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The Boston Globe

Ideas

How the elevator transformed America

The unsung conveyance that threw us together—and allowed us to build up

When Daniel Levinson Wilk steps onto the elevator at work, he doesn’t just stand there and zone out. Instead he focuses on what’s happening to him: the strange push against his feet, the sense of moving through a dark and hollow artery in the middle of his building. Over the next 90 seconds, Wilk absorbs—or tries to—the sense that he’s having an experience that profoundly changed America.

The elevator, Wilk says, is responsible for shaping modern life in ways that most people simply don’t appreciate. An associate professor of history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a board member of the Elevator Museum in Queens, Wilk would like everyone to be more conscious of the elevators in their lives. But he is particularly disappointed with his fellow academics—people who are supposed to be studying how the world works—for failing to consider just how much elevators matter.

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“The lack of interest scholars have shown in the cultural life of elevators,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, “is appalling.”

For most city-dwellers, the elevator is an unremarkable machine that inspires none of the passion or interest that Americans afford trains, jets, and even bicycles. Wilk is a member of a small group of elevator experts who consider this a travesty. Without the elevator, they point out, there could be no downtown skyscrapers or residential high-rises, and city life as we know it would be impossible. In that sense, they argue, the elevator’s role in American history has been no less profound or transformative than that of the automobile. In fact, according to Wilk, the automobile and the elevator have been locked in a “secret war” for over a century, with cars making it possible for people to spread horizontally, encouraging sprawl and suburbia, and elevators pushing them toward life in dense clusters of towering vertical columns.

If we tend to ignore the significance of elevators, it might be because riding in them tends to be such a brief, boring, and even awkward experience—one that can involve unplanned encounters between people with whom we have nothing in common, internal turmoil over where to stare, and a vaguely unpleasant awareness of the fact that we’re hanging from a cable in a long, invisible shaft.

In a new book, “Lifted,” German journalist and cultural studies professor Andreas Bernard zeroes in on this experience, tracing mankind’s relationship to the elevator back to its origins and finding that it has never been a totally comfortable one. “After 150 years, we are still not used to it,” Bernard said. “We still have not exactly learned to cope with this...mixture of intimacy and anonymity.” That mixture, according to Bernard, sets the elevator ride apart from just about every other situation we find ourselves in as we go about our lives.

Today, as the world’s urban population explodes, and cities become denser, taller, and more crowded, America’s arsenal of elevators—900,000 at last count, according to Elevator World magazine’s 2012 Vertical Transportation Industry Profile—are a force that’s becoming more important than ever. And for the people who really, really love them, it seems like high time that we looked seriously at just what kind of force they are.

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Elevators first arrived in America during the 1860s, in the lobbies of luxurious hotels, where they served as a plush conveyance that saved the well-heeled traveler the annoyance of climbing stairs. Initially these steam-powered “moveable rooms” were extravagantly furnished with chandeliers, benches, and carpeting, says Lee Gray, a columnist for Elevator World and an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Passengers were expected to sit down and get comfortable before the operator fired up the new contrivance. “It was all about luxury,” said Gray.

It wasn’t until the 1870s, when elevators showed up in office buildings, that the technology really started to leave a mark on urban culture. Business owners stymied by the lack of available space could look up and see room for growth where there was previously nothing but air—a development that was particularly welcome in New York, where a real estate crunch in Manhattan’s business district had, for a time, forced city leaders to consider moving the entire financial sector uptown. That plan came to be seen as unnecessary thanks to the initiative of one Henry Hyde, the founder of a large insurance firm, who realized that by installing a pair of elevators in his headquarters, he could make it the tallest building in the city: seven stories and 130 feet. In so doing, Hyde ushered in a new era. As a writer for Scribner’s Magazine put it almost 30 years later, the passenger elevator turned out to be “a revolutionary agent” that did for modern building what the steam engine had done for transportation.

Advances in elevator technology combined with new steel frame construction methods to push the height limits of buildings higher and higher. In the 1890s, as Bernard recounts in his book, the tallest building in the world was the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago; by 1913, when hydraulic elevators had been replaced with much speedier and more efficient electrical ones, it was the 55-story Woolworth Building in New York. Quickly, the modern city assumed its present shape. As Patrick Carrajat, the founder of the Elevator Museum in New York, put it, “If we didn’t have elevators...we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, stretching from Philadelphia to Boston, because everything would be five or six stories tall.”

