The Pocket Time Machine

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.

Picture from High Wycombe Museum

Picture from High Wycombe Museum

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:

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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.


51 thoughts on “The Pocket Time Machine

    1. You know, Roger, I’m not sure I’ll go back. It is another land these days, and though they have gorgeous buildings and heritage no-one seems to mind it much.

    1. Hi Beth – I’m glad you felt the same way. I spent about 20 minutes just standing in front of it at the museum, gawping. So much to take in. People who were so real then, and yet aren’t there any more.

      1. yes, and the concept is kind of hard to take in and process at times. they were very real at the moment the photo was shot and now –

  1. No, not much to smile about with those wages. Perhaps they’re wondering how they can get their hands on the intrusive camera and how many tokens for the truck stop it might be worth. 😉

  2. Kate,

    This post got me to thinking. If one stops and thinks about and observes pictures from the early days of photography, nobody is smiling. People were just being themselves. When I think about every picture I have been a part of, the photographer says “smile everyone” just before they capture the picture. So maybe the pictures of old are more accurate than our “selfies” or family portraits of today where we all pretending to be happy when on the inside we carry the everyday problems of life. Which is more true?


    1. Extremely good point! This does capture a moment when people were unaccustomed to the camera. Perhaps they thought less about how they appeared to the world they lived in. Perhaps, being less affected, they really were happier.

  3. My thoughts are similar to Redneck’s. In the early days of photography, no one was saying “Smile.” Seems I read that or was told that everyone thought having one’s picture taken was a very solemn, important affair for which they wanted to appear appropriately serious. And whatever pose and expression one adopted, it had to be held for several minutes. “Don’t move.” A serious or neutral expression is easier to maintain than a smile. Of course it’s also quite likely that factory workers in those days had little reason to smile.

    1. I think this is an excellent point, PT. Of course it would e easier to hold a straight face than a smile! I love the contrast between those who were good at staying still and those who could not help themselves moving during the exposure.

  4. At first I thought those photos were the result of having to remain still for a long time until the picture was taken. I have some pretty glum archival photos of my grandparents’ time. But it might be, as you say, that their youth was stolen away for someone else’s profit. Sad and disturbing.

    1. You’re right, Judy. Historically people kept straight faces for their photographs. there is often a sense of solemn importance which accompanies sitting for a photo.
      I wonder if there is something more in these expressions. Are they just passive?

  5. Long hours, bad working conditions, low pay? Sounds like the Gilded Age here in the United States. Now some of the politicians want to take us back there–low wages, bad conditions, no regulations, child labor, you name it. Funny how things keep coming back if one is not vigilant.

  6. Interesting shot, Kate, and another thought provoking post. These guys and their dog do look like a glum crew, but it’s impossible to say that their serious expressions are a reflection of making low wages, the working conditions or just having to stop laboring to accommodate a folly — that had to have been sanctioned by the Big Boss Man, who might have been standing right next to the photographer. There’s not a lot of smiling going on at my place of employ, either. Income inequality continues to be alive and well in 2014. My wages have been so stagnant over the last five years I’m a member of the group where I spend more than 50% of my take-home pay on the cost of housing. Company ownership does not give a rat’s butt about doing anything to change this situation. Giving a cost of living increase is unthinkable. Meanwhile, they can afford getaways to Rome and Paris for themselves. If I was not so physically fit again, I would never stop throwing up.

    1. Really hard, Virginia. Mainly because the situation seems so hopeless and there is no motivation for employers to right the situation. We need someone to take them by the scruff of their necks and shake them; but it would be a brave politician who took them on.

    1. I wonder, sometimes , what it must have been like to live their lives, Penny. Wycombe is in a natural bowl, and the sides of the bowl were covered in slum housing at the end of the 19th century.

