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 Great Rebellion: The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848

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Although this photo is from a later period in history, it nonetheless depicts one of the objections to women’s rights — that the “natural order of things” in terms of gender roles would be reversed and men would have to do the housework while women went out into the political arena.

Photo Credit: A woman wearing knickers (“pants”) and smoking a cigarette while her husband does the washing, 1901, Underwood & Underwood: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Underwood

Today marks the anniversary of the start of what Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the greatest rebellion of the 19th century: The Seneca Falls Convention. 

The convention grew out of a moment of oppression. The World Anti-Slavery Convention took place in London in 1840, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, met there for the first time. Both were denied entry into the convention because organizers decided to bar all women from attending. From this was born the idea in Cady Stanton and Mott’s minds to organize a convention closer to home to discuss women’s rights.

This event took place in Seneca Falls, New York on the weekend of July 19th and 20th in 1848 and became the first organized political gathering for women. You may recall I wrote here about the idea of suffragism (the right to vote). But was the convention really focused on women’s suffragism? Yes and no. Certainly, the right to vote was on the agenda, but as I mentioned in my blog post above, it wasn’t considered of the utmost importance, though it would be later on in the movement. What was high on the agenda was the idea that women were equal to men. You might recall from my discussion of the separate spheres that it was generally thought women were weaker than men emotionally and mentally, and therefore, their confinement to the private sphere was justified. So the idea that women were equal in every way was, as Cady Stanton declared, revolutionary indeed. 

To this end, the attendees of the convention (there were 300 of them) came up with a Declaration of Sentiments. The name, of course, suggests the Declaration of Independence, and this is no surprise, as the wording stems directly from that document. You can read the entire Declaration of Sentiments and see the names of some of the movers and shakers of the suffragist and abolitionist movements (including Frederick Douglass) who signed the declaration here.

Reactions to the convention were mixed. Some reporters and editors considered the idea of women meeting to talk about their rights as nothing short of lunacy. Others were afraid it would lead to a gender role reversal (as the cartoon above shows). Still others, like the famous Horace Greenly of the New York Tribune, begrudgingly admitted suffragists might be on to something when they insist women were created equal to men in the eyes of God and humanity.

Although the convention wasn’t perfect (it was haphazardly organized and attended mainly by locals,) it gave rise to the idea that women’s rights were worth putting on the political agenda of the 19th century. Also, like the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique nearly 120 years later (which I talk about here,) the convention triggered a movement that followed into the 20th century, creating not just one but several waves and generations of fighters for women’s rights. 

I talk about women’s rights in the late 19th century a lot in my Waxwood Series, and it also will come up in my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, Pathfinding Women is especially focused on the suffragist movement and some of the conflicts within that movement (though more in a personal than political sense).        

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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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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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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