The Cincinnati Steampunk Scene

By Jason Dean

So how many articles about trends and Cincinnati have you read that start with that infamous line about Mark Twain? The one about him stating that he would want to be in Cincinnati at the end of the world because the place is always ten years behind? In this case it is the perfect lead in to a look at Cincinnati and its emerging Steampunk scene, a movement that has all the looks and style of Twain’s era mixed with the technology of today.

Steampunk is best described as a movement and these last couple of years its influences have been seen in many things ranging from clothing designs to video games, from music videos to interior design and so on. The Steampunk aesthetic is essentially Victorian elegance spliced with industrial edginess, thus the “steam” plus “punk,” although the actual label is an evolution from the term Cyberpunk (think Matrix, Tron, and such). But those deeply immersed in the movement will tell you that that Steampunk is a hard term to categorize and have countless debates and discussions that conclude with the notion that a major part of Steampunk’s attraction is that the “rules” are very fluid. For some in this scene the fashions are what brings them in, others are engineers who like to build or modify machines to look ancient, some are musicians, some are artists, some writers, but whatever the reason, creativity seems to be at the heart of Steampunk.

The term Steampunk was coined in 1987 by author K. W. Jeter but it really begins in the 19th century with authors like H. G. Wells writing books like The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s works such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The movement is about capturing that antique imagination about what the future was going to be like; picturing a future that never was run by steam and clockwork.  For some steampunks this is a rejection of current societal norms by embracing a romantic nostalgia of the past, but it is worth noting that this is not a conservative movement; the “punk” element manifests itself in a celebration of those who were prominent social critics of their time. The two afore mentioned Victorian writers, and many other contemporaries, used their fiction to spread messages of social justice and rebellion. The central theme of The Time Machine is “eat the rich,” something that you would more likely expect from a punk rock song.

Since midway through the last decade the Steampunk movement has been growing on the East and West coasts and throughout the world, and this time Cincinnati is not ten years behind. Over three years ago saw the formation of the League of Cincinnati Steampunks, a local confederacy of dandies, rogues, ladies and gentlemen who meet a couple of times a month to celebrate their eccentricity and dally with the public. Typically they hold a monthly “salon” the first Friday of each month at Arnold’s, downtown on Eighth Street, which seems very appropriate considering that the bar has been in operation since 1861. What started as a small group of misfits gathering for drinks has grown into something far bigger and this September is poised to get even larger.

The Southgate House, another perfect location for Steampunk, is hosting the Time Traveler’s Ball on Saturday, September 24, (see an all house event produced by Pandora Promotions that will present Cincinnati with its first major Steampunk event. The ball is a pre-Halloween costume party that will offer entertainment from noted Steampunk bands like The Extraordinary Contraptions and Ford Theatre Reunion to more local acts such as Vaudeville Freud and Chakras. Along with other bands, the line up for the night includes dancing from Deadly Sins Burlesque, music from DJ Roundboy, Steampunk vendors and art, the Hookah Lounge for smokers, freak show acts and general oddities. Being a “time travel” event, the organizers point out that a costume from any period will fit in, “even those from the early 21st century,” which means you don’t have to dress fancy. The $10 advance ticket price is very cheap given the huge line up and there is even an online $15 special that you get you access to the Old West Festival that same weekend on the same ticket.

Considering that the Queen City gets its nickname from a time when tall-stacked steamboats made this town a major hub it seems about time that Cincinnati established herself as part of the Steampunk scene. But even if you don’t want to wear a top hat and brass goggles or a corset and bustle yourself, the Time Traveler’s Ball does look like it is going to be a “jolly good party.” Look out for more Steampunk fun in Cincinnati; it looks like these anachronistic eccentrics are going to be around for a long while.