Reviews 2010

Little Machinery: A Critical Facsimile Edition

Little Machinery: A Critical Facsimile Edition. Mary Liddell. Foreword by John Stilgoe. Critical Essay by Nathalie Op De Beeck. Detroit: Wayne state University Press, 2009. 99 pages. $24.95 (paperback).

When I opened this little jewel of a facsimile, with its carefully-drawn illustrations representing the slim figure of an automaton with iron limbs and the endearing head of an imp, a moving cluster of hammers, saws, chains, drills, I was instantly reminded of the Meccano set box – Erector in the United States. It is a toy which our brothers would receive as a gift, whereas we were invariably given dolls and small kitchen sets to play with. The Meccano was a box of dull ugly metal pieces, and screws and nuts not to be eaten, a toy judiciously mixing pleasure and instruction.

Little Machinery was published in 1926 by Doubleday, Page, written and illustrated by a shy yet active lady, Mary Liddell Wehle, daughter of a Shakespearean scholar of academic renown. She was married to a brilliant Harvard student, Louis Wehle, then a successful lawyer who moved in the higher circles of the democratic party. Her life, sheltered and affluent, started in New Jersey; then shifted to Texas and Kentucky, with her father. After her marriage, it was Washington DC and subsequent to the First World War, the suburbs of New York City, where a number of projects for highways, parkways, and new railroads were under development. The book does not entirely correspond to the image of the quietly withdrawn lady appearing in a few family photographs. Rather, the story of Little Machinery is tremendously assertive, full of booming energy, producing a lot of steam and noise, determined to persuade young readers of the benefits deriving from a machine perpetually working, constructing, sawing and hammering.

All in all, Mary Liddell composed a book of 62 pages, words and images placed facing each other, so that young readers would find a bit of the story written in clear black lettering (in the present tense) and the matching illustration, carefully drawn with technical precision so as to show the correct shape and function of the tools Little Machinery decides to employ. Who created Little Machinery? He grew up from discarded steam-engine and automobile pieces; his energy sources are steam, gasoline, and electricity. The “magic creature” lives near a railroad track that cuts through the woods, and the mechanical creature intends to help the wild animals. Each page tells and shows the ways in which his body can be employed to ease their needs. With the crane attached to his shoulder he moves the nest of some little birds to a better tree: riding in the crane, they feel “very important.” The chapter about “Carpentering” shows his skill in constructing birdhouses; he also makes hutches for the rabbits, boxes for squirrels, a bed for a bear cub. He uses an electric saw, a steam chisel, a compressed air hammer. Little Machinery enjoys making noise: he invites the animals to a train ride with a loud blow of his steam whistle.

A modern reader, aware of environmental issues and notions of endangered wildlife preservation, cannot help but feel that the tiny robot stubbornly interferes with the animals and the woods: digging ponds and caves, installing new railroad tracks where he makes a tunnel by mistake, constructing a dam for the beaver who does not want it. Not only does he meddle with animal life: he replaces traditional farming practices by transforming and assembling his parts into a machine for plowing and sowing, and subsequently into a reaping and threshing machine. He modifies animals by sharpening their bills and claws with his grindstone, weaves cloth, sews clothes: there is no escape from what the hyperactive machine decides to do. In the last chapters Little Machinery provides a forge for making horseshoes, cowbells, nails and nuts that the squirrels cannot eat; he also moulds china tea-sets out of clay. The excuse is that animals shouldn’t drink by putting their nose in the water. The page provides a warning: should there be a tea party, it’s better “not [to] use his potter’s wheel as a tea-table. It might begin to turn round, and then everybody would always be getting everybody else’s tea.” How far are we from the joyful mess of the tea-party in Wonderland, and the careless presence of Dormouse in the teapot!

The lesson imparted here not only concerns the eulogy of machinery and its unlimited powers, but also subtly relates to rules about hygiene at the table. Glass containers for milk and cream are also blown by Little Machinery. The last blow is that Little Machinery is very fond of thinking, and does it better than the animals because “he can think by machinery with wheels going round in his head.” The result is that the animals stop thinking and the small smart robot imagines for each of them all the delightful things he could make in the future. With this reassuring thought, the last page bids goodbye to “dear, clever, busy” Little Machinery. But a disturbing thought lingers: that for all his good and helpful disposition Little Machinery has been interfering with wild animals and with the laws of nature, a point made in the two essays which complement the story placing it in its historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

Undoubtedly this is an instructive book, and it has been well worth reprinting it. It is instructive, as John Stilgoe points out, because it belongs to a genre – the shop manual – which was meant to instruct young readers to do-it-yourself: Stilgoe considers shop-theory as the direct expression of a heavy-industrial epoch which would change the American environment and the nature of suburbia. In this sense Little Machinery follows in the wake of other machines in the garden, but it improves on shop-theory by overlapping into the area of children’s literature. It goes hand in hand with books such as Why a Boy Should Learn a Trade (1906), with Shop Notes: Easy Ways to Do Hard Things (1909), and other popular productions for young apprentices such as the Saw, Tool and File Manual. Liddell indeed wrote with child readers in mind, and her carefully penned and drawn instructions invite them to pay serious attention to the ways in which things can be made and tools used. But we find the book twice as instructive today because of the uncanny beauty of the drawings, which display the hard lines and precision of Futurist art, and are far from the endearing prettiness and pastoral fallacy of child portraiture of the Greenaway type. The book’s beauty, as Nathalie op de Beeck remarks, is uncanny because Little Machinery resembles “the unholy union of a young worker and a piece of assembly-line equipment,” the vortex of the human body and machine encapsulated by the assembly-line worker in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). A contemporary reviewer stated that Little Machinery was “the first picture book ever made for modern children about their world of machinery. It is not depressing or dull”: those modern children of 1926, who enjoyed the making, sawing and drilling, today appear like the recipients of a fairy tale which fantasised about the unlimited power of machinery, and compounded in its protagonist the good hero and the evil sorcerer. Op de Beeck’s essay places the production of this book against a rich background of machine-age aesthetics and their diffusion in the United States, in the art milieu and in popular culture. Yet when this anthropomorphic marionette, so strongly and intentionally reminiscent of the avant-garde posters and children’s books of Soviet Constructivism, enters the realm of childhood, not only does the relationship between technology and aesthetics have to be redefined, but also the one between technology and the child. Indeed it can be redefined today thanks to this very book, as its hyper optimistic ways of depicting the ambiguous progress of the machine are met with far less enthusiasm.

Francesca Orestano
Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy