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Time Stains

Time Stains


Jared Davis thinks through a few dusty and dirty objects

The dust in my room – unsettled from the removal of books, house plants and piles of unfiled bills – catches dryly in my throat, causing a cough and compounding the anxiety of my second day in self-isolation. I’m cleaning because I don’t often get the chance – or rather there’s something I’d prefer to feel productive in doing – but the rupture between two days ago and everything that came before has meant an abundance of spare time along with a desperation to take control of the situation. So I am dusting: the thin grey layer of dead skin cells along the legs of my desk, the more tangible clumps sticking to my rag rug, the northeast corner of my room filled with draping cobwebs that once belonged to a Daddy Longlegs who lived there but who is now likely some of the matter on the aforementioned dusty table legs. Dust is residue, or remains. To be dusty is to be forgotten, unkept, neglected or ignored. But it is also to be old, full of history, stories and secrets.

I’ll never be able to comprehend exactly how much dust is in my bedroom, the dust in its entirety, but I can break down the experience of dust into discrete moments: this clump on the rug I removed, that bit of dust that made me cough or sneeze. It’s quite like how philosopher Timothy Morton describes the experience of climate through raindrops: “you can feel them on your head–but you can’t fully perceive the actual raindrop in itself. You only ever perceive your particular, anthropomorphic translation of raindrops.”1

For Morton, the climate and global warming are what he calls hyperobjects, things at too vast a scale for us to comprehend in human terms, and which challenge what we even think of as ‘things’. The coronavirus pandemic could be another such hyperobject, or so could dust in this instance. Hyperobjects problematise modernity in that where modernity – from the enlightenment to the industrial age onwards – emphasised an ability to rationalise, control and the will of the individual, hyperobjects unravel the sense of human agency this requires.

Abandoned doll near The Old Church, Stoke Newington by Jared Davis


Dusting and cleanliness

It’s probably no coincidence then that I felt compelled to clean when faced with the hyperobject of the coronavirus. Dusting is a common household chore. It’s one you’d assume has been around forever, although domestic tasks as we know them have a very modern history. As recently as the early 20th century the feather duster was a status symbol. But during the post-war period a new cult of cleanliness and the Americanised consumerism around it – detergents, washing machines, Hoovers – gave dusting ubiquity. Cleanliness was a piece with the automobile, household appliances and Modernist architecture in a cosmopolitan mass culture of ‘progress’. A rationalised and universal future: in with the new, the rest is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Academic Kristen Ross has written on this political history of cleanliness. Taking the specific case study of France and its reinvention – as well as its Americanisation – during the post-war Marshall Plan period, cleanliness for Ross fits hand in hand with a desire to be modern. It is a learned, politicised framework, and linked with the gendering of domesticity. Cleanliness and cleaning products were bound with new technologies, commodity fetishism and national identity, further reaffirmed through the propaganda of popular media and advertising. As Ross notes:

The way for these more specialized organs of household technology was paved by the new kinds of attention given to issues of cleanliness and housekeeping in the standard women’s press. The first postwar reissue of Marie­ Claire in October 1954, for example, declared its intention to “help women feel at ease in the modern age.” That age, it goes on to describe, is “the atomic age but also the age of abundance, of emancipation, of social progress, the age of light, airy houses, of healthy children, of the refrigerator, pasteurized milk, the washing machine, the age of comfort, of quality, and of bargains.”2

Cleanliness is not some universal value; it is tied to cultural conditionings, formed in the modern period that laid foundations for our contemporary present. The social and political turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s famously rocked this false domestic bliss of the Modernist post-war era, leading to an increased culture of expressive individualism. Modernism’s fixation with newness and an international utopian mass culture dissolved into the pluralistic and historically derivative cultural narratives of postmodernism. If this term seemed like a jargonistic buzzword of academia through the 1980s and ’90s, it’s now an inescapable mood for our post-truth present. The past comes back to haunt us like dust resettling on a mantlepiece, while at same time the ideals of modernity seem farcical. In today’s noisy digital mythscape, the dust of past stories constantly muddies debates. Our present moment is dusty.

The politics of cleanliness rear their head today in another way with regard to the virus. Considering cleanliness in relation to hygiene and immunity reveals instances in which the right to life is made political, and not evenly distributed. As writer and queer theorist Paul B. Preciado recently commented:

That wage labor is itself an institution of confinement has never been clearer than now, as we witness “essential” workers as de-munized bodies brutally forced into spaces of lethal risk. The subways of New York are as crowded as ever because the transit authority has severely cut back on the number of trains. The essential workers forced to ride are disproportionately low-income, disproportionately migrants, disproportionately racialized bodies.3

When it comes to immunisation politics, we can see governments neatly use the universalising iconography of cleanliness in a manner that increases control and exacerbates class division, with a sleight of hand like sweeping dust under the rug.


