Friday 20 December 2013


Classical doorway

A skeuomorph is an object that retains features of an earlier model made in a different material. The classic example is the Greek temple, made out of stone, but modelled on a wooden original with transverse beams. In the wooden version, the beam-ends (visible at the top of the outside walls) became a design feature. This decorative strip was retained in the marble version, though it no longer had a function. It turns up on any building that wants to look classical – and even on Victorian shopfronts and fireplaces. The Greeks had to build temples out of marble – they’d cut down all the trees. And a rock tomb that’s a copy of a stone temple is a skeuomorph of a skeuomorph. Are cathedrals and temples man-made caves?

pediments: They were originally created by the gable end of a pitched roof.

A keystone holds up an arch – but they turn up over windows where they are purely decorative. And how did a triple keystone become an Art Deco trope? "Modern" Art Deco also borrowed from Egyptian art and Jacobean embroidery.

is made with carpentry techniques (mortice and tenon joint, tongue and groove).
pilasters: They “support” a “pediment” or beam.

Some still have grooves so that you can tie up your boat or horse. (Others are modelled on cannons, with a cannon ball in the barrel. Some are actual cannon barrels.)

Plaster is sometimes pargeted to look like clapboarding.

Stucco on brick buildings was painted to look like stone. (Romanesque cathedrals were plastered inside and painted to look like marble.)

Amphorae were modelled on gourds. Gourds used as vases rested on woven bases – so did amphorae. When did it occur to potters that you could make them flat-bottomed? Why were they still making chianti bottles in this style in the 60s?

Rolls Royce: Posh cars preserved the look of a nobleman's carriage. Later versions look nothing like carriages but retain vestigial style features from previous models. (And a Roller’s radiator is modelled on a Greek temple.)

A “country kitchen” is just a modern kitchen with a distressed wood skin.

Hats in the shape of a solar topee or pith helmet have a token ridge on the top. Some modern solar topees have a moulded feature in imitation of the original scarf round the crown.

plastic oil cans, water butts and hard hats: models of metal or wooden originals

metal pen-nibs:
based on the nib of a goose-quill created with a pen-knife

Plastic stylus touch pens are like tiny biros. Biro tops and even highlight pens have barely functional hooks for hooking onto sheaves of paper or your top pocket.

Electric wall lights modelled on candle sconces: especially with the bulb as the flame on a fake candle with fake wax dripping down the side

Ramekins have grooves because they are a “fossil memory” of pleats in paper cases. (Ivan Day the cook on Royal Upstairs Downstairs)

basketweave china, basketweave knitting, basketweave shoes
half-timbering applied to semi-detached house, prefab, café interior
silver buckles imitate cut steel
Self-adhesive stamps still have perforations.

Some 30s art pottery was modelled on Indian basketwork, some 18th century china was modelled on silver originals and vice versa, plastic chatties are modelled on a bronze original, there are Viking stone bowls based on a Roman ceramic original, Anglo-Saxon stone thrones were modelled on wooden chairs.

Interlaced decoration on Pictish slabs, in the Book of Kells started as woven braids, embroidery, woven leather, knots, metalwork.

The antefix on top of the columns that divided Victorian shops from each other was originally a pottery detail on a tiled roof (Etruscan, ancient Roman). Sometimes in the shape of a leaf, sometimes with a face.

The first railway carriages were modelled on horsedrawn carriages, as were cars – and babies’ prams. Trains had coaches and carriages because the first trains just plonked carriage bodies onto train wheels.

Rubber boots modelled on leather riding boots preserve the old-fashioned shape, with functionless straps.

Wine coolers
copy milk pails.

cc (carbon copy) for copying an email
gears and spanners for options or change settings
envelope as email icon
old fashioned handset as phone icon
clipboard icon of a clipboard
radio buttons on computer interfaces

Web versions of fluorescent cardboard circles with jagged edges (NEW! NOW WITH X! FREE! SALE!) you used to see in shop windows

in text messages (They don’t do anything - but they’ve become a literary form.)

sound effects:
camera shutter, game over DING! (saved by the bell), online Scrabble has pinball sounds
computer fonts made to look typewritten

They’re still called “set-top boxes” though you can’t put one on top of a flat-screen telly.

SHIFT and RETURN keys (Why did people go on calling it a CARRIAGE RETURN long after typewriters with carriages had vanished? Has become an ENTER key now.)

jeggings with an embroidered fly and pockets
jeggings printed to look like jeans complete with faded patches, creases and rips
leather patches on sleeves that aren’t worn through, become a design feature

bits of costume that once had a use like men’s sleeve buttons, vents in the back of coats so that you could ride a horse in them

watch pocket on jeans – why not make it a phone pocket?

