Gilded Age Technical Innovations: The Automobile

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Photo Credit: Henry Ford’s first car, a Quadricycle Runabout, 1896, Midcoast Studios, Henry Ford Museum: The Henry Ford/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

We might see the late 20th Century onward as the era of phenomenal technical innovation (think: personal computer, wifi, and the internet), but it was really the Gilded Age that started it. As I mentioned in this blog post, the Gilded Age (roughly the last quarter of the 19th century) moved us into the modern era where the 20th (and 21st) centuries took over. Everything was getting a make-over then, including fashion, business, and politics. Technology was no exception.

Although cars didn’t really become popular until they became affordable (when Henry Ford released the Model T in 1908), they’re still probably one of the most earth-shattering of all the technical inventions created in the Gilded Age. When exactly the first car was manufactured is a matter of dispute, though people generally cite Carl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) as being the first to come out with a three-wheeled automobile that ran on gasoline. The contraption was pretty modest, looking almost like a three-wheel bicycle with a fancy leather seat. The car was created in 1879 but didn’t get its first run until 1886. 

The idea behind the early automobile can be found really in the word itself (which didn’t come about until 1897). The car was all about the ability to go where you wanted in a vehicle that ran on its own (as opposed to having an animal pull it). This is one reason why early automobiles were first referred to as “horseless carriages”. They were thought of as carriages just like any other (and many early 19th century ones looked more like carriages and wagons than the cars we know today) except they didn’t need a horse to pull them.

Interestingly, early automobiles didn’t necessarily run on gasoline. Many ran on steam power (using a smilier principle as the steam engine, another new technological innovation of the 19th century) and some even ran on electricity (hello, hybrid). In fact, early electric cars were often marketed to women (yes, women did drive cars in the early 20th century, including author Edith Wharton and society etiquette queen, Emily Post) because they were elegant and easy to operate. 

One of my favorite films is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The movie is based on a 1918 book (but takes place earlier) and documents the downfall of a wealthy Midwestern family. The shift from carriages to automobiles figures prominently in the story. Eugene Morgan, an old beau of Amberson matriarch Isabella, is a car manufacturer at a time when they were considered, in the words of Isabella’s son, a “useless nuisance”. In the film, there is a discussion of the automobile at the dinner table one night. The discussion brings out some of the fears people had about cars then, such as the value of exclusive neighborhood properties going down once cars allowed people to travel longer distances. Interestingly, the biggest “nuisance” we would consider with cars today (accidents) isn’t even mentioned, probably because the speed limit in the early 20th century was less than 20 miles an hour outside city limits. The philosophical speech Morgan delivers about the automobile is that, like it or not, no one could stop this technological innovation from replacing the horse and buggy and, of course, this prediction proved right. By the 1910s, cars outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in many cities across America.

Photo Credit: Baker Electric Coupe 1908, taken by Lars-Göran Lindgren: Lglswe/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0 

The Alderdices are, like the Ambersons, stuck in the past and are reluctant to embrace the new technologies that were already coming their way in the last decade of the 19th century. In Book 2, Jake and Vivian is introduced to a custom-made car belonging to Stevens called the Brata. The name is fictional but the car itself was inspired by a real electric car manufactured by the Baker Motor Vehicle Company in 1909. The car attracted me and fit Stevens’ character, like the kind of car he would really own, so I adopted it, although the series takes place some ten years earlier. Interestingly, Jay Leno, a classic car enthusiast, restored one of the Baker Electric 1909 automobiles and you can see him driving it here

Incidentally, cars also play a role in my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. The protagonist and amateur sleuth, Adele Gossling, an up-and-coming New Woman, symbolically and literally invades the backward-thinking town of Arrojo in Book 1 when she shows up in a Beaton Roundabout (another fictional name for an automobile but inspired by the Stearns Steam Surrey, manufactured by the Stearns Steam Carriage Company in Syracuse, New York in 1902). If you’re curious, you can find a photo of the car here

The Waxwood Series is about to get a complete makeover! All four books will be getting new covers and new blurbs in November. You can find out more about the series here

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

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Working Women’s Tragedy: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

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Photo Credit: A cartoon referring to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire depicts a factory owner, his coat bedecked with the dollar signs, holding a door closed while workers shut inside struggle to escape amid flames and smoke, 1911, artist unknown (name illegible), International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

To say working women didn’t have it easy in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a gross understatement. They had to endure extremely low wages (more so than working men), long hours, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and harassment from all sides. Even with Progressive Era reforms, change came very slow.

