Fun and Mischief: Halloween in the Early 20th Century

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It’s Halloween in the United States today, and if you live in America, you likely already have bags of candy stashed on the front table near your door, expecting little nippers to come knocking and calling “trick or treat!”

Halloween these days is a relatively tame affair where fun is the name of the game. It means dressing up in costumes, taking the kids door to door to get candy, and for some, attending a party or settling on the couch to watch spooky movies (I already have my collection of Val Lewton films geared up). But in the early 20th century, kids had a very different idea of what constituted “fun” for Halloween. Mischief and mayhem were the order of the day (or, I should say, the night).

What do I mean by mischief? Watch this clip from the 1944 classic film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film is set in 1904 and gives a pretty accurate glimpse of how kids celebrated Halloween in the early 20th century. In the scene, kids build a bonfire, throwing into it anything flammable they can get their hands on (and one suspects some of the chairs they’re throwing in might have been ripped off neighborhood porches). Then, they huddle together, trying to figure out who they’re going to torture with their bags of flour (yes, knocking on someone’s door and throwing flour in their face was a thing back then). That was the turn-of-the-century’s idea of Halloween fun.

Photo Credit: A non-grotesque and non-creepy Halloween costume of a witch, 1910: jamesjoel/Flickr/CC BY ND 2.0

Another thing about this scene is that it shows how kids dressed up for Halloween over one hundred years ago (and if you’re curious to see more costumes from this era, you can look here). Unlike today where we’re more likely to see cute costumes on smaller kids and spooky-fun costumes on older kids, kids used whatever they could find around the house. The results were creepier and, in some cases, even grotesque.

Trick-or-treating is a largely organized affair in the 21st century, as in my neighborhood in a small Ohio town, where the local newspaper designates specific days (not necessarily October 31) and times when trick-or-treaters can go around town. In the early 20th century, things were a lot more chaotic. Kids would go trick-or-treating in parades and they could become quite unruly. And did they get candy? Not always. Until the mid-20th century, kids got whatever was lying around. That could be a toy or a game the child of the house didn’t want anymore or some non-candy goodies or fruits or nuts (which would make many moms and dads very happy today).

But what really characterized early 20th-century Halloween was mischief. In addition to the bonfire and the flour-in-the-face, it wasn’t unusual for kids to vandalize the homes of people in town they didn’t like or even steal things off their lawn or porch (in the film clip above, one of the adults warns her children to make sure and return a neighbor’s hammock after they steal it). I remember when I was a kid, Halloween meant you were at risk of being “egged” (having kids throw rotten eggs at your house) if you didn’t open the door and give out candy. Thankfully, that practice has largely gone out of style. 

Want to have even more Halloween fun this year? Come solve a mystery with the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries series as she helps search for a missing child from the community Halloween party! You can get this story (plus a novella and other goodies) only if you sign up for my newsletter here. And to check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series, you can’t do any better than the box set for the first three books in the series! That’s on preorder right now at a great price, so pick it up here

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The Wage Gap: Is This Still a Thing?

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Today is Labor Day in America, which means we’re celebrating the working woman and man. Women indeed have a lot to celebrate on this day. Working conditions for women have improved dramatically since the early 20th century, and job opportunities for women have expanded considerably. Many workplaces recognize situations related to women that made it difficult for them to work in the past and accommodate these (such as maternity leave and daycare). And sexual harassment in the workplace has largely been addressed.

But one thing we can’t celebrate is the wage gap. That is, women are still not being paid equally to men on average for the same or similar jobs. 

Photo Credit: Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, Washington D.C. Kennedy Center, taken 21 August 2019: Edithian/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

One of my favorite scenes in the classic comedy 9 to 5 is the closing (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film). As the three office workers (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) are going around with the head of the company, showing him all the positive changes they’ve made (like flex time and in-house daycare), the head tells their boss (Dabney Coleman) that the one change he doesn’t approve of is paying women in the company the same as the men. As the credits close and the women are toasting their success, they recognize the wage gap is still an issue. I love this scene because even though by 1980, the second-wave women’s movement had lost a lot of its earlier steam, partly because many women believed they had won the fight, it’s a reminder that the fight was (and is – see this blog post) on.

The wage gap has existed for centuries. In the Victorian era, when fewer women were in the workforce and few had careers, women were often paid half or less what men were paid. The reasons for this were, according to employers, practical. According to the separate spheres, men were the bread winners and expected to support their families so they needed more money (a point Coleman makes to Tomlin in 9 to 5 when he tries to justify his reasons for giving a promotion she’s been wanting to a less capable male colleague). Women were at that time not expected to work for long, since their true calling (per the separate spheres) was marriage and motherhood. Employers didn’t want to pay full wages to workers whom they viewed as temporary (even if they weren’t). In addition, women’s work was undervalued because they were seen as “the weaker sex”. The jobs they performed were limited to what employers thought they could do for the most part (read: boring, repetitive tasks, such as in the factories) and therefore, valued less than men’s.

