At the crossroads: Industrial progress and a natural history


Images such as this one depicting a large group visiting a countryside location, were what I was looking for amongst the photographic collection at Rossendale Museum. While there is a suggestion that this may be in the Rooley Moor vicinity, any help with it's location would be welcome: Negative glass plate slide, circa 1890, Rossendale Museum.

The images posted here are from Rossendale’s photographic collection. I have been looking for evidence of townsfolk using the countryside for recreational purposes, especially mixed group or family activities. These come from a set of glass plate slides previously stored in damp conditions. While now they are as stable as is possible, the overall poor state of the slides would for most make this set unusable. Nonetheless, I could see from my initial survey that some did still contain images that were worth capturing and in so doing I think we have happened upon something noteworthy.

Although similar to the previous image, noteworthy in this image is the role of text. Most if not all of the participants refer to a book, possibly a guide book, as they appreciated the view before them. The role of the popular press, whether that be newspapers, periodicals or cheap volumes, cannot be emphasised enough: Negative glass plate slide, circa 1890, Rossendale Museum.

The slides soundly evidence a well established relationship between townsfolk and the natural world that was based around health and wellbeing, and social cohesion/mobility. Moreover I think the slides (perhaps a little less obviously) support the idea that a motivating force was something not dissimilar to a folk memory of pre-industrial life in the villages. This seemed especially so with the slides I found of ruined farmsteads and cottages that lay scattered around the hillsides and moors. Here nature held qualities of goodness and purity and perhaps reminded some of childhood and the more intimate relationships with extended family that village life could offer — all of which were radically upset in the relatively rapidly emerging industrial townships. Such sensibilities emerged as a romantic and nostalgic engagement with the local natural environment and was something that was exploited by contemporaneous advertising campaigns. Bread baked with original ingredients “like Grandma used” was somehow more pure than its competitors regardless of the actual amount of lead white it contained!

The aesthetic qualities imbued by the decomposition of this derelict and deserted rural homestead now mirrors the similar processes affecting the glass plate slide used to capture it. A complex set of values influenced the creator of this slide. We can argue with some confidence that a longing for a lost rural village life was fundamental: Negative glass plate slide, circa 1890, Rossendale Museum.

The often beautiful deterioration of the slides gives them a sense of returning to a more natural state — bringing with it an aesthetic quality not at all dissimilar to the ruined farmsteads that the slides often depict. They remind us (in case we needed reminding) that these are snapshots of times past, of peoples’ lives now lived and at times offer a rare glimpse into the sensibilities of those people. Perhaps our rediscovery and representation of these beautiful artefacts is similar to the forces at play that urged their creator to capture the beautiful deterioration of the farmstead as nature reclaimed it around one hundred years earlier. Not then denying my own role in this we must conclude that the slides also reveal this researcher to be touched with a similar sensitivity as perhaps the original creators of the slides.

Mark Steadman

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8 Comments

Filed under Meanings

8 responses to “At the crossroads: Industrial progress and a natural history

  1. sjmma

    What great images – a real find. The use of texts, of guidebooks and herbals as tools of naturalists’ trade, is especially important.

  2. Myna Trustram

    Ah yes, the subjectivity of the researcher. We’re all driven by our own desires in the choice of research topic and its interpretation. Most though don’t declare their interest or the impact of the data on them. Some see it as a positive force to be harnessed as I think Mark’s use of it here confirms.

  3. Bridget Kennedy

    Dear Mark,

    Firstly I’d like to say how much I am enjoying your blog, your writing is accessible and your insights most interesting.

    I wonder if you are familiar with a project called Blue Antelope?

    http://www.blueantelope.info

    It ran about 3 /4 years ago in Glasgow, based around an exhibit in the Hunterian Museum.

    • Mark Steadman

      Thanks Bridget for the comments and for flagging up the Blue Antelope Project. The combined work of Kate Foster, Hayden Lorimer and Merle Patchett in the Blue Antelope Project has been an inspiriation for me on several levels, and for some time now. Well worth a look if anyone has not done so already (link now to be found in this blogs list of relevant websites).

  4. We were reminded of a picture we saw in the Rossendale library of some elderly members of the community going on motorised wheelchair excursions into the countryside.

  5. “The slides soundly evidence a well established relationship between townsfolk and the natural world that was based around health and wellbeing, and social cohesion/mobility.” … “Such sensibilities emerged as a romantic and nostalgic engagement with the local natural environment and was something that was exploited by contemporaneous advertising campaigns. Bread baked with original ingredients “like Grandma used” was somehow more pure than its competitors regardless of the actual amount of lead white it contained!”

    Has this changed? I’m not sure it has. Not yet anyway. Just because these adverts are now viewed as nostalgic (nostalgia about nostalgia), doesn’t mean that current advertisements aren’t also using the nostalgia and pull of nature or tradition in similar ways.

    PS. Have you uncovered any examples old advertisements that specifically used nature in a nostalgic way?

  6. “Perhaps our rediscovery and representation of these beautiful artifacts is similar to the forces at play that urged their creator to capture the beautiful deterioration of the farmstead as nature reclaimed it around one hundred years earlier. Not then denying my own role in this we must conclude that the slides also reveal this researcher to be touched with a similar sensitivity as perhaps the original creators of the slides.”

    Yes! They certainly sound beautiful.

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