Probably the most infamous example of the consequences of these injustices working women had to face during this time was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and this year marks the 110th anniversary of that tragedy. I became fascinated with this piece of women’s history when I saw a PBS special on it a long time ago. The story, in fact, was part of what inspired me to write historical fiction. I have somewhere in my files a story idea based on this event.

What intrigued me and continues to do so is the question “Who were the victims of the fire?” Out of the list of 146 workers who died in the fire, only 15 were men (I counted them — there’s a list on the Cornell University website of all of them here.) That means that 131 women died in the fire. They were immigrant women, mostly, of Italian and Eastern European origin. A quick scan of the list shows the majority of these women were between the age of sixteen to twenty-five. But what do we really know about them? The Cornell University list doesn’t give us much more than their name, age, nationality, how long they had lived in the United States, and their address. That’s it.

What was their life like? We can put ourselves in the place of these women, many of whom had been in America for less than five years. They came with their families and with hopes and dreams of a better life, some escaping persecution (like the pogroms of the time where Jews were killed in the riots and mobs of Russia and Eastern Europe). What they got was extreme poverty, misery, and exploitation. Their workweek was hardly the 9-to-5 schedule we know today. It was not uncommon for them to start their workday before the sun went up and end it well after the sun went down. They worked ten or eleven hours a day, every day (no weekends off here!) with only a tiny break for lunch. How much were they paid? An average of six dollars a week, roughly equivalent to $173 today (that’s less than $10,000 a year). To add insult to injury, these women oftentimes had to bring their own materials (like sewing needles) because their employers refused to provide them.

They not only worked long hours for little pay, they also experienced severe indignity and humiliation. In most cases, they were so heavily monitored they didn’t even have the freedom to go to the ladies’ room whenever they needed it. Doors were locked and kept locked, ostensibly because employers were afraid they would steal materials and smuggle them out during working hours or leave for a bathroom break and remain out for too long. This was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire turned into a tragedy of massive proportions. There was one entrance that would have offered an escape for the workers but to get to it, they had to open the doors, and the doors were locked and bolted. 

The fire escape leading from the upper floors where the fire hose water and ladders didn’t get to was in such bad shape that it collapsed when workers tried to use it as an escape route from the fire.

Photo Credit: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire escape after the fire, 1911, photographer unknown, International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

These women also worked in appalling conditions. The floor was littered with dirt and debris from the work they did and never cleaned. Sanitation was a joke. For the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of these materials, like cotton and paper, were highly inflammable. Reports on the fire during the time lay blame on this waste lying around for allowing the fire to spread so quickly. How quickly? Everything was over in less than twenty minutes.

Working women appear in Book 3, Pathfinding Women, and Book 4, Dandelions, of my Waxwood Series, though in a different way. Nettie Grace, a Waxwoodian resident Vivian befriends in Book 3, introduces the Gilded Age belle to the life of working women. She owns a drug store and has dreams of setting up a women’s library and reading room for working-class women and helping poor women improve their reading and education. There is a scene in the novel where an argument ensues during a suffragist meeting between Nettie, whose passionate fight for working women’s rights, clashes with the more mild demands of the middle and upper-class women of the organization.

Things did begin to change in the latter part of the 1910s, partly as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. In New York, a commission set out to place safety and fire laws for employers as well as labor laws allowing for better working conditions overall. Most of the country followed suit.