The arrival of the elevator upended more than urban planning: It changed the hierarchy of buildings on the inside as well. Higher floors had once been distant, scrubby spaces occupied by maids and the kind of low-rent tenants who could be expected to climb six flights of stairs. The more important people climbed at most one or two flights, which gave brownstone-style homes, for instance, their high-ceilinged parlor floors. While the arrival of elevators didn’t change this right away—the top floor of Henry Hyde’s building was occupied by the in-house janitor—the upper reaches of buildings eventually became desirable. The elevator ushered in the end of the garret and the beginning of the penthouse, as lawyers and businessmen came to appreciate the advantages of having beautiful, bird’s-eye views and respite from the loud noises of the street. Hotel owners, meanwhile, started turning their top floor rooms into their nicest ones. They could even rent out their roofs for garden parties where guests could survey the glittering new city, all without doing a bit of work to get there.

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Even less appreciated these days than their transformative effects on American cities are the effects that elevators had on Americans themselves when they stepped inside of them. At first this was a central concern: As late as the 1900s, doctors worried about a nausea-inducing condition known as “elevator sickness,” caused by the sudden movement of one’s organs inside the body when an elevator came to a halting stop. Public health advocates, meanwhile, warned that the shared conveyances would spread disease among neighbors and co-workers. Other worries were psychological: As Bernard points out in his book, the concept of claustrophobia emerged in the psychiatric literature at the same time as the elevator, and the experience of being inside one was listed from the start as a primary instigator of symptoms.

Elevators also raised new questions of etiquette. According to Gray, the author of a 2002 book on the early history of elevators, one big issue was whether a man in an elevator ought to remove his hat in the presence of a woman, as he would in someone’s home or a restaurant, or keep it on, as he would on a train or a streetcar. The question, says Gray, reflected a basic uncertainty about what this space really was—a mode of transportation, or some kind of tiny moving room.

That was only one of the peculiar uncertainties that came with riding elevators. Another was that they felt simultaneously public and private, taking people out of the broader world while locking them into a narrow, self-contained one alongside a random assortment of colleagues, neighbors, and strangers. By bringing together people who often only kind of knew each other, elevators created vague expectations of interaction—a smile, a nod, even a bit of small talk to acknowledge that everyone on board lived or worked in the same building.

When Bernard began researching his book, he was interested in finding the moment when all that anxiety and ambiguity finally went away. “What I wanted was to go directly to the threshold, where it changed from this alien thing, to something which is completely normal,” he said. But after years of research, he came to a surprising conclusion: That moment of normalcy never came. “It turns out we still live on this threshold,” he says.

Put another way, the experience of riding elevators is still marked by awkwardness and serendipity—who will I see? How long do I have to stand like this?—and as Bernard points out in his book, those qualities have made it a staple of romantic comedies, office dramas, and crime stories in which the plot requires two people to be suddenly and unexpectedly thrust together. Its uniqueness as an environment also has allowed social scientists to use it as a fruitful laboratory for experiments on behavior. One study tested the effect of smiling on people’s willingness to stand near strangers, for instance, while another looked at how men and women choose to situate themselves in relation to each other upon boarding. The distinctiveness of elevators as social spaces is also the reason we speak of an “elevator pitch”—so named after the one place the company CEO might spend 60 seconds as captive audience to an ambitious intern.

For elevator fans like Bernard, Wilk, Gray, and Carrajat, this mixing of worlds is one of the main things that makes elevators so important. And the more opportunities modern life gives us to separate ourselves from others—by getting into our cars and escaping into our suburban homes, by hiding in our cubicles and burying our heads in our social networks—the more the elevator matters as a place that squeezes us together for a moment and forces us to grapple with one another’s existence.

Sadly, there is cause to worry about the future of these moments. The next big leap in elevator technology, already active in large new office towers, is something called “destination dispatch,” which groups people who are going to similar floors together in order to get them where they’re going more quickly. Such a system, Wilk points out, is more efficient in terms of both time and energy, but it also makes it so that people who work on far-flung floors are less likely ever to run into each other. More specifically, it may reduce the chance that someone high up in a company’s hierarchy would share an elevator ride with someone who works down below. Serendipity, in this scenario, begins to recede.

Of course, the elevator has been through changes before. Trained operators armed with cranks and levers have been replaced with buttons; motion sensors have made holding the door less of a heroic act. Through it all, it has never quite lost the strangeness that makes it so different from anything else we experience in our daily lives. For all the association with modernity and all the large-scale changes it has enabled, the elevator ride itself—this small, enduring moment of sharing a box with semi-strangers—has been reminding us, for 150 years, of a crucial fact about what it means to be part of a society: that even when they’re standing still, everyone around us is on their way to somewhere.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.
E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.

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