There was one period in American history where women earned more or less the same as men: World War I. During the First World War, when men were scarce and workers were needed for the war effort, government officials agreed to pay women the same as men to entice them into the offices and factories, and many non-government employers followed suit. Sadly, this didn’t stick, not even during World War II when employers again needed women workers (women got paid about forty percent of what men earned during the Second World War).

Just like the ladies of 9 to 5, we’re still fighting the wage gap in the 21st century. Mid-20th century women were receiving a little more than half the wages of men on average, and that number remained pretty steady after the war. It’s only increased to about eight-three percent, according to a study done in 2020. So we’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.

I believe in the working woman, which is why there are a lot of them in my Adele Gossling Mysteries. There are a number of women entrepreneurs (including Adele herself), but there are also women working for employers (such as the young ladies rooming at Mrs. Taylor’s boarding house, whom readers meet in Book 2). The victim in my new release, The Case of the Dead Domestic is, as the title implies, a maid working for a wealthy family when she gets killed. You can check out this sixth book of the series here

As for the practices of Labor Day in the early 20th century, you can experience what that was like in Book 4 of the series, which takes place on the holiday in 1904!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Go West, Young Man, Go West

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Today, July 13, is one of those funky holiday days. It’s Go West Day. 

This term actually came from an editorial piece written by Horace Greenly. Greenly was a well-known figure in the mid-19th century, as he was the editor and publisher of the New York Tribune and even ran for presidential candidate against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. So Greenly was considered a voice of authority at that time. On this day in 1865, faced with a recently ended Civil War which left many soldiers destitute, he advised them to leave their hometowns for brighter horizons in the Midwest and West which had, a few years earlier, opened up with the Homestead Act. 

It’s no wonder Greenly’s words “Go West, young man, go West” resonated with so many Americans in the post-Civil War era. The West was seen not only as virgin territory to settle and explore (which would appeal to many young Civil War veterans looking for adventure) but also as a place to start a new life. The Homestead Act gave the option of acquiring acres of land for a small fee, though once the settlers reached that land, they were on their own in terms of paying for the necessary tools and equipment it took to work that land. Still, for a young man just starting out in life with no money and no assets, it wasn’t a bad deal.

Photo Credit: Painting of a small town where the train and wagons are heading West, print, 1868, Currier & Ives: Library of Congress website/Public domain

There’s no doubt that “Go West, young man” also appealed to others for darker reasons. If a man or woman wanted to escape dire circumstances, they could do no better than to “go West”. Criminals who committed a crime in one state might go West to escape punishment, as even though the constitution demanded states extradite a fugitive to the state in which the fugitive committed the crime, whether this was done was up to the governor’s discretion. 

Similarly, someone seeking to escape a non-criminal but uncomfortable situation was attracted to the idea of “going West”. In the 1949 film version of Henry James’ novella Washington Square (1880), when Morris (Montgomery Clift) discovers Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is disinheriting herself in order to run away and elope with him, he promises to return to take her away, then goes home, packs his bags, and hops on a boat to California. In other words, to avoid marrying a woman he only intended to marry for the inheritance she would get, he flees West. 

Although the protagonist for my Adele Gossling Mysteries has, in a sense, already “gone West” (she was born and raised in San Francisco), she nonetheless follows the “go West” call when she decides to leave the big city for the small town of Arrojo, California in order to find peace and small pleasures. Considering her constant involvement in crime-solving, peace and small pleasures aren’t exactly what she gets!

Book 6 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is coming soon! You can already pick up a copy of it at a special preorder price here. And don’t forget that Book 1 of the series is always free!

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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Rigged: The Fugitive Slave Act

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Juneteenth is when we celebrate the emancipation of slaves and the abolishment of slavery in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act went hand-in-hand with slavery in America in the 18th and 19th centuries and was part of what kept slavery alive.

There’s a scene near the beginning of the Lucile Ball/Desi Arnez film The Long, Long Trailer that I think sums up The Fugitive Slave Act. Arnez is waiting for his wife to come back to their trailer in a trailer park with a friendly elderly man. The man is chatting away about getting a trailer and asks Arnez what kind of trailer he has. Arnez barks, “Rigged. You call it rigged!” Similarly, when we look at the Fugitive Slave Law, we can see how the law and its consequences were rigged.

