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Hard to See

Hard to See


Ella Sweeney questions the place of fairy lore in the 21st century

Images and video by Reid Calvert

One day, during a period of extensive research into Irish folklore, the poet William Butler Yeats met a certain Mrs. Connolly who had the most incredible repertoire of fairy stories he had ever heard. Yeats sat listening to her stories, proverbs and lore well into the evening but as the night drew on, Yeats had to leave. As Mrs. Connolly stood at the door, Yeats turned back to ask her tentatively “Do you believe in fairies?” Mrs. Connolly threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, not at all Mr. Yeats, not at all.” Yeats turned away and slouched off down the path. As he did, Mrs. Connolly called after him, “but they’re there, Mr. Yeats, they really are there.” She was well aware that fairies don’t need human belief to be real. They don’t need us to believe in them to be there, just as things don’t need to be seen to exist. 


If I caught a glimpse of a fairy what would l see? Near my hometown in Lancashire, I would probably see an angry shapeshifting Brag (hobgoblin) dressed in a ragged red hat and green clothing. He might quickly transform into a horse or donkey ready to buck any brave rider off. In the Scottish Highlands I might meet a Caoidheag (banshee), a weeping woman wrapped in the white cloth of mountain mist, warning of a coming death. In some areas of Ireland, I may be seduced and kidnapped by a Gean-cánach (love-talker), a humanoid fairy wandering the fields in his finest dress. But I hope that if I do ever meet one, I will see a fairy as described in Robert Herrick’s Description Of The King And Queene Of Fayries:


First a cobweb shirt, more thin

Than ever spider since could spin [….]

A rich waistcoat they did bring,

Made of the Trout-fly’s gilded wing […]

The outside of his doublet was

Made of the four-leaved, true-loved grass,

Changed into so fine a gloss,

With the oil of crispy moss […]

On every seam there was a lace

Drawn by the unctuous snail’s slow pace […]

About his neck a wreath of pearl,

Dropped from the eyes of some poor girl1



Everything that I know about fairy history comes from Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, and her book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland written in 1887. It is a book written with respect for the fairy faith and honours the invisible, taking seriously what is truly hard to see. According to Lady Wilde all Irish legends, including the fairy, point to the East for their origins, not the North. “From the beautiful Eden-land at the head of the Persian Gulf, where creeds and culture rose to life, the first migrations emanated” including flocks of fairies from Iran to Ireland. According to Lady Wilde the Feadh-Ree (fairy) comes from the word Peri, a race of mythical Persian beings who flew about the Gulf.2

But this is as far as I can go in attempting to place the origin of the fairy. There are many things in the world that resist historicization – fairies are one of them. Often history (the kind in textbooks) attempts to conquer; it tries to calm the dead and the forgotten that still haunt the present, separating ‘us’ from ‘them’. History demands facts and rationality, neither of which fairies can provide. It accepts a popular perception of the past, but only under its own terms. Fairies do not abide by these terms because they withstand the very idea of fact. There is no concrete evidence of the fairy. No photo, no footprint, just stories.

Today, the fairy faith has been relegated to a thing of the past. Fairies no longer exist, or maybe they never did. Since the Scientific Revolution, through the Renaissance, up past the Enlightenment, well into the Industrial Revolution through to today, rationality and modernity have cemented themselves as the triumphant winners in a battle between what we can and cannot prove to be real. Myth and magic are no longer a part of modern everyday life, they persist only as anachronistic parts of culture: inspiration for bedtime stories and Disney films. What was once used as a sinister warning for children – the folk or fairy tale – has been watered down, their stories declawed and rolled out for mass entertainment.

Modernity, with the help of the Church and state, shored up power in the hands of the few and took root alongside the colonial project. Science and technology have been used as oppressive forces both on the working class in Europe and as an excuse to colonise; to claim and destroy cultures, people and land all in the name of ‘progress’. The British Government were releasing propaganda during the interwar period which glorified Britain’s occupation of India and many countries in Africa, claiming they were helping indigenous populations through industrialisation.3 This kind of mindset is not yet a memory, we can see it in the UK and US fixation with military occupation, where they claim they are doing so to implement democracy.

