Time machines? Pah. You can fit one in your handbag.
There are already machines which freeze time. We are just so accustomed to them that occasionally we walk past the windows they create without looking properly.
But a camera as a time machine has limited use. Because though we can see the precise details of everyday life in a time we could never experience, we can’t ask the subjects questions.
Wycombe sits on the London to Oxford Road in Buckinghamshire, and the Rive Wye has carried its goods away to London since ancient times.
And what did they send to the city?
The town’s Big Thing has always been chairs. Enough woodland to provide the wood and bodgers to cut and shape it; ample labour to make chairs aplenty. The town’s museum was a Chair Museum, which has now been adapted to hold the ancient knick knacks from other disciplines which Wycombe folks have squirrelled away.
Chairs have paid the bills for centuries, down at High Wycombe.
The question is: whose bills did they pay?
A time machine stopped by in a chair factory in High Wycombe, more than a century ago.
This is the business of chairs. Those men: every one of them looks solemn, and I am left wondering if it was just awe at being on an early camera that made their faces long, or whether they were just plain miserable. Even the dog, sitting on the chair, looks glum.
Look at the detail, and the ghosts begin to step out from the machine:
The dog is blurred, because when did a dog ever sit still for more than a second? The young boys have faces old beyond their years. They stand like ghosts, hugging their lives to them. Not one of these men is smiling.
I have an insane desire to step into the freeze-frame and ask them why.
This is what is known as a Tommy Shop. Whilst legislation was passed to make them illegal in 1811, some were still operating in 1890. Men were paid , half in money, and half in tokens which could be used in the employer’s over priced truck shop. The tokens were of limited value: the stuff in the shop was often poor quality. You could sell your token back – at a fat loss. Thus, an eight shilling token might only fetch five shillings.
Employers could use it as a way of paying substantially less. Round Wycombe way, they used to say the Tommy shop owners could sell their chairs at cost price and live off the profits generated by the truck shop.
So in this snapshot of time they work hard for very little. There’s not much to smile about.
Let’s never go back there.
With thanks to Wycombe Museum, whose imaginative use of this photograph draws the eye of the casual passer-by.