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

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The Second Wave Women’s Movement (1960s-1980s)

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This is the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine from 1972. How many of those article headlines apply to us today in 2021?

Photo Credit: Preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Spring, 1972, Liberty Media for Women, LLC.: Missvain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Women’s Equality Day is today and we want to celebrate!

It’s been a slow-going process for us to gain equality and even more slow-going to define for ourselves what that really means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines equality as “the state of being equal” (not very helpful, is it?) The word “equal” is defined as “of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another”. So equality is about sameness, right? It’s no wonder why many women (including one of my favorite musical artists, Kate Bush) mistake feminism for “wanting to be just like men”.

But from the beginning of its roots, the women’s movement was never about being “the same as men”. Suffragists wanted the vote (which they got in 1920) not because they wanted to think and act just like men, but because they wanted a say in public policies that affected them specifically, such as property laws, sanitary childbirth methods, and respect for their womanly virtues. 

But what’s more ironic is second-wave feminists defined equality as anything but sameness. The movement was, in fact, a highly personal one. It’s no wonder the feminist slogan became “the personal is political”. It grew out of mid-century women’s realization they were not living in a vacuum. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (which I talk more about here), was inspired by personal stories of the women she interviewed for women’s magazines in the 1950s, suburban housewives who had every material comfort but had lost their voices and their souls in the bargain. Again and again, Friedan heard tales of discontentment, anger, oppression, and guilt from these women which mirrored her own feelings. When the book was published, other women gathered in consciousness-raising groups and shared stories with one another. It was their desire to seek change for themselves and their sisters that sparked the movement.

In essence, the second-wave feminist movement begins where the suffragists left off. Suffragism (the right to vote) was what Victorian and Progressive Era women needed, a voice in the public sphere. Second-wave feminists of the 1960s took that voice to the next level. They identified issues affecting all women and lobbied for changes. For example, at the top of their agenda list was workplace discrimination. Issues such as affirmative action for women and abolishing segregated help wanted ads, which allowed employers to advertise jobs for women that they felt were suited to them based on gender, helped women get better jobs. This was a political stand, to be sure, but it was also a highly personal one that affected individual women’s lives.

Another issue of concern to women at this time was reproductive rights. The Pill was approved by the FDA in 1961, which was a major step forward for women. It gave many women the right to hold off having children until they (and not society) were ready for them. It also meant women who preferred to focus on a career and not have children could do so. They helped put the decision to “fulfill a woman’s role” (in conventional terms) in the hands of women and not men.

The second-wave women’s movement wasn’t all roses and chocolate, though. Within the movement, women didn’t always agree on what they should be fighting for. For example, Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 but stepped down four years later because she felt the increasing radical views coming from younger feminists didn’t gel with her own. NOW felt Friedan’s fight for working women wasn’t as high on the feminist agenda as she thought it should be.

In addition, women of color saw the movement dominated by middle-class white women and the issues most relevant to them neglected. They felt their experiences, especially with racism and classism, were overlooked and that separating discrimination by sex and by race was defeating the purpose of abolishing discrimination entirely. While there were many strong voices for women of color and their unique experiences (such as bell hooks and Angela Davis), they tended to be attached more to the civil rights movement than the feminist movement. Other women as well, such as working-class and LGBT women, pointed out the exclusion of issues more intimately related to them for those that affected their white, middle-class, educated sister more.

These omissions are, in fact, what the third-wave feminist movement (roughly, from the late 1980s to today) is about. That movement expands not only to all issues affecting all women personally but around the globe, which is why the movement has also been called “global feminism”.

How did the women who preceded the second-wave feminist movement feel in their lives? Read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to find out.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

Do you think the “personal is political” approach still exists among the younger generation of women fighting for their rights in the 21st century? Let me know in the comments!

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Is The Feminine Mystique Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

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Photo Credit: Book cover for The Feminine Mystique, 1984, Del/Laurel reissue edition: VCU CNS/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

“We don’t need feminism anymore.”

