I could hear the jazz horns before I even entered the building. The dark, rainy night only added to my excitement. As we entered into the Library of the General Society, we were greeted by smiling ladies, handing us keys tied to a maroon, satin ribbon, and cloth, muslin bags filled with lock picking supplies. The music grew louder, and the energy more lively as I slowly stepped down into a whole new world. I was being transported into the 1920s- gin, jazz, and no good, lock pickers.
To study culture and what it is to be human, requires one to make that which is familiar unfamiliar. This process of defamiliarization can be very difficult in our daily lives- especially to those who like to be in the mix. But nostalgia provides an easier lens to reflect on a time, period, or way of life that may no longer exist. One of the most celebrated and romanticised time periods in American culture is definitely the gin soaked, jazzy, Prohibition Era. Typically, when we remember this period of time, the story is told within the context of New York City. This could be because of the success of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, the prolific jazz culture of NYC, or just because New York has always “had that swing.” In any case, getting a little taste of the roaring 20s while learning to pick locks seemed more than appropriate for this culture enthusiast.
The event was hosted by Atlas Obscura, an interesting website, that allows modern day explorers, curators of the curious and culture connoisseurs to share their experiences and discoveries with like minded people. The room was filled with very interesting characters. The evening’s MC, Schyuler Towne, showed off his lock picking skills and regaled the crowd with stories of how he became an international lock picker. My ears did absolutely perk up to discover that there were lock picking competitions and afficiandos. But logically, why wouldn’t there be? Truthfully, I hadn’t really thought about it. But if I take a minute to, it would make sense that the media would portray lock picking as a passe´ activity- the skill of Muppet Caper bad guys and the hijinks of the ‘Ocean’s Eleven‘ variety. But I digress…
Towne gave us a brief tutorial between band sets. Soon after, I excitedly grabbed a 20s era cocktail, pulled out my tools, slipped off my high heels, and went to work. Various types of locks circulated throughout the party. As the music played, people would stop by to offer help, search of techniques or engage for a chat.
I struggled for about 30 minutes with 2 or 3 locks before abandoning my efforts to go upstairs to look at the wonderful lock collection. Just like we can go through our grandparents closets and get and idea of the fashion’s of their youth, we can look at the mechanical instruments of a particular age to understand what a time period was like.
Based on the materials used, the ideology of the time, the political philosophies, the technology, and socio-economic strength of an area, the mechanisms can tell wonderful stories of industry, innovation and trends. Things, or commodities, can be followed and open up a whole new world of culture! Try it! Find an item you really like, and learn of its history, manufacturing, and where it appears in media over time to discover where and how it brings various parts of the world together. Through lock-picking, or locksport, and this fun land of 1920s jazz and gin, I stumbled into philosophies of security, the intracacies of mechanical design, the evolution and debates of a different realm of ethics!
Eventually, I did open a few locks. Different locks offer different challenges. There is a basic technique that you can build on. Not all locks are created equal. And while I did have some success with picking a few locks, I assure you, the crown jewels are safe.
Look for ways to explore your world in completely obscure, strange, and new ways! Who knows what you may discover?!