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2005 12 03
Smoking Out The Bourgeoisie

The photos in this collection of images all have something in common: the smoke pouring out of every chimney is moving from left to right. These images, all from the excellent online collection at the McCord Museum, were found by typing 'factory' into the McCord database search engine.

Quite a few images of factories came up, most of which were reproductions of drawings done in the late 19th century. Some images show smoke, some don't, but all that do clearly show a stream of dark vapour moving from left to right.

Assuming that the many different artists dispatched to make renderings of various factories at different times could have drawn the smoke moving in any direction, why did they all choose the left to right orientation?

In the period of rapid economic, physical and industrial expansion of the late Victorian era, one always wanted to live upwind from whatever factories happened to be in your city. Usually the people that built the factories were the ones with the option to live wherever they wanted. Major centres located in the northern hemisphere (including Montréal, of course) all had prevailing winds travelling from the west. So industrialists built their factories in the eastern ends of their cities, and built their own prestigious homes upwind, in the western parts of the cities.

There were a number of other airborne factors that would have encouraged this desirability to live in the "West End" -- including acrid smoke (coal was the 19th century's heating system of choice), less advanced sewage and waste treatment facilities and, of course, the huge number of horses (and their accompanying 'exhaust') on the roads at the time.

So the answer as to why different artists at different times chose to draw smoke moving in the same direction is, I think, inextricably linked to the implicit, almost subconscious idea that the wind always comes from the west, or 'left' and moves to the east or 'right'. It also points to the fact that something as invisible as wind had, and continues to have, a huge impact on the demographics and property values of virtually all cities in the North America and Europe.

This is why the word West appears in Westmount; why in Toronto, The Annex has the 'nice' houses and the Beaches were given the sewage treatment plant; why New York City's Upper West Side is the The Upper West Side, and why the all of the prestigious Astin Martin dealerships are clustered around the 'left' side of central London.
[email this story] Posted by David Ross on 12/03 at 08:08 PM
  1. my question is, in any of the images where the smoke moves from the right to the left – were the artists left-handed?

    Posted by jacques dutronc  on  12/07  at  07:41 PM
  2. Do you know any left-handed artists?

    Posted by  on  12/08  at  02:09 AM
  3. according to the website ‘Famous Left Handers’
    Albrecht Dürer, M.C. Escher, Hans Holbein,Paul Klee, Michelangelo, LeRoy Neiman, Raphael and
    Leonardo da Vinci were lefties. How do they know? Good question…I believe it was the direction of smoke plumes in their works.

    Posted by ritey  on  12/08  at  04:06 AM

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