Words like sorcerer, barbarian, savage and infidel have been used to define ‘them’, the archaic other, against ‘us’, those of rational Western thought. Modernity has positioned itself against the past and established a global hierarchy, distinguishing Western Euro-America as the most advanced in a timeline which values ‘progress’. In an advanced, rational, scientific world, there is no use for magic, spirits or fairies. Our environment is no longer an accepted receptacle of mystical power and nature has become transformed into a universal system that has to be understood. Modernity has defined itself against its opposite. This opposition has to be destroyed, liberated or turned into a fetishistic object, examined and enjoyed by spectators.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the sociologist Max Weber concludes that modernity has disenchanted the ‘West’ and science has defeated magic, religion and spirits and gods once and for all.4 Yet, religion and the God of Western Christianity have not simply disappeared, they have found their ‘proper’ place: faith is confined to the private sphere and God is confined to some faraway transcendent kingdom. A gaping hole has been left behind. Modernity has attempted to fill this gap with a distinctly modern faith. A faith in ‘progress’ to aid us in making sense of and finding meaning in dominant modern institutions: consumerism and freedom of the market along with bureaucratic machines and large media corporations. “Consumerism”, writes the German mystic Dorothee Soelle, “is the new religion”.5

But this notion of disenchantment, the stripping away of myth and magic, implies that those who have undergone this process are the only ones who have direct access to what is truly real. Disenchantment sets the ‘West’ up against the ‘Other’. In the end, the notion of disenchantment enacts exactly what it decries as it relies on an understanding of the non-Western and non-modern subject as someone who is unable to recognise what is real; who fundamentally cannot grasp reality. If this enchanted world is open and porous to gods, magic and spirits, it is confused.


But I prefer not to follow this tale of disenchantment. I don’t think we have to re-enchant ourselves in order to see, believe or trust that there is some truth to myths or tales. The fairies have always been there, vibrating under the surface, drifting through the cracks left behind by science, providing an explanation for things which are otherwise unexplainable. The traditional fairy faith may be on its way out but remnants of its magic still linger. 

During the Victorian period, fairies underwent a transformation. Instead of being portrayed in their traditional form – a race of terrifying beings who should never be crossed – they became a softened and aestheticised myth. If modernity cannot destroy the non-rational other, it will eventually fetishise, and so the popular image of the fairy was co-opted. The popular image that we have today comes from literary and aesthetic fancies of eighteenth century poets and painters. 

In Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, the anthropologist Talal Asad argues that much of the imagery and literature of nineteenth-century romanticism constituted a coming to terms with the modern secular world, of being enclosed within it and seeing no escape.6 The images of a pre-modern past or non-modern other acquired, only in retrospect, the attractive quality of otherworldly enchantment. Visions of tiny winged people – good, delicate, sparkly and beautiful – inhabit our modernised fairy tales.

But there is a peculiar contemporary resurgence in fairies. Aesthetic internet cultures such as cottagecore and fairycore have emerged straight out of a nineteenth-century fairytale book – they connote a return to the land, to a simple rural life filled with white cotton tablecloths, lace doilies and voluptuous spotted toadstools. Brothers Grimm with a sexual, Lolita twist. Then there is goblincore, a dirtier, grimier version of the above, where the hoarding of rocks, trinkets and dead bugs is revered as the pinnacle of cool. 

Running parallel to all of this is something which can perhaps illuminate the aesthetic decisions made by these groups. Interest in folk culture seems to be becoming quite the trend. In particular, there’s been a noticeable spike in the popularity of Celtic traditions, including an emphasis on remembering and reviving the traditional fairy faith and documenting modern fairy encounters. Websites and podcasts such as Blúiríní Béaloidis and Cailleach’s Herbarium are full of traditional fairy stories and modern fairy encounters. But you won’t find anything resembling Tinkerbell here, these fairies are those of tales past: sinister and threatening characters who are up to no good. 