The dust of the past

On February 3, 2020, a few days after the UK split from the European Union, Soho was evacuated following the discovery of an unexploded World War Two bomb beneath Dean Street. It was an ironic intrusion from a past inter-European conflict for the week of Brexit. Wartime is hard to imagine today, with Europe conjoined since the 1970s by the EU, and by the free flows of capitalist realism that became total at the end of the ’80s. The end of history; a never-ending free market.

The Soho café I worked at shut up shop for a day when the bomb was found, as did the surrounding businesses. This seemed at the time an impossible disruption, warhead or no – how can we just close? A month and a half later, we shut our doors indefinitely. We were faced with things familiar to wartime now amidst the pandemic. The same shortages, fear and political rhetoric scampered across the city. Capitalist realism dissolved as markets collapsed. History didn’t seem so finished after all. The bomb sitting for decades underneath Dean Street was excavated, it was a puncture, a small explosion had occurred in the threaded cobwebs of history and the ideologies of everyday life.

A cobweb falls in on itself, turns inside out and around; it is sticky. Once you think it is removed you find remnants of it reappear, stuck to you somewhere else. The cobweb is a useful analogy for this strange sense of time at the moment, with its interlocking and confused fabrics. If the present moment is dusty, it is because our current age is covered in a layer of unsettled dust from past objects and their corresponding stories and timeframes; the meanings ascribed in their appearances. For Morton, “The present does not truly exist”. Rather:

We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. Anyone familiar with relativity theory will find this idea reasonably intuitive. What is called the present is simply a reification, an arbitrary boundary drawn around things by a particular entity—a state, philosophical view, government, family, electron, black hole.4

A bomb fails to explode on Dean Street. Around 80 years later it is pulled from the mud and rubble beneath the road. It is a loaded marking on the street, telling stories of the governance and conflict which make up the city. These are cultural histories told through aesthetic form, as Morton explains:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. […] The dirt on a building is part of the building’s form, which John Ruskin called the stain of time.5

Where the stories carved in the forms and stains of the city meet the Thames River, the dirt and dust of the past turns into a viscous mud, concealing objects and artifacts then keeping  them preserved. Garbage from a heaving city is washed up on the shores of the river. In  the opacity of the unclean water one can imagine traces of what would have been a foggier riverbank from the pollution of London’s East End during the industrial age. In this cloudy water are the city’s secrets from that era and earlier. In the mud, stories are concealed and collected until they are unearthed years, even centuries later by mudlarkers.

Fake Medieval medallion by ‘Billy’ and ‘Charley’ depicting a crowned face on one side and a figure in chain mail on the reverse. Image from The Cuming Museum


Dusty and dirty objects

Two such mudlarkers in 19th century London were William Smith and Charles Eaton – ‘Billy’ and ‘Charley’ – who trawled the banks to make a small living off objects that might have been historically loaded. In 1857 Billy and Charley began making crude forgeries of medieval lead medallions and such items. The Billy and Charley forgeries were modern imaginings of what these objects might be. Despite the duo’s limited skills in metalwork and historical inaccuracies including the temporally incorrect use of Arabic numerals, a leap of imagination was enough for an antique dealer named William Edwards to purchase a great deal of them. Billy and Charley claimed the relics had been excavated through works that were being undertaken in the Shadwell Docks. Made from plaster of Paris moulds, Billy and Charley gave their medallions an appearance of age – the ‘stain of time’ – by coating them in river mud.

Having produced up to 10,000 forgeries in their career, Billy and Charley’s handiwork was sold to antique salespeople such as George Eastwood, who in turn would sell them on to buyers including one for the British Museum. When the authenticity of these items was thrown into question by archaeologists, Eastwood would go so far as to sue the journal that published their claims for libel. This in turn drew more perceived legitimacy to the items when the case (which Eastwood lost) did not decisively conclude otherwise. Further narratives were applied to the objects: perhaps they weren’t medieval objects, but rather crude replicas produced in the 16th century. Today, the attention around these Shadwell forgeries and the loaded cultural history they contain have applied a unique value upon them. Now the narrative intrigue of these objects is not in them being authentically medieval, but authentically ‘Billy and Charley’s’. A Shadwell forgery today at auction could be sold for more than an item like those they were attempting to counterfeit. More interestingly, forgeries of these forgeries have been found in circulation. These stained lead medallions embody the muddied narrative life of objects.

