SHiPS - Teaching Science through History

for science teachers using Sociology, History and Philosophy of Science
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About the "Cover" Image

“The Electric Era,” German Electric Belt Agency (New York, ca. 1901), ephemera collection. (Courtesy of The Bakken Library and Museum, Minneapolis.)

Carolyn Thomas de la Pena give a great critic of this image in her book, The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern America (pp. 161). She says:

“The Electric Era,” a brochure for the German Electric Agency published in 1901, is unusual in that it features a woman on its cover. One might, at first glance, think of the cover as an appeal to women as consumers. However, positioned as an icon of its era, the image implies something quite different. Its primary actors are the horses, two virile black stallions with muscles taut, harnessed to pull the carriage into the electric age. The female, a figure resembling Columbia, one of the national symbols of the United States commonly used in patriotic iconography, sits passively behind the stallions, carrying a beacon of progress in her right hand, the beam of electric light. Given that German Electric sold products primarily to men, it is logical that readers were meant to identify with the visibly male characters here. It is the stallions that are in control; their pores literally ooze electricity as it radiates from the belts around their necks. The Columbia figure, thought in the driver’s seat, holds no reins, implying that she has given over her power to the stallion guides and will contentedly follow the lead of men and their technology to share in the electric glow.

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