The skylines of every city in the world would look very different today were it not for the simple expedient of vertical transport. Elevators inaugurated the era of skyscrapers and rescued the world from the blight of urban sprawl. Without elevators, the modern metropolis would not exist, and yet they have been largely overlooked in the cultural history of America.
Nowhere To Go But Up
American inventor Elisha Graves Otis patented the first passenger-safe elevator in 1853. Steam-powered and manually operated, by 1873 more than 2,000 Otis elevators were in use across America, mostly in office buildings, luxury hotels and department stores. These early elevators were designed as “moveable rooms,” with chandeliers, carpeting, benches and uniformed operators. As elevators became more ubiquitous and the novelty of vertical transport wore off, they gradually shed their Gilded Age charm.
Like elevators got their start in New York. The Panic of 1873 and a real estate crunch in lower Manhattan caused city planners to consider packing up Wall Street and moving it uptown to escape the sprawl. Instead of moving out, however, Wall Street moved up. Henry Hyde, the founder of one of the country’s largest insurance firms, installed two elevators in his headquarters, and built what was—at seven stories and 130 feet—the tallest structure in New York at the time. Hyde’s record didn’t last long. The electric elevator was invented in 1880 by Ernst Werner Siemens, the founder of the eponymous German industrial conglomerate.
Siemen’s electric elevators combined with steel building frames to surpass vertical limits and inaugurate the age of the “skyscraper.” As technology improved, the record for the world’s tallest building would be shattered again and again.
The Sky’s The Limit
Elevators not only changed the urban landscape: they also left an indelible mark on American language and culture. The idea of “claustrophobia,” the fear of enclosed spaces and having no escape, was born inside the elevator. Early hydraulic elevators caused doctors to worry about “elevator sickness,” the nausea and disorientation caused by the jolt of sudden stops.
The rich have always sought higher ground, but elevators cemented the association between altitude and opulence. “The sky’s the limit” entered the American lexicon in 1920, and “living the high life” shortly thereafter. The wealthy went from the ground floor to the “penthouse,” a word that took on its contemporary meaning in 1921. The phrase “up-and-coming” first came into usage in 1926, synonymous with success and “upward” social mobility.
The elevator has been a fountain of idioms, a trope of fiction and an iconic setting for unexpected or awkward encounters between strangers. Douglas Adams gave elevators personalities in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy” novels, imbuing them with as many foibles and idiosyncrasies as their occupants. As a cultural icon, however, the elevator has been the victim of its own success.
There is no way to remove the rush of acceleration during takeoff, the whir of scenery on a train ride, or all the inherent dangers of an automobile, but innovations have made riding an elevator an almost imperceptible experience. The safety and efficiency of modern elevators has made it easy not to notice them, and yet America as we know it would not exist without them.