Editor's Choice

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

November 23, 2016


Steven Johnson's new history of how we got to now is an exploration of ideas and attitudes, invention, art and whimsy.

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 336 pages, $30.00, Hardcover, November 2016, ISBN 9780399184482

The centers of power are where the history of human progress is written. It is not always where it is truly made. Steven Johnson’s new book, Wonderland, unbends the typical timeline of history, and shows it as a series of many tangents, of chance encounters and cultural connections. And, in that process of unbending, he turns some accepted historical assumptions on their head. 

For instance, whereas most historians argue that the Industrial Revolution gave rise to consumer capitalism, he credits the birth of a small bourgeois consumer culture in seventeenth century London for the rise of industrialization. Like most of the stories in Wonderland, it takes a somewhat circuitous route.

It was in the more fashionable districts of London that shopkeepers began turning what had always been a utilitarian affair, shopping, into an elegant experience. Rather than simply placing their inventory on a simple shelf, they began displaying their wares in lavishly decorated storefronts and interiors, putting as much money into the presentation and spectacle of their shops as into what they were selling. And what they were selling was chintz and calico. And in creating that experience, they created an enormous demand for the cotton the chintz and calico were made of—cotton that did not grow in England’s climate.

This bolstered the rise of the East India Company, which was importing the fabrics from India, and devastated England’s sheep farmers and wool manufacturers, whose products were no longer in fashion, which created backlash of patriotic fervor against calico. Popular songs and plays on the loose moral character of women who wore calico—or Calico Madams—proliferated. “Rioting weavers,” Johnson tells us, even “marched on Parliament and ransacked the home of the East India Company’s deputy governor.” New, the uproar and indignation over globalization, is not. And the political reactions to the backlash were sadly predictable.


Responding to the outrage, Parliament passed a number of protectionist acts, starting with a ban on imported dyed calicos in the 1700s, which left open a large loophole for traders to import raw cotton fabrics, to be dyed on British shores. In 1720, Parliament took the more draconian step of banning calico outright, via “An Act to Preserve and Encourage the Woollen and Silk Manufactures of this Kingdom, and for more Effectual Employing the Poor, by Prohibiting the Use and Wear of all Printed, Painted, Stained or Dyed Callicoes in Apparel, Household Stuff, Furniture, or otherwise.”


But the boom in textiles had already set off a wave of entrepreneurship, of mechanical and other innovations to mass-produce the cotton fabrics, that was not going to be bottled up. It was a surge in invention and entrepreneurial activity, to meet the fashion needs of the day, powered by a completely new and novel shopping experience, that would lead to the creation of the technologies that would power the industrial revolution.


Ironically, the fears that ladies’ fashion trends would undermine the British Economy turned out to have it exactly backward. […] Instead of deflating the British economy, the Calico Madams unleashed an age of British industrial and economic might that would last for more than a century.


He admits the distinction of what came first—consumer culture or the Industrial Revolution—may seem academic. But understanding how these changes occur, and in what order, is vital for building a better understanding of how change occurs. It even has implications for how to spurn it. What if, instead of funding research on the internet, the government instead sought to protect the telegraph?

And what if, instead of only reading about how of Eli Whitney and James Watts changed the world during the Industrial Revolution, we learned of the “English women shopping on Ludgate Hill” in London, and the Indian dyers “tinkering with Calico prints on the Coromandel coast.” The history of the world, and the individuals and forces that drove it, begins to look different, becomes more inclusive. It becomes, frankly, less a history of rich white men—those with access to capital to do what they did. And, of course, this history is also not without its brutality, which Johnson documents well—from the abysmal working conditions and long hours of early textile factories, to the rise to the transatlantic slave trade that brought so many Africans unwillingly to the cotton plantations of the American south.

Johnson then carries that narrative of commercial history from those storefronts in London through the rise of department stores and the modern shopping mall—the latter of which was the bastardized brainchild of an “avant-garde European socialist” who came to America fleeing the Nazi march across Europe. In doing so, he documents the “intellectual lineage” of consumer capitalism and the rise of the service industry, a sector in which “three out of four Americans” now work. And that’s all just in the first chapter—on fashion and shopping.

Writing of Charles Babbage, the man credited with creating the first programmable computer, Johnson tells us:


Babbage borrowed a tool designed to weave colorful patterns of fabric, which itself borrowed from a tool for generating patterns of musical notes, and put it to work doing a new kind of labor: mechanical calculation.


And later, that:


The entrepreneurs and industrialists may have turned the idea of programmability into big business, but it was the artists and illusionists who brought the idea into the world in the first place.


The technologies used to build our infrastructure and economy are often the progeny of creations made to delight us. He reminds us, also, that keyboards had been around on musical instruments long before they were put to use on a typewriter. Coded punch cards were put to use in player pianos long before they were used in computers. It is in the human instinct to festoon ourselves in jewelry, to make music and musical instruments, to make food taste better or make illusions or play games, that Johnson finds some of the forces of creativity in our world. It is in our desire for leisure and delight, to go shopping, to a tavern or a coffeehouse, a public park or a zoo, that we’ve made some of our greatest advancements—even toward democracy itself.

They may not have made millions or billions on it, but these “artists and illusionists,” ideas and attitudes and cultural forces deserve their place in the written history and in our popular understanding of it, and that’s why Johnson’s history is so valuable—it puts them there.

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