Civil Rights: Not Just a Mid-20th Century Phenomenon

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Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day where Americans celebrate not just the work of an extraordinary man and civil rights leader but the strides made by many who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Since I write fiction that takes place during the Progressive Era, I wondered if civil rights, like women’s rights, started earlier decade than the mid-20th century events we’re more familiar with. I did some digging and it turns out this is indeed the case. The progressives brought civil rights to the table some fifty years earlier than the word of King and others in the form of one of the instrumental organizations that worked for African American rights: the NAACP.

The NAACP (which stands for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) began in 1908 as a response to a wave of lynchings that occurred in Lincoln’s birthplace, Springfield, Illinois. Not surprisingly, a group of progressives, outraged by the violence, organized a meeting that included some of the most well-known abolitionists of the previous era such as W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells. From this meeting emerged the roots of the NAACP, formally established in 1909. 

Photo Credit: A display featuring highlights and emblem of the NAACP at the Kraemer Family Library at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs to celebrate 100 years of the formation of the NAACP, Feb 2009: UCCS Kraemer Family Library/Flickr/CC BY NC SA 2.0 

The NAACP’s mission was to fight racial injustice and discrimination not through violence or grassroots call to action but through the democratic system already in place in America. In other words, they used the same system that oppresses African Americans and other people of color to change laws and policies to fight injustice and discrimination. This is a different approach than many of the later civil rights activists, who believed the system could never work for them and chose more direct means outside the system to achieve their goals of justice and equality. 

The NAACP won several victories in court in the early 20th century. For example, they won a case against the “Grandfather Clause,” (passed in some Southern states which made certain activities, including voting, illegal for people whose grandfathers had not served in the Confederate army). In 1917, they also won a case against racial segregation in Louisville, Kentucky where the court ruled it unconstitutional to prohibit African Americans from buying land in mainly white neighborhoods.

Prior to World War I, the NAACP didn’t see much action beyond the above-mentioned court cases. However, after the war, the organization began to gain more prominence and exposure. Their focus changed with the times such as fighting for more opportunities for African American workers during the Great Depression in the 1930s. 

The NAACP still exists today and fights for racial justice and equality. In 2000, the organization launched a campaign to encourage more African Americans to vote and succeeded in increasing the votes in that community by almost a million. They continue to fight for the African American voice in today’s issues. I think the headline on their home page, “Continuing to fight for Democracy” says it all.

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Friday the 13th: Religious, Literary, and Cultural Origins

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I’ve been fascinated by the number 13 since high school when I had a morose phase that included an obsession with Sylvia Plath’s poems. In “Doomsday”, Plath talks about “lunatic thirteens” and the idea of the number thirteen having madness hidden behind it intrigued me.

Photo Credit: Black and white photo of black cat with arched back: BlueGarou/FreeIMG/CC0 

But the legend of Friday the 13th (the day, not the movie) is more innocuous than that. Some of its roots are, interestingly, religious rather than occult. The story of the Last Supper is about a table set for thirteen. According to some sources, the last guest to arrive was Judas who, of course, betrayed Jesus, a betrayal that eventually led to the crucifixion. That led to the idea that the number thirteen is an unlucky number.

Many believe the significance of Friday the 13th is more literary. For example, many authors exploited this idea of the unlucky and even haunted thirteen throughout the years, beginning with Hesiod in 700 BC, who warned farmers not to plant their seeds on the 13th day on the month because they wouldn’t grow. Others who singled out Friday the 13th as a day to watch out for include Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1387), where Chaucer hinted trying to start a new journey on the thirteenth wasn’t a good idea, and Thomas Lawson in his novel Friday the Thirteenth (1907), where the plot combined the unluckiness of the day with Progressive Era ideals about corrupt business practices that had to go. Right now, I’m reading M. R. James (said to be the godfather of the ghost story), and one of his stories, “Number 13,” also focuses on the idea of the unlucky number and its relation to the supernatural.

Culture also had a hand in determining the number thirteen as an unlucky number. There are superstitions surrounding the idea of “the thirteenth guest”. There’s even a classic pre-code film by that name that stars a non-dancing Ginger Rogers you can watch on YouTube here. Agatha Christie’s book Lord Edgeware Dies, renamed Thirteen for Dinner when made for TV in 1985, carries this idea of the unlucky thirteen. One of the characters at the dinner mentioned above reminds Hercule Poirot about the superstition that bad things happen to the first person who gets up from a table set for thirteen. When Poirot asks him who did get up first, the young man grins and says, “Me.” Since the story is a murder mystery, you can guess what happens to this dinner guest in the film!

While Friday the 13th doesn’t have its day (no pun intended) in my upcoming release, The Mystery of the Golden Cat, there are plenty of unlucky things that happen on another important day of the year: Labor Day. To read all about it, you can preorder the book here.  

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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A Gilded Age Christmas

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Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

A few years ago, I did a survey for my newsletter subscribers, asking them questions about what they liked in my newsletters, what they could do without, and what they would like to see in the future. The overwhelming majority loved it when I wrote about holiday traditions in history. I think the holidays are all about traditions, both personal and collective, and we’re interested in what people did in the past because it shapes what we do today. So let’s talk about Christmas in the Gilded Age.

You might recall from my post here that the last quarter of the 19th century was about opulence and flashiness. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and Christmas was at the top of the list.

German settlers brought the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with them in the 1830s, but the Gilded Age turned this into something more elaborate. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned decorations of simple popcorn strings and beads, which had been the norm, into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a commercial enterprise during this time, replacing more modest homemade ornaments.