Cloche hats of the 20s were modelled on WWI flying helmets (they lived on to the 60s as rubber swim hats).

Nun’s habits became vestigial and vanished (they were already fossilised medieval costume).
A nurse’s dress is a fossilised 40s dress.

Nurses’ caps
made sense when servants wore caps. But both were a vestige of the linen or cotton caps that were once worn by most women over a certain age. These evolved to fit current hairstyles and began to go out in the late 19th century.

More skeuomorphic clothes here.

Hats keep archaic shapes, but hairstyles change, so you end up with the wrong hairstyle for the hat.

Corsets and “kinky” lace-up boots carried on being used in pornography long after they’d ceased to be everyday wear.

We got wide pavements so that we could have continental pavement cafes, but we never learned to wash them like they do on the continent.

People went on putting thick fur rugs in cars even after cars were no longer open, and had heating. Car rugs were taken over from carriage rugs.

Many sanctions are a hangover: in the past, nice girls didn’t because if you lost your reputation nobody would marry you.

Brushing your hair 100 times a day helps to keep it glossy – if it's waist-length. People went on recommending this practice long after most women had short hair.

We went to school with all our stuff in individual trunks. When did it occur to anybody that suitcases might be more practical? And you had to bring enough stuff for the whole term because you never went home for the weekend. The arrangement predated even train travel.

Huge suitcases (and trunks) persisted after the disappearance of porters. There was a long gap before the arrival of pullalongs.

We get new tech like ATMs and card readers in shops – but nobody cleans it.

Some people still put two spaces after a full stop (period) because that’s what they were taught 30 years ago. Books on how to write still tell punters to put two spaces after a full stop (and to submit articles double-spaced on A4). (Update: Word now corrects this "mistake".)

We still call utility poles “telegraph poles”.

There was about six months between the first mini-skirt and the first pair of American tan tights.

 Impressionist and then Cubist paintings were given ornate gilded frames.

Once the law had been changed (in the 20s) to allow children born out of wedlock to be “legitimised” and inherit from their parents, there were no material drawbacks to being a bastard. But something called “the stigma of illegitimacy” lasted until the 70s.

In the 20s, little girls with bobbed hair wore huge ribbon bows – left over from the previous decade when they had long, bouffant hair that needed tying with a bow.

We’re still told to use chilled butter for pastry – but we keep it in the fridge now and it’s always chilled.

Washing rice
made sense when it was full of grit and insects.
A double saucepan was necessary when you couldn’t adjust the heat on your hob.

Egg cosies
kept in the heat when all food was carried along miles of cold stone passages from a basement kitchen.

Sugar tongs
were made for picking up tiny pieces of sugar (like coffee sugar). No wonder it was so hard to pick up sugar lumps with them.

Tiny, blunt butter knives
were fine for serving butter curls, but were hopeless for cutting bits off slabs of refrigerated butter.

had a use when wine was full of bits and you strained it into a decanter. They continued as a pointless luxury item.

Teabags and mugs arrived in the 70s. It’s 2021 and nobody’s making spoon rests. Or mug saucers.

The human appendix no longer serves a function – it’s a vestigial organ. Darwin points out that most humans still have non-functioning ear and tail muscles.

The final come-down of the medieval great hall is the space-wasting lobby of a one-bedroom flat.
Modernist churches have vestigial spires.

Railway stations
originally had very high roofs to accommodate the steam and smoke of steam trains – new ones are built with high glass roofs because that’s what railway stations look like.

The Empire State Building had a mast on top to tether airships. (Transferring passengers by gangplank was made even riskier by high winds.) Now tall buildings have a mast on top to try and be taller than the next tall building. (The bulbs for the lights on the tip have to be changed by steeplejacks.)

Stately homes were built for a family, servants, guests. The servants have gone, and the house has lost its function. There’s no money to keep it up and it slowly decays. The last members of the family live in a few rooms with nothing to occupy their time – or minds.

Wooden spoons have bowls that are too shallow to be any use. (Though wooden spoons that you can also use as spoons are making a come-back.)

“Who giveth this woman...” is a relic of arranged marriages. (And the best man and stag party are a relic of the posse that captured the bride.)

People are still being trained for ways of life or professions that no longer exist: short story writer (there’s no market), jazz singer.

1 comment:

  1. I love this, what a fabulous fascinating topic. I have a blog entry waiting to go up on exactly that business of the Bishop in gaiters - a clergyman from a 50s murder story explaining why he is wearing them. I remember a gimmicky 'condom pocket' on jeans for a short time in the 80s....
    You must keep collecting these. It's your next book. I'd buy it.