Form is loaded with narrative to make up our understanding of the world. Think of magical objects, sigils and sites, whose mystical potential is realised through the cultural ascription of rituals. In the phenomenon of legend tripping – visiting sites of terrible events, hauntings or paranormal activity – the relation between the site and its artifacts, temporalities and ritual is laid bare. Religious studies scholar Michael Kinsella has discussed how legend trippers, in using the latent potential of a site – say an abandoned asylum, some woods where a child went missing, caves with mysterious markings – are able to perform belief. A sound or a shadow can become actualised as a real haunting, a repeat occurrence of past paranormal activities due to the ritualistic performances of a legend trip. As Kinsella notes:

By establishing a ritual or ritual-like play frame in which the supernatural or magic may operate, legend-trippers and magicians reframe their dimensions of experience. Tanya Luhrmann calls this process “interpretive drift” – the tendency for magicians to increasingly interpret events and experiences as magical the more they become involved with practicing magic.6

One of the subjects of Kinsella’s research that is rife with instances of interpretive drift is the phenomenon of Ong’s Hat – an alternative reality game mixing conspiracy theory, hard science and the ritual elements of magical practices. Spreading initially through photocopied pamphlets and early Internet Bulletin Board Systems, the fictitious and collectively written narrative of Ong’s Hat revolves around a secret science experiment in the New Jersey site of its namesake that unlocked secrets of travel to alternate dimensions. This contemporary myth, blending real locations, science, chaos magic and urban legends, transcended a simple binary of fact or fiction, becoming for its participants an analytic and self-reflective unpicking of the very nature of conspiracy, meaning-making and magical practices. The postmodern hive-mind narrative of Ong’s Hat is a distinctly dusty means of reality construction, revolving around loaded sites and objects beyond our comprehension.

Sculpture made from old headstones in Abney Park by Jared Davis


In the dust of this present

“Time is a flurry of spells and counterspells cast by objects themselves,” says Morton.7 This is a fitting illustration of how unfixed our relation with the things around us can feel: we are caught in the middle of this spell casting. I started this text with a recollection of an unsettling time, lived through dust and dusting. Despite the old expression, there can be no “after the dust has settled” in our experience of time. The dust of the past never settles completely, and can just as easily be disturbed and fill the air. The dust of ‘before’ always affects any feeling of ‘afterwards’. Dust can also be a useful analogy for things too large for us to fully grasp, or what Morton calls hyperobjects. Today, staring down the virus, climate change and a capitalist politics that isn’t working for us, we’re enmeshed in hyperobjects that cause grief to our human sense of agency. We might turn to dusting, cleaning, working with smaller objects that we can feel a sense of mastery over. But to really face our dusty present we’d need to work with, rather than against, objects out of our control. We can’t polish clean a time-stained city.



  1. Morton, Timothy (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  2. Ross, Kristen (1995). Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  3. Preciado, Paul B. (2020). ‘Learning from the Virus’, Artforum, online at:, accessed 14 May, 2020.
  4. Morton, Timothy (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kinsella, Michael (2011). Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
  7. Morton, Timothy (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

by Jared Davis

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We are occasionally meeting ladies attacked with oryalpelatous symptoms, indigestion, cough–now distinctly traceable to head-dresses containing green arsenical artificial flowers. A careful chemical analysis of one of these wreaths gives exactly as much arsenic as would kill 56 men, and a fair tarlatane dress would kill 1,500!

– ‘M.D.’ quoted in Green Go the Lasses, O!, published in Punch October 5th, 1861

At the top of Leonard Parry’s 1900 list of the risks and dangers of various occupations were those ‘accompanied by the generation and scattering of abnormal quantities of dust’. 

– from Dust by Carolyn Steedman, 2001

Discussing occupations ‘from the social, hygienic and medical points of view’ in 1916, Thomas Oliver urged his readers to remember ‘that the greatest enemy of a worker in any trade is dust’

– from Dust by Carolyn Steedman, 2001

Leather workers and medical commentators also knew that the processes of fellmongering, washing, limescrubbing, scrapping, further washing, chemical curing, stretching, drying and dressing all gave rise to dust, which was inhaled. 

– from Dust by Carolyn Steedman, 2001

By the 1920s it was common knowledge that among workers in wool, hides and hair that it was the anthrax spore that constituted the greatest danger.

– from Dust by Carolyn Steedman, 2001

…the sweeps, dustmen, scavengers, &c., are paid (and often large sums) for the removal of the refuse they collect; whereas the bone-grubbers, and mud-larks, and pure-finders, and dredgemen, and sewer-hunters, get their pains only the value of the articles they gather.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

The bone-picker and rag-gatherer may be known at once by the greasy back which he carries on his back. Usually he has a stick in his hand, and this is armed with a spike or a hook, for the purpose of more easily turning over the heaps of ashes or dirt that are thrown out of the houses, and discovering whether they contain anything that is saleable at the rag-and-bottle or marine-store shop.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

It is dangerous to venture far into any of the smaller sewers branching off from the main, for in this the ‘hunters’ have to stoop low down in order to proceed; and, from the confined space, there are often accumulated in such places, large quantities of foul air, which, as one of them stated, will ‘cause instantaneous death’.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

‘Bless your heart the smell’s nothink; it’s a roughish smell at first, but nothink so bad as you thinks, ‘cause, you see, there’s sich lots o’ water always a coming down the sewer, and the air gits in from the gratings, and that helps to sweeten it a bit. There’s some places, ‘specially in the old sewers, where they say there’s foul air, and they tells me the foul air ‘ill cause instantaneous death, but I niver met with anythink of the kind, and I think if there was sich a thing I should know somethink about it, for I’ve worked the sewers, off and on, for twenty year.’

– sewer ‘Tosher’ quoted in London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

Some notion of the vast amount of this refuse annually produced in London may be formed from the fact that the consumption of coal in the metropolis is, according to the official returns, 3,500,000 tons per annum, which is at the rate of little more than 11 tons per house; the poorer families, it is true, do not burn more than 2 tons in the course of the year, but then many such families reside in the same house, and hence the average will appear in no way excessive.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

A dust-heap, therefore, may be briefly said to be composed of the following things, which are severally applied to the following uses:

  1. ‘Soil’, or fine dust, sold to brickmakers, for burning bricks, and to farmers for manure, especially for clover.
  2. ‘Brieze’, or cinders, sold to brickmakers, for burning bricks.
  3. Rags, bones and old metal, sold to marine-store dealers.
  4. Old tin and iron vessels, sold for ‘clamps’ to trunks, &c., and for making copperas.
  5. Old bricks and oyster shells, sold to builders, for sinking foundations, and forming roads.
  6. Old boots and shoes, sold to Prussian-blue manufacturers.
  7. Money and jewellery, kept, or sold

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

A visit to any of the large dust-yards is far from uninteresting. Near the centre of the yard rises the highest heap, composed of what is called the ‘soil’, or finer portion of the dust used for manure. Around this heap are numerous lesser heaps, consisting of the mixed dust and rubbish carted in and shot down previous to sifting. Among these heaps are many women and old men with sieves made of iron, all busily engaged in separating the ‘brieze’ from the ‘soil’. There is likewise another large heap in some other part of the yard, composed of the cinders or ‘brieze ‘waiting to be shipped off to the brickfields. 

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

The whole yard seems alive, some sifting and others shovelling the sifted soil on to the heap, while every now and then the dustcarts return to discharge their loads, and proceed again on their rounds for a fresh supply. Cocks and hens keep up a continual scratching and cackling among the heaps, and numerous pigs seem to find a great delight in rooting incessantly about after the garbage and eiffel collected from the houses and markets.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

The chimney sweepers are generally fond of drink; indeed their calling, like that of the dustmen, is one of those which naturally lead to it. The men declare they are ordered to drink gin and smoke as much as they can, in order to rid the stomach of the soot they may have swallowed during their work.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

 In one of the reports of the Board of Health, out of 4,312 deaths among males, of the age of 15 and upwards, the mortality among the sweepers, masters and men, was 9, or one in 109 of the whole trade…Many of these men still suffer, I am told, from the chimney-sweeper’s cancer [cancer of the testicles or scrotum], which is said to arise mainly from uncleanly habits. Some sweepers assure me they have vomited balls of soot.

– from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851

But I will infer, that if this goodly City justly challenges what is her due, and merits all that can be said to reinforce his Praises, and give her Title; she is to be relieved from that which renders her less healthy, really offends her, and which darkens and eclipses all her other Attributes. And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismal Cloud of SEA-COALE? Which is not onely perpetual imminent over her head

– from Fumifugium by John Evelyn, 1661

But so universally mixed with the otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied by a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies; so that Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions, rage more in this one City, than the whole Earth besides.

