Steampunk festival draws enthusiasts, vendors

Members of the Imperial Amerikan Air Corps break to eat at the festival in King of Prussia.
Members of the Imperial Amerikan Air Corps break to eat at the festival in King of Prussia. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 02, 2013

KING OF PRUSSIA Thomas Willeford pulled out his iPhone and stuck it into what he imagined would be an iPhone dock from the Victorian era.

It was built from the brass gears of a clock from the 1880s, a wooden telephone box from the 1910s, and the steel horn of a 1920s gramophone. And it worked, amplifying the tinny sound of his cellphone speaker.

Willeford then showed off a computer keyboard he recently acquired that was built from brass, leather, and typewriter-style keys.

"Let's face it," he said. "Modern technology is ugly as hell."

At the Gilded Festival in King of Prussia on Saturday, men in top hats and women in leather corsets imagined a kind of retro future - Jules Verne style - in which today's technological marvels were designed in the 19th century.

This relatively new subculture is known as steampunk. And the first-year festival is one of many that have popped up across the country, and in Europe, in the last few years.

In a sense, steampunk is about reenacting a time that never existed, a game of "what if" in the Gilded Age. Festivalgoers imagined themselves as characters who traveled through time or piloted steam-powered airships. They stayed true more to an idea than to an era.

Charlie Mahoney wore brass goggles with a cowboy hat and long duster. In short, he was a character out of the Wild West in an alternative version of this nation's Industrial Revolution.

"Nothing has to be perfect," said Mahoney, 31, a registered nurse from Wilmington.

The event, which attracted a couple of hundred people by early afternoon, included role-playing games, fascinator/boutonniere making workshops, and leather-working 101. It also was a celebration of a time before the planned obsolescence of computers and phones, when products lasted a long time.

Vendors sold old-time clocks, various metal gears, and skeleton keys.

"Steampunk is very much a maker's culture," said festivalgoer Sarah Beetham, 29, a doctoral candidate in art history from Wilmington. "We're embracing a time of wood and metal and lace."

Steampunk festivals have attracted vendors from renaissance festivals, pirate events, and Civil War reenactments - many of whom sell similar wares from the 19th century, such as leather corsets.

But Willeford, who is based in Harrisburg and who has written books on steampunk, said vendors were simply going where the money is. The genres are not the same.

"This is new and fresh," he said.

The three-day festival, which is at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in King of Prussia, continues through Sunday afternoon. For more information, visit



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