocalyptic depression, so they said what the hell, and amid ruin the event was a surprise hit. A thousand people showed up. Steampunks started filing into the old brick factory in full Victorian garb, and all of a sudden “it was like they were home.”
And the relationship has blossomed since. Hagney gets new volunteers and history enthusiasts, not to mention fundraisers to support the museum. New England’s steampunks get a physical place to call home, with monthly meetups, occasional exhibits, and the annual festival.
Last weekend marked the third festival, which now draws around 10,000 people. It currently goes by Watch City Festival, after the town’s namesake, drawn from historic Waltham Watch Company (1850-1957).
On the banks of the Charles River, which once powered world-renowned factories, people in modern clothes look more out of place than the costumed elderly couple playing organ grinders.
The event now bleeds out from the museum into the rest of the town, with several local businesses hosting events. Watch City Brewery offers Steampunk Ale just for the weekend. The town, including the mayor and city council, has embraced the partnership.
A niche trend that often lives in conference showrooms walks the streets.
It’s not a perfect marriage, as more than anything, steampunk is defined by anachronism. Its practitioners revere history, but they throw a monkey wrench into its gears. There’s much talk of sea monsters and steam-powered robots, and the fashion sense doesn’t stay true to period, but steampunk and Waltham seem to have just enough common DNA.
Hagney’s challenge is to offer education amid subculture, with panels like English vs. American mills back-to-back with workshops on building affordable costume props. She makes sure that amid all the Jules Verne, the Charles Dickens side makes it into the story.
“It’s wonderful to play in this world, but we think it’s important to know where it comes from… If we can help the steampunk community understand the reality of what was it can only make the movement stronger.”
A big part of steampunk is undeniably the fun of costumes and old-timey props. But even in that lies an obsessive flair for the antique. If there’s one thing a museum and steampunk have in common, it’s the painstaking collection and worship of antiquity.
Inside the museum are glass cases of old watch parts, wrenches, outdated tools. Outside the festival vendors offer bins with hundreds of old keys, springs, bronze doorknobs. It’s a fine line.