– from Fumifugium by John Evelyn, 1661

Whilst these are belching it for their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the Suburbs of Hell, than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the imperial seat of our incomparable Monarch. For when in all other places the Aer is most Serene and Pure, it is here Eclipsed with such a Cloud of Sulphure, as the Sun itself, which gives day to all the World besides, is hardly able to penetrate and impart it here; and the weary Traveller, at many Miles distance, sooner smells, than sees the City to which he repairs. 

– from Fumifugium by John Evelyn, 1661

This is that pernicious Smoake which sullyes all her Glory, superinducing a sooty Crust or Fur upon all that is lights, spoiling the moveables, tarnishing the Plate, Gildings and Furniture, and corroding the very Iron-bars and hardest Stones with those piercing and acrimonious Spirits which accompany its Sulphure; and executing more in one year, than exposed to the pure Aer of the Country it could effect in some hundreds.

– from Fumifugium by John Evelyn, 1661

So far from the smoke of London being offensive to me, it has always been to my imagination the sublime canopy that shrouds the City of the World. Drifted by the wind or hanging in gloomy grandeur over the vastness of our Babylon, the sight of it always filled my mind with feelings of energy such as no other spectacle could inspire. 

– from the Autobiography and Journal of B.R. Haydon, edited by Tom Taylor. Written about 1800-41, published 1847

The work-people, little remarkable for olfactory refinement, instead of thanking their master for his humane attention to their comfort and health, made a formal complaint to him, that the ventilator had increased their appetites, and therefore entitled them to a corresponding increase of wages!…But the master made an ingenious compromise with his servants; by stopping the fan during half the day, he adjusted the ventilation and the voracity of his establishment to a medium standard, after which he heard no complaint either on the score of health or appetite.

– from The Philosophy of Manufactures by Andrew Ure M.D., 1835

The mills! Oh the fetid, fuzzy, ill-ventilated mills! And in Shap’s cyclopean smithy do you remember the poor ‘grinders’ sitting underground in a damp dark place, some dozen of them, over their screeching stone cylinders, from every cylinder a sheet of yellow fire issuing, the principal light of the place? And the men, I was told, and they themselves know it, and ‘did not mind it,’ were all or mostly killed before their time, their lungs being ruined by the metal and stone dust! Those poor fellows, in their paper caps with their roaring gindstones, and their yellow oriflammes of fire, all grinding themselves so quietly to death, will never go out of my memory. 

– from a letter of Thomas Carlyle to Jane Welsh Carlyle, quoted in Thomas Carlyle, a History of His Life in London, by J.A. Froude, 1884

…a city of Dis (Dante’s) – clouds of smoke – the damned etc – coal barges – coaly waters, cast-iron Duke, etc – its marks are left on you…

– from Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent by Herman Melville, edited by Eleanor Melville Metcalf, 1949

As I walked restless and despondent through the gloomy city, 

And saw the eager unresting to and fro – as of ghosts in some sulphurous Hades–

And saw the crowds of tall chimneys going up, and the pall of smoke covering the sun, covering the earth, lying heavy against the very ground –

And saw the huge refuse-heaps writhing with children picking them over,

And the ghastly half-roofless smoke-blackened houses, and the black river flowing below,–

As I saw these, and as I saw again far away the Capitalist quarter,

With its villa residences and its high-walled gardens and its well-appointed carriages, and its face turned away from the wriggling poverty which made it rich,–

As I saw and remembered its drawing-room airs and affections and its wheezy pursy Church-going and its gas-reeking heavy-furnished rooms and its scent-bottles and its other abominations –

I shuddered:

For I felt stifled, like one who lies half-conscious – knowing not clearly the shape of the evil – in the grasp of some heavy nightmare.

– from Towards Democracy by Edward Carpenter, 1883

Now as to the Grandour of London, Would not England be easier and perhaps stronger if these vitals were more equally dispersed? Is there not a Tumour in that place, and too much matter for mutiny and Terrour to the Government if it should Burst? Is there not too much of our capital in one stake, liable to the Ravage of Plague and fire? Does not the Assembly too much increase Mortality and lessen Births, and the Church-yards become Infectious? Will not the Resort of the Wealthy and emulation to Luxury, melt down the order of Superiors among and bring all towards Levelling and Republican?

– from a letter of Robert Southwell to Sir William Petty, published in the Petty-Southwell Correspondence, edited by the Marquis of Lansdowne, 1928

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.  

– from Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 1853

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutants of a great (and dirty) city.  

