Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Thanksgiving family at dinner. No date on the image, but based on the hairstyle and clothes, I’m guessing this is probably around the 1880s or early1890s: Linnaea Mallette/Public Domain Pictures/CC0 1.0

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time of gratitude and giving and many people have a big dinner with “all the trimmings” where both family and non-family members are invited. Although my family isn’t US-born, my parents adopted the Thanksgiving traditions and my mom always had a huge turkey and many of the trimmings (somehow, the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows was always missing…) and we always enjoyed it as a family.

The Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age, which took place roughly in the last quarter of the 19th century. The series involves a wealthy Nob Hill family. How would the Alderdices celebrate Thanksgiving? Did they celebrate it at all?

Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving but not the way we do now. For many of us in the 21st century, Thanksgiving means a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Photo Credit: “Thanksgiving dinner, Occidental Hotel, San Francisco, CA, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, Gilded Age swells didn’t stay at home — they dined at the fanciest restaurants or hotel dining rooms. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair such as oysters, turtle soup, foie gras, prime rib, and Petit fours. The Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on nowadays.

We might be led to believe wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but as I pointed out in my blog post about the Gilded Age, people in this period in American history were obsessed with excess and an “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A family dinner at home simply didn’t fit in with their lifestyle. An extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence with lavish clothes and jewelry. Many went to see and be seen.

If that sounds petty, keep in mind the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the Pilgrims as well. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many stayed behind in England or perished on the journey to America. Historians cite the 1920s Prohibition era and the Great Depression that follows as reasons why elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it had more to do with the post-World War II era when the family became more precious and important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and Thanksgiving associated with an intimate portrait of family.

Book 1 of the Waxwood Series, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of Thanksgiving in the 19th century. The holiday takes place in April, not November. In fact, until Franklin Roosevelt signed a proclamation making the third Thursday of November the official Thanksgiving holiday, you could find the day of thanksgiving during several different times of the year depending upon the state. If you’re curious, you can read more about that here

The Waxwood Series has just gotten a make-over! To find out more about the series, this page will give you all the details.

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

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It’s Here… The Waxwood Series Relaunch!

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All covers by Essi/100 Covers

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 4

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Women’s Fiction/Family Saga

Relaunch Date: November 1, 2021

How many myths and half-truths does it take to destroy a family?

Vivian, the daughter and “Dagger Girl”, whose refusal to leave family secrets untold leads her down a dark path to a better future.

Jake, the son, and heir, whose search for a father figure leads him down the dark path of sin and redemption.

Larissa, the family matriarch, whose obsession with Nob Hill’s rigid social codes hides the shameful secrets of her past.

Come dive into this family saga set during one of America’s Gilded Age today. Book 1 is only 99¢!

Click the following links below to get the full details and all the buy links for each book:

The Specter (Waxwood Series: Book 1): https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/the-specter-waxwood-series-book-1

False Fathers (Waxwood Series: Book 2)https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/false-fathers-waxwood-series-book-2

Pathfinding Women (Waxwood Series: Book 3)https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/pathfinding-women-waxwood-series-book-3

Dandelions (Waxwood Series: Book 4): https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/dandelionswaxwood-series-book-4

Want to read an excerpt from each book? There’s a group for that! Join Tam’s Dreamers and you’ll get access to extra files, including special excerpts and other goodies. Plus, fun stuff about the history you never knew (like Victorian-era pudding recipes and vintage Halloween stickers!). You can request to join by clicking the button below.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started writing at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes historical women’s fiction and historical mysteries. She loves to take readers into the nooks and crannies of the past, and she wants to inspire readers with her resilient and autonomous female characters. Most of her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she fell in love with the city and found her independence and writing voice when she lived there in the 1990s. 

Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon. She’s also published a Gilded age family saga set among San Francisco’s Nob Hill elite titled the Waxwood Series which follows the Alderdices as they discover their place amidst revolutionary changes and shifting values in the last decade of the 19th century.

Tam’s current project is a historical mystery series titled The Paper Chase Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a progressive and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community apt to prefer the previous era’s angel in the house to the current century’s New Woman. 

Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes. 

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

To celebrate the relaunch of the Waxwood Series, I’m doing a big giveaway where you could win a grand prize that includes paperbacks of all four books in the series, swag, and chocolate. And there are a few smaller prizes on offer as well. To enter, click the button below.

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Waxwood Series Relaunch Giveaway!!!

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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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