  7. Of course conditions were awful, that side of things is terrible. What’s interesting to me though is that the furniture making tradition in HW is still alive, and there is (or was a few years ago) a really excellent furniture design college there, training brill young designers form all around the world to design and create wonderful furniture. So HW’s chair legacy isn;t all bad

  8. These photos always make me think that it was no fun to live in the past. But if the same logic is applied to the selfies we take now… then in 100 years they’re going to think we were a hedonistic bunch of pleasure seekers 🙂

  9. I absolutely love this post – even spent about ten minutes just looking at the picture, which is just fantastic. I can’t help but imagine the environment, the smell of sawdust in the air and underfoot, the whirring of those belt-driven saws, lathes, and drill presses – likely run by a mill wheel in the Wye or the Dyke. Men and boys, making the chairs in this environment – I wonder if it isn’t a little rebellious of them to look the way they do? Not so much glum perhaps, but conveying the mood that they’re not in the mood.

    I say this because it reminds me of my own job – we try to have fun a lot of the time, but so much of the conversation that concerns work is about wages and treatment – i.e., the unfairness of being overworked, underpaid, and subject to trickery at each turn. Yet they make a living and so they do the best they can, and at some point someone comes in with a fancy camera – and who has a camera in the 19th century, I should wonder? Not one of them. Perhaps one of their bosses, or some well-to-do news man who looks the beneficiary of better fortune? So rather than smile (which I’m not certain was the photo fashion of the day anyway) they might wish to reflect that dissatisfaction with their stations through their eyes: the boys still sullen, the men somewhat detached.

    In this case, the dog might seem a missing link – the only clue that some small happiness may be had in this place despite the wage conditions, lost to time as the machine was hard-pressed to capture an object moving through both time and space . . .

    This is an inspiring post, Kate. Thank you.

    1. Rob, what a lovely comment, thank you so much – and for the reblog! High Wycombe Museum gets the credit for such an amazing picture: they’ve blown it up large on a whole wall, and surrounded it with artefacts from the industry. I love your comments about the dog. The only way we can capture them is to all but eliminate the time element
      😀 By the way: I can only count three legs on the dog’s chair. I wonder if they were used as a way of simulating weight on the chair whilst they calibrated the chair legs?
      Or perhaps he’s just a companion throughout the working day.

      1. 😀

        That sounds like a great way of balancing out a chair, and would explain why the dog is sitting up there balanced on three legs (which I didn’t notice – good catch!) I figured back then they must have been a little looser with pet restrictions, or maybe it was just a stray who had adopted the factory, but I like your idea better – a test subject who just happened to make the day a little more tolerable.

    1. I imagine any large group picture from the time would have its fascinations! I use the camera as a time machine. Like you, I have kids and going round a museum or house I have no way of capturing it all – their pace is frenetic. So I just snap, snap, snap away, and come home and view the museum in my own time!

  10. I’ve never heard of a Tommy Shop and it is a bit haunting to look at these photos and to realize the conditions under which these men, boys (and dog) may have worked. They are stunning photos for the precise snapshot in time standing still. There is a solemn dignity that comes through, don’t you think?

  11. Dear Kate, a thoughtful and provocative posting. When I was growing up, not every family had a camera. In fact, the boss at the Bendix repair shop where I worked for two summers in high school and college gave me a “Brownie” camera as a going-back-to-school gift when I was 17. That was a great gift as our family didn’t have a camera. And even now, I don’t have one. And I’m always bemused when I go to family gatherings and everyone–everyone in the family but my brother–pulls out a phone with a camera or a real camera and starts taking photographs of this group–“the sisters”–or that group “the great nieces”–. What will they do with all this output from their “time machines”????? Peace.

  12. Oh those sweatshops only got transplanted to our part of the world!
    But I do think few people smiled for photos in those times. I have many group photos of my grandparents’ families from the 1920’s, and they are all, without exception, either glaring or scowling into the camera! I have reason to believe they were happy people otherwise 🙂

      1. Thank you! Nice to be able to use all the photos as a way of browsing. You will know what it is like to love each photo like a treasured possession!

    1. Yes: the sweatshops are still alive and well there, Madhu, aren’t they? And it is the buyers who allow it to continue. We create the market for the goods obtained by such exploitation. So tempting to go for the low-priced clothing or goods, whose supplier sources labour from a place far away where people are treated just as the people in this picture, or worse. Out of sight, but vital to keep them in mind.

  13. I wish my time machine would fit in my pocket 😉 Fascinating set of images and commentary Kate. I’m sure that Countryfile did something about the Wycombe chair factories a couple of months back. With the current political climate in this country I’m sure that sweatshops will proliferate 😦

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