– from Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 1853

The life here, like the atmosphere here, is bad for the weak, for the frail, for one who seeks a prop outside himself, for one who seeks cordiality, sympathy, attention; the moral lungs here must be as strong as the physical lungs, whose task is to get rid of the sulphuric acid in the smoky fog. The masses are saved by their struggle for daily bread, the commercial classes by their absorption in heaping up wealth, and all by the fuss and hurry of business; but nervous and romantic temperaments, fond of living among their fellows, of intellectual sloth and emotional idleness, are bored to death and fall into despair.

– from the Memoirs of Alexander Herzen, translated by Constance Garnett, 1924-27

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, markes of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban, 

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.


How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry

Every black’ning Church appalls;

And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.


But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot’s curse

Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

– ‘London’, from Songs of Experience by William Blake, 1794

On arriving near the top of this road, I obtained a distinct view of a phenomenon which can be seen no where in the world but at this distance from London. The Smoke of nearly a million of coal fires, issuing from the two hundred thousand houses which compose London and its vicinity, had been carried in a compact mass in the direction which lay at a right angle from my station. Half a million chimneys, each vomiting a bushel of smoke per second, had been disgorging themselves for at least six hours of the passing day, and they now produced a sombre tinge, which filled an angle of the horizon equal to 70degrees, or in bulk twenty-five miles long, by two miles high….

– from A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew by Sir Richard Phillips, 1817, originally published in parts 1813-16

In London this smoke is found to blight or destroy all vegetation…Other phenomena are produced by its union with fogs, rendering them nearly opaque, and shutting out the light of the sun; it blackens the mud of the streets by its deposit of tar, while the unctuous mixture renders the foot-pavement slippery; and it produces a solemn gloom whenever a sudden change of wind returns over the town the volume that was previously on its passage into the country. 

– from A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew by Sir Richard Phillips, 1817, originally published in parts 1813-16

Margiela’s re-use of contemporary “rubbish” such as broken shards and plastic carrier bags marks him out as a kind of “Golden Dustman” of the fashion world, converting base material into gold. The transformation of dust to gold is not just fanciful but has historical antecedents. Henry Dodd, a nineteenth-century owner of a great dust-yard in Islington, London, known to Dickens and a possible prototype for Boffin, the Golden Dustman, is said to have given his daughter a wedding gift of a single dust-heap, which afterwards fetched £10,000. 

– Caroline Evans, The Golden Dustman: A critical evaluation of the work of Martin Margiela and a review of Martin Margiela Exhibition (9/4/1615) in Fashion Theory Volume 2, Issue 1 (1998)

For centuries now, ever since the industrial age or maybe even before, it has always been a world of the intellect, reasoning, the machine. Here women were stuck with having tremendous powers of intuition experiencing other levels of reality and other realities yet they had to sit on it because men would say, well, you’re crazy. 

– from O.K. Momma, Who the Hell Am I?, Gloria E. Anzaldua in conversation with Luisah Teish, published in From This Bridge Called My Back, Writings by Radical Women of Color, 1981

Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.

– from The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action by Audre Lorde, published in I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole & Beverly Guy-Sheftall, 2009

Men on our street who worked in the coal mines came home covered in a thin layer of grayish white dust that looked like ash. Women looked at them and talked about how they made the only really good money a working black man could make. No one talked of the dangers; it was the money that mattered.

– from Where We Stand: Class Matters by Bell Hooks, 2000

And since you are talking about factories and industries, do you not see the tremendous factory hysterically spitting out its cinders in the heart of our forests or deep in the bush, the factory for the production of lackeys; do you not see the prodigious mechanization, the mechanization of man; the gigantic rape of everything intimate, undamaged, undefiled that, despoiled as we are, our human spirit has still managed to the machine, yes, have you never seen it, the machine for crushing, for grinding, for degrading peoples? So that the danger is immense.

– from Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire, translated by Joan Pinkham, 2000, originally published in 1950

About the year 1863, Van mohair, the goat of the fleece inhabiting the Van district in Asia Minor, was introduced as a textile fabric, and from that time it is said the cases [of anthrax poisoning] become more numerous. This material came to be looked upon by the sorters as specially dangerous, so much so that some of them refused to work it; and a custom arose at certain of the mills for these employés to determine amongst themselves by drawing lots which of them should work upon it, or upon such of it as was regarded with any special apprehension.

– from Mr John Spear’s report to the local government board upon the so called “Woolsorters’ Disease” as observed at Bradford and in neighbouring districts in the west Riding of Yorkshire, 1881