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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A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

Women have had a lot to fight for since women’s suffragism came to the forefront in the 19th century, and we’re still fighting. But what are those issues, particularly during the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”?

In the 19th century, organized suffragism was born of a group of brave women whose names are branded in history like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, suffragists focused first on getting society to recognize women were equals to men (with limitations dictated by the separate spheres, of course — no use rocking the boat too much). But later, their focus shifted to one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. Why was this so important? Suffragists were smart enough to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to implement changes into public policy that would carry through to future generations. 

When progressive movements took center stage at the turn of the 20th century, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Women achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. The Progressive Era increased awareness for many women that equality wasn’t just about the right to vote. It was also about psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th-century femininity limiting what women could and could not do and be. In that light, the New Woman was born: active, athletic, and freer in body and spirit than her mother and grandmother had been.

After the fight for suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post-World War” II generation brought back a more modern version of the angel. Betty Friedan labeled her “the feminine mystique”. Magazines, advertisements, and doctors advocated for a woman’s place in the home and her identity became tied to her relationships with others rather than her identity in and of itself. Friedan found these women in American suburbs living a life that fulfilled this destiny, but they were not happy because they suffered from The Problem That Has No Name. These women felt discontented and frustrated as if something was missing from their lives but they couldn’t define what it was.

Friedan’s book inspired others to speak out about their frustration and disillusionment, eventually leading to second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further into the political sphere than their 19th and early 20th century sisters. They zoomed in on social and personal oppressions, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

Friedan’s book and others that identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th-century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppression of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Until then, I had very little knowledge of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. My well-meaning family followed a very patriarchal model, as my parents came of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded in the characters’ psychological reality. For example, in Pathfinding Women, the third book of my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Vivian Alderdice begins to question the conventional path of a wealthy young woman followed by her mother and grandmother when she befriends Nettie Grace, a working-class women, and suffragist. Similarly, the five stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique.

If you’d like to know more about my Waxwood Series, you can check out this page. The first book of the series, The Specter, is at 99¢. And you can find out more about the issues of post-war suburban housewives in America and how some fought back in my short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Summer Vacation in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet, 1866-1867, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY: Crisco 1492/Wikimedia Common/PD old 80

This Sunday is the official start of summer. Much of my historical family saga, the Waxwood Series, takes place during the summer months. For us 21st century people, summer means hot weather, swimming pools, and beaches. It’s about fun, leisure, and rest. 

The Victorians, however, had a different take on summer. In the 19th century, only the privileged (like my Alderdice family) could afford to take a summer vacation. Middle-class and working-class people did not take time off in the summer or go on vacation. Why? 

First, there was a philosophical issue involved. Tension existed between work and play in America at that time. Doctors and ministers and other authorities were suspicious of vacations, believing they led people to vice. There was also a very practical reason: Most people just couldn’t afford to take time off and go somewhere for the summer (no paid time off for vacations in those days).

What changed? Our awareness that being the constant workhorse was more unhealthy than the sort of vices vacation destinations could offer. Also, the rising middle class in the Gilded Age could finally afford to a week or two off from work during the summer for some fun and leisure. And, too, as with much of American life in the Gilded Age, there was the question of commerce. The travel and hospitality industries (like hotels and restaurants) quickly realized they could make a lot of money by encouraging Americans to take time off to enjoy the summer and play.

In my series, when summer comes, the Alderdice family vacation in the resort town called Waxwood. Resort life was growing in the Gilded Age among the wealthy and upper-middle class. These wealthy people took their summer vacations very seriously, spending months lounging in resorts, meeting new people, and participating in all sorts of activities and events. You can find out more about my series on this page

Ready to dive into my Gilded Age family saga? Now is a perfect time! Book 1, The Specter, has been updated and revised and is now at 99¢. You can get it here

And if you really want to know what it was like to spend a summer in a resort with the wealthy, you’ll want to read Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, which has also recently been updated and revised.

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Why I Love (And Write) Women’s Fiction

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***This blog post was written in honor of Women’s Fiction Day, designated as June 8 by the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.***

If you would ask me what is the genre of the Waxwood Series, I would unhesitatingly say “women’s fiction”. This is in spite of the fact that False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, is actually about a young man’s coming-of-age. The series itself focuses on the journey of one young woman to emotional and intellectual maturity in the last decade of the 19th century. Women’s fiction is always about journeys and all of my fiction, regardless of genre, even my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, the Paper Chase Mysteries, is about women’s journeys.

But is women’s fiction only about the gender of the author?

Different authors define women’s fiction (whether they write it or not) differently. My definition of women’s fiction is fiction where a woman goes through some kind of emotional and psychological journey and transformation, usually the main character or one of the main characters. That transformation doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive one, but one in which she learns something about herself and the world around her. And the book doesn’t have to be written by a woman either. I consider books like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary women’s fiction, because the woman protagonist of each book goes through her own journey and transformation (however tragic), and we learn something about human nature and women’s lives in the nineteenth century. 