It is worth remembering that the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland occurred against the backdrop of the Gaelic Revival, which began in the 19th century and went hand-in-hand with the fetishisation of the fairy. It was itself a resistance to modernisation, looking back to imagine another possible future. The movement grew from a cultural interest in the Celtic people, portraying Scottish, Irish and Welsh people inaccurately as noble savages, trapped in a past not unlike the one the cottagecore Instagrammer dreams of. 

Any revitalised interest in fairies is an act of reclamation. But any act of cultural reclaiming sees the thing changed, morphed by both its historical and contemporary contexts. To borrow from the philosopher Isabelle Stengers writing on the resurgence of Neo-pagan witchcraft, modern perspective can be defined by a collective pride in the ability to interpret the supernatural in terms of its social, cultural and political contrasts: in being able to rationalise the unknown. But this “knowing better” means forgetting that many of us are heirs to brutal acts committed in the name of civilization and reason.7

So it is interesting that an aesthetic and cultural resurgence surrounding the fairy comes now, at a time of political and social tension. The modern industrial project is revealing itself to have been a disaster, capitalism does not work for the common good and science is unable to answer all of our questions. People, yet again, are resisting the tale of modern progress. From the Indigenous Environmental Network and Unitierra or Universidad la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca Mexico and even to the Creation Care of Evangelical and Christian communities, people are recovering the land, spirits, beings and gods that modernity relegated to the sidelines. There they are finding what was once common belief and what remnants of this still linger. 

Starhawk, a Neo-pagan witch, writer and activist, writes that to utter the word magic is already an act of magic: the word itself puts us to the test – how seriously will we take this word?8 The same could be said about fairies. We may never see one or be compromised by one, but confronted with the current reclaiming of fairy lore and aesthetics, perhaps we could learn something from this test. Won’t capitalism have won out forever if we are ready to submit ourselves to a disenchanted world, to close our eyes, sober our senses, have to see to believe?9  Maybe, then, the true trick of the fairies is their fabricated nature, their inability to be pinned down to any one aesthetic or experience; the undecidability that they confront us with.

What form the fairy comes in might change but they will remain in our cultural psyche. Fairies are nifty, they can’t be bound to the pages of history. The search for any evidence of them always ends up in some odd wasteland of rationality. However, amongst every pile of waste, there is dust – maybe even fairy dust. As the historian Carolyn Steedman describes, dust is opposite to waste, it whirls around and around collecting and hoarding as it goes.10 It is circularity, an impossibility of things ever truly being destroyed. Like dust, fairy history always ends where it started: in the cracks. Nothing just disappears, some things are just hard to see.


  1. Herrick, Robert & Steward, Simeon. A Description of the Kings [sic] of Fayries Clothes, brought to him on New-Yeares day in the morning, 1626, by his Queenes Chambermaids, A Description of the King and Queene of Fayries: Their Habit, Fare, their Abode, Pompe and State, 1635.
  2. Wilde, Lady Francesca Speranza (1971). Ancients Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions of Ireland. Ireland: O’Gorman. First published in 1887.
  3. Hatherley, Owen (2016). The Ministry of Nostalgia. London: Verso Books.
  4. Weber, Max (1985). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge. First published in 1930.
  5. Soelle, Dorothee (2006) Dorothee Soelle, Essential Writings. New York: Orbis Books.
  6. Asad, Talal (2003). Formations of the Secular; Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  7. Stengers Isabelle (2012). Reclaiming Animism. e-flux Journal #36. Available here.
  8. Starhawk (1993). Dreaming The Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics. New York: Beacon Press.
  9. Stengers, Isabelle (2011). Capitalist Sorcery, Breaking The Spell. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  10. Steedman, Carolyn (2001). Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

by Ella Sweeney and Reid Calvert

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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