A Cultural History of the Elevator

Book - 2014
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New York Univ Pr
Before skyscrapers forever transformed the landscape of the modern metropolis, the conveyance that made them possible had to be created. Invented in New York in the 1850s, the elevator became an urban fact of life on both sides of the Atlantic by the early twentieth century. While it may at first glance seem a modest innovation, it had wide-ranging effects, from fundamentally restructuring building design to reinforcing social class hierarchies by moving luxury apartments to upper levels, previously the domain of the lower classes. The cramped elevator cabin itself served as a reflection of life in modern growing cities, as a space of simultaneous intimacy and anonymity, constantly in motion. 
In this elegant and fascinating book, Andreas Bernard explores how the appearance of this new element changed notions of verticality and urban space. Transforming such landmarks as the Waldorf-Astoria and Ritz Tower in New York, he traces how the elevator quickly took hold in large American cities while gaining much slower acceptance in European cities like Paris and Berlin. Combining technological and architectural history with the literary and cinematic, Bernard opens up new ways of looking at the elevator--as a secular confessional when stalled between floors or as a recurring space in which couples fall in love. Rising upwards through modernity, Lifted takes the reader on a compelling ride through the history of the elevator. 

Publisher: New York : New York University Press, [2014], c2014
Description: 309 p. ; ill. ; 24 cm
ISBN: 9780814787168
Branch Call Number: 621.877 Ber


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Feb 04, 2015

German cultural historian Andreas Bernard noticed that a large number of German TV ads took place in elevators. He began to wonder what made the elevator such a popular spot to promote deodorant, nail polish, eyeglasses, and other products. His research led to this academically-inclined cultural history of the elevator. Bernard explains how elevators made possible buildings of more than four or five stories and how they contributed to fundamental design changes in the way hotels, apartment buildings, and offices are laid out. For example, before elevators, the upper floors of any building were the least desirable; they were hard to reach and were believed to be bad for your health (picture the starving artist in a garret or attic room). After elevators, the most posh accommodations were to be found on the highest floors, commanding sweeping views and symbolizing the occupants' high social status.

Bernard also explores how elevators function as plot devices in stories and films. Sometimes, they are secret spaces where superheroes or others with hidden identities change clothes, or where illicit lovers share a moment of intimacy. Sometimes, they serve as secular confessional boxes, where secrets are revealed. Most often, elevators serve to bring together characters who might not otherwise have met (often when the elevator gets stuck, which happens far more in fiction than in real life!).

Bernard focuses on the use, design, and narrative role of elevators primarily in New York City and in Germany from about the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s and '30s (although some discussion ranges as close to the present as movies from the last few decades with key scenes set in elevators). His style can be a bit stilted and I think the translation makes up a few words to compensate for long, compound German words that have no exact equivalent in English. Overall, though, I found this a very interesting read. It opened my eyes to the impact of elevators on modern city life and storytelling.

Jul 30, 2014

I couldn't get into this book - it spent the first innumerable pages debating about who was the original inventor of the elevator as we know it and this is tedious, and after a while, pointless. Who cares?

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