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind. He wanted to create mini lessons in fine art for people on a budget. He saw his cards as artistic achievements even the working class could afford. But Gilded Agers weren’t yet willing to embrace the idea of democratizing fine art. They were, however, happy to make the Christmas card more illustrious and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside but started a trend where other illustrators produced cheaper variations. Although they weren’t fine art, they were, as this article shows, still quite beautiful.

Gift-giving, which dominates Christmas advertising, became big business in the Gilded Age. Elaborate and expensive gifts were a way to show one’s generosity which, as we know, is part of what Christmas is all about. Wrapping presents was a Gilded Age invention, making gift-giving more exciting. And the kind of wrapping paper that people used mattered. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford while elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones the gift came from the “right” places.

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

Last, but not least, there’s Santa. We think of Santa as a jovial, white-bearded, and somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the 19th century, Santa took on political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course. The deserved ones were judged not by their goodness but by their political beliefs or support of Capitalism.

Want to know more about life in the Gilded Age? Check out my Waxwood Series! You can start immersing yourself in this fascinating era by following the life of a Gilded Age debutante as she unravels the family truths and finds meaning in her life for free here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Making Progress: Thanksgiving in the Progressive Era

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It’s that time of year when Thanksgiving is upon us (at least it is if you’re in the US). Last year, I reposted Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age. But this year, since I’ve been diving into the Progressive Era with my Adele Gossling Mysteries, I was curious to see whether the turn of the century in comparison to the last quarter of the 19th century really made that much of a difference in how Americans celebrated Thanksgiving.

It turns out it did. The Gilded Age was, remember, all about excesses, money, and showing off when it came to the holidays. Wealthy Americans especially thought of the holidays as a time to get into their best dress and parade themselves in hotel dining rooms or swank restaurants for a multi-course Thanksgiving meal that included non-traditional Thanksgiving fare such as oysters and lobster (if you don’t believe me, take a peek at the picture of the menu in last year’s Thanksgiving blog post.) 

Photo Credit: Cover of Puck magazine showing a mother making a pumpkin pie in the kitchen while her four children look onward, emphasizing the family nature of Thanksgiving, 1903, chromolithograph, created by L. M. Glackens: pingnews.com / Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

But the Progressive Era was when Americans were starting to get a grip on all those excesses and realize their country needed to make some changes. Reform was the order of the day, including workers’ rights, women’s rights, and environmental concerns. There was also more emphasis on intimate social circles (family, friends), probably because the modern era brought up concerns of people being fragmented physically and mentally from their roots (something I daresay we struggle with today in the 21st century.)

To that end, Thanksgiving became more of a family affair. Magazines and books came out with Thanksgiving recipes to help encourage Americans to stay home for the holiday. The recipes were much more what we consider traditional Thanksgiving foods, such as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The menu from 1902 on this site still has some oddities, such as oysters, but it looks much more like the kind of Thanksgiving meal we feast on these days than the menu in my previous blog post.

Progressives carried their reform into the holidays as well. One thing we see with turn-of-the-century Thanksgiving which was less prevalent in the Gilded Age was the idea of giving thanks and gratitude by helping others. Missionaries and other charitable organizations hosted large Thanksgiving feasts for the poor all over the country. In addition, holiday gift boxes became popular just as they are today (my local Sprouts Market prepares gift bags with food every year that customers can purchase and have the store give to a family in need).

Here’s wishing everyone a joyous, warm, and happy Thanksgiving this year!

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More Than Brando’s Mouthpiece: Sacheen Littlefeather

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This month is American Indian Heritage Month so I wanted to celebrate a classic Indian American actress. I came across this article from the Vintage News website in my Facebook feed last month about Sacheen Littlefeather who passed away on October 2. However, Littlefeather was known as an activist for American Indian rights more than for her acting. But what fascinated me about her story was how in 1973 she made headlines when, in Marlon Brando’s name, she went onstage to decline the Oscar he won for his role in The Godfather.

Photo Credit: Sacheen Littlefeather standing in front of the Oscar statue holding Marlon Brando’s statement declining the Oscar for The Godfather, 45th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, 27 March 1973, UCLA Library Special Collections: TarkusAB/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The story behind her appearance at the Oscars has now become legendary. Before the 1973 Oscars, an incident occurred at Wounded Knee where Oglala Dakota and the American Indian Movement entered the town and took over in protest of Native American inequality and were eventually driven out by law enforcement. This incident sparked Marlon Brando’s rage and prompted him to declare that if he won the Oscar for The Godfather, he would decline it in protest of how American Indians were portrayed in films and television and treated by the film industry.

When the announcement that Brando had won came, people were surprised to see a young woman appear on the stage in traditional Apache dress, holding up her hand to decline the Oscar statuette. The story goes that Brando prepared a long speech for Littlefeather to deliver but the producers of the show threatened to have her forcefully removed from the stage if she didn’t keep it to thirty seconds. Put in a difficult position, Littlefeather handled it with dignity and grace. She condensed Brando’s wordy speech to a few eloquent and respectful words as to why he was declining the Oscar (you can watch that here). She endured booing and racial slurs from the audience, and John Wayne had to be restrained from attacking her onstage. The incident got her blacklisted from Hollywood and she never worked as an actress again.

Many have criticized Brando, accusing him of being a coward and sending a young woman to do his dirty work. There’s no doubt Littlefeather showed more courage and grace than Brando in facing the hostile Oscar crowd and backstage reporters. But Littlefeather maintained it was her idea to go in place of Brando and she did it to put across her message of inequality and prejudice that many American Indians working in Hollywood had to endure at the time and she never regretted what she did. 

Let’s celebrate the courage and dignity of American Indians like Sacheen Littlefeather to stand up for their equality and heritage this month!

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