This last element is really why I love reading women’s fiction. The genre not just about women written for women and only relevant to women. It’s relevant to all our lives, male or female, or however you identify your gender. They also teach us about how women behave and are treated, and this reflects on the way human nature works in our patriarchal society, then and now. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t read many contemporary books but a few months ago, I picked up a book firmly placed in the contemporary women’s fiction category by K. L. Montgomery titled Fat Girl. Montgomery is a body-positive advocate and her protagonist is a plus-size woman whose trials and tribulations with romance, divorce, and raising a teenage boy speaks to our time with the struggles of single parents and body shaming in our weight-conscious society.

In the Waxwood Series, Vivian’s transformation continues throughout the Waxwood Series and will be completed in Book 4. Her revelations about family, women and social expectations will hopefully speak not only of the paradoxes of the Gilded Age but also our time.

In honor of Women’s Fiction Day, I’m giving away an ebook copy of The Specter! To enter the giveaway, please comment on this blog post and tell me why you love women’s fiction (historical or otherwise). The giveaway will end on Sunday, June 13.

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Larissa Alderdice: The Alderdice Matriarch

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Photo Credit: jspring/Depositphotos.com 

It’s May, which means it’s not only spring but also the month of mothers (Mother’s Day in the United States was May 9). If we’re talking about mothers, I wanted to say a few things about Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series

I’ve done several blog posts about the Alderdice family already. I did one for Vivian Alderdice, the series protagonist, and for her brother, Jake. I even did one for Penelope Alderdice, the family specter whose hidden past kicks off the whole series. 

Larissa is a fascinating character because she is one of the focal points of the series, and yet, in each book, she remains a minor character. Her influence is not in the number of appearances she makes in each book but the mark she leaves on everyone in the family. I don’t think this is unusual when it comes to mothers. Mothers are a major source of nurture, discipline, and affection in many of our lives (mine sure is) but they often remain in the background, and their influence affects us in ways we don’t always realize until we’re adults and possibly have children of our own.

Larissa had her own beliefs, some of which are quite rigid. Her whole life evolves around society and what the Jones’ are doing. She is very much a product of the Gilded Age in that she is a part of all its opulence and excess. Like the famous Mrs. Astor, there is a “them” and there is an “us” and “we” are more superior to “them”. So, yes, she’s a snob.

Her views are somewhat mid-Victorian. There is a scene in Book 2, False Fathers where she chides her daughter for attending a suffragist meeting:

“You have a mutinous streak, Vivian,” Larissa said gently. “I’m only trying to help you.”

“Don’t worry, Mother. No blue blood woman ever strayed far from conformity.” His sister’s voice was wary. 

“Conventional life has its rewards,” [her] mother reminded her. “Comfort and peace of mind, for one.”

In other words, Larissa finds security in the separate spheres and the chaotic changes that were happening in the last decade of the 19th century and into the 20th were frightening and disturbing to her. 

Where Larissa’s maternal influence is felt most is in the third installment of the series, Pathfinding Women. In that book, the Alderdices aren’t exactly on sure footing with their Nob Hill neighbors, and this is a devastating situation for someone as social-conscious as Larissa. Her solution? Coax her daughter into chasing after a wealthy but somewhat unpolished Canadian buccaneer. Not the most liberating solution in the world, but, given Larissa’s character, predictable. What happens in the book is far from predictable, though.

But Larissa has her good points too. There is no question she is intelligent and brings her views forth in an insightful way. In False Fathers, her daughter remarks, “If social propriety hadn’t distorted your wit and intelligence, you might have achieved something in this world.” Had Larissa been a woman of the 21st century, she would probably have been an entrepreneur or a high-ranking executive of a company because her acumen and social savvy would have been channeled into more useful ways than at high society balls and dinner parties.

But, as it is, her obsession with society and its conventions place her in a position to editorialize about them in ways you would expect from a Mrs. Astor. For example, in a mock interview I wrote as part of the “Meet The Alderdices” packet, Larissa has this to say about Gilded Age debutante:

“For us, when a young lady comes out in society, it is an occasion for celebrating. She is now a woman and must take upon her shoulders the duties and responsibilities of a woman, not only toward her husband and children, but toward society as well.”

Want to read more about Larissa and her role in the Waxwood Series? You can start with Book 1, The Specter, which has now been revised and updated and is at the special price of 99¢. 

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do. Oh, and that Meet The Alderdices packet? I occasionally put that out to my newsletter subscribers, along with a few other goodies, but only to subscribers, so if you’re on my list, you’ll get a chance to get that too!

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