Why was the Fugitive Slave Act rigged? Because it was designed to make fugitives of people who weren’t fugitives. African American slaves who escaped to the North weren’t committing what we would consider a crime today (like murder, theft, or arson). Rather than destroying something or someone, as criminals do, they sought to build something: to create a life for themselves and free their families from slavery. Many, like Frederick Douglass, went on to advocate for the freedom of all slaves. These women and men were courageous fighters and survivors, not fugitives.

This wood engraving shows a group of twenty-eight slaves who banded together to flee plantations located in Maryland, armed and ready for battle. This occurred in 1857, showing the Fugitive Slave Act was definitely not doing what it set out to do (encourage slaves to stay in bondage).

Photo Credit: Mass slave escape from Cambridge, MD, 1857, wood engraving: Washington Area Spark/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

It also made fugitives of people who tried to help escaped slaves. Many states issued very stiff penalties for those caught aiding African-Americans escaping from slavery, such as six months imprisonment and a five hundred dollar fine (in today’s money, worth about $18,500). People were warned against even talking to potential escaped slaves, thus provoking fear and hate even in the African American community in the Northern states. The law made brave and courageous people who were only trying to do what was right to be betrayers.

And what about government officials? Escaped slaves who were caught were technically subject to a trial, but it was far from a fair one. The Fugitive Slave Law stipulated they could not testify on their own behalf nor could they have a trial by jury. They were tried by special commissioners who were, as many government officials were in the 19th century, as corrupt as they came. The law gave these officials $10 (roughly, $370 today) if they ruled in favor of the slaveholder but only half that amount if they ruled in favor of the slave. So it’s no surprise that the majority of commissioners ruled in favor of the slave going back into bondage, no matter what the evidence showed. The Fugitive Slave Act made the very body we are supposed to rely on for law and order corrupt. 

And what about government officials? Escaped slaves who were caught were technically subject to a trial, but it was far from a fair one. The Fugitive Slave Law stipulated they could not testify on their own behalf nor could they have a trial by jury. They were tried by special commissioners who were, as many government officials were at the time, corrupt. The law gave these officials $10 (roughly, $370 in today’s money) if they ruled in favor of the slaveholder but only half that amount if they ruled in favor of the slave. So it’s no surprise that most commissioners ruled in favor of the slave going back into bondage no matter what the evidence showed. The Fugitive Slave Act made the very body we rely on for law and order faulty. 

And the greatest irony? The goal of the Fugitive Slave Act was to “keep slaves in their place,” or, encourage slaves not to run away. Not only did it not do this (it’s estimated that in 1850, the year the act went into effect, more than 100,000 slaves escaped) but it enforced the idea that slavery was a gross violation of human rights and encouraged more African-Americans and their supporters to fight for the end of slavery which eventually led to the Civil War. 

Want to read about some real fugitives and criminals? Try out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series! The Carnation Murder is free in all online bookstores! And don’t forget Book 6, The Case of the Dead Domestic, is coming later this summer. You can check out the details and preorder a copy (at a special price) 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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The Vague Origins of Father’s Day

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Today is Father’s Day in the United States. If Father’s Day sometimes seems like an afterthought, it sort of was, though not because fathers aren’t worthy of honor. I trace this back to the residue of the 19th century separate spheres where home and family brought up images of mothers more than fathers. So we can understand in this light why Mother’s Day gets a lot of attention.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little uncertain. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that is thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, mainly wanting to commemorate her own father. Dodd’s father had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened two years earlier, in West Virginia when a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who had been killed in a local mining explosion.

But official lobbying and support were slow in coming. National political figures such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge supported a national Father’s Day, but it didn’t get much traction. Lobbying for a Father’s Day continued, and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Why was Father’s Day almost an afterthought? As they say, follow the money. Mother’s Day was a commercially viable holiday from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th centuries was more of a disciplinarian. The sentimentality given to mothers seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis of the Gilded Age. 

Talk about famous fathers! This photo is of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and his three kids. He doesn’t look much like a disciplinarian dad here, does he?

Photo Credit: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his three children, 1900, Bain News Service, publisher, Library of Congress: Picryl/No known restrictions

Fathers are just as complex as mothers (something I discuss in my blog post about Mother’s Day) and Adele’s father is no exception. Although deceased when the series opens, Otis Gossling still profoundly influences his daughter and his son, Adele’s brother, Jackson, but in very different ways. As a highly-revered San Francisco criminal lawyer, it was his position that gave them their well-to-do standing. But Adele sees him very differently than her brother Jackson. Who is right and who is wrong? You’ll have to read the Adele Gosslng Mysteries to find out! 

And you can start right here with Book 1, The Carnation Murder, which is free on all bookstore platforms. Book 6 is coming out later this summer, so check that out 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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