How many times have I heard that one? And usually by twenty-something young ladies who, bless them, have never experienced the kind of oppression older women have and whose mothers have never experienced it. 

I shouldn’t say “never” really because all women (regardless of age, ethnicity, gender identity, etc) have experienced some kind of oppression. A writer friend recently posted a meme to Facebook on all the things women couldn’t do in the first half of the 20th century, including serving on a jury and own a credit card. When we look at history, that list of what women couldn’t achieve grows exponentially. Think how 19th-century women couldn’t even own property that was left to them. Henry James’ novella Washington Square is all about a young lady (considered “plain” and not very socially inept) who is wooed by a handsome, charming young man who wants to marry her — you guessed it — for her money. Her father threatens to leave his money to worthy charities. Notice he doesn’t say “I’ll leave the money to my daughter and only to my daughter.” Why? Because even if he did, the money would revert to her husband’s control because she wouldn’t be allowed to own it (money is, or was in the 19th century, property).

Last year, when I published my post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, I wrote this blog post about Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique. I had read snippets of the book in grad school but it was only after reading the entire book that it made a huge impression on me. Friedan’s feminine mystique (that fairytale woman who was born to be a mother, wife, caretaker — in other words, whose entire being was defined in her relationships to others and how she could serve those others) resonated with me because these women were my mother’s generation. I saw so much of my mother’s life in the feminine mystique (hence the title of my collection) and the frustration and rage and guilt she experienced as a woman (as opposed to her role as mother, wife, nurse, and caretaker). Now, at the age of seventy-eight, my mom still struggles with being the perfect wife and mother. 

We might ask, is the younger generation right? Didn’t we put the feminine mystique to rest in the 1970s and 1980s during the second-wave feminist movement? Aren’t women doing more than ever now, no longer expected to devote all their lives to home and family if they don’t choose to? Aren’t women making great strides in all areas of life (politics, society, economics, etc.) and in all corners of the globe? 

Perhaps herein lies the problem. There is no question we’re making strides everywhere and we are showing our strength in so many different ways. But we are also still expected to take on the feminine mystique and prioritize it above everything else. As Hanna Rosin points out in this article, if the goal of the women’s movement was to redefine women’s roles and women’s identity, we’ve really only added to them.

This is essential to understanding how the feminine mystique has surfaced during the COVID pandemic, more so than perhaps in the past few decades. This article talks about the social safety net (the place where family care happens) and how the pandemic has only increased the expectations for women (the article refers mostly to mothers, but I expand this to all women because we’ve been expected to be the caregivers to everyone, not just our kids) to create that place of shelter so many of us have needed during this time. Stay-at-home orders increased the burden on many women to create that safe space for children, husbands, parents, and others. Many women also lost their jobs during the pandemic, leaving the part of them that pursued financial stability and (hopefully) professional success empty. 

We can’t quite say we’re in the same spot with the feminine mystique in the 2020s as we were in the 1950s. Many women discovered their creativity during the pandemic with the slew of creative courses and Zoom videos (paid and free) offered through social media groups and on the internet. As a writer, I saw a huge increase in writing-related online events (including “writing sprints” where people get together on Zoom and just write). These are quite different from the feminist consciousness-raising groups that saw many women through their frustrations and rage in the 1960s and 1970s but perhaps they are also more positive because women had the opportunity to strengthen their identities and get support for their artistic passions through these events.

I sincerely hope one day we will be able to say “we don’t need feminism anymore” and “the feminine mystique doesn’t exist”. But for now, I think it’s safe to say we still have far to go when it comes to opening up our hearts and souls to all that we can do as women and how we define ourselves as women and as human beings.

If you want to read stories about suburban women in the 1950s escaping the feminine mystique, read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life here.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

How would you answer someone who told you, “The feminine mystique doesn’t exist in 2021?” Tell me in the comments!

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🎁Lessons From My Mother’s Life (Updated and Revised Edition) Giveaway!!!🎁

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