A Gilded Age Christmas

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

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!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Ghosts From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

My historical family saga, the Waxwood Series is about more than just an affluent Nob Hill family coming to grips with the startling changes happening in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s also a story about a Gilded Age family whose lies, half-truths, and myths force every one of its members to change. And it begins not with the current generation but with the previous generation.

It begins with Penelope Alderdice, protagonist Vivian’s grandmother. Penelope, in spite of her old-fashioned name, is one of the most evolutionary characters in the series. When I wrote the novel on which this series was based back in 2014, she wasn’t even a character. When I turned the novel into a family saga, I added the grandparents because, by definition, family sagas tell the story of several generations. I wanted to write a series about generational trauma: The trauma past generations pass down to present and future generations. As this is something I’ve experienced first-hand, the topic is very close to me. I knew Vivian’s story of breaking the cycle would only be meaningful if readers knew where that cycle began. 

Since this post is about grandmothers, I thought I’d show a few photos of my own. The first is my grandmother and grandfather with me in 2011, the year they both passed away. The second is of my great-grandmother (whom many in my family say I resemble in looks and personality). I don’t know when this photo was taken but she died in 1966 so probably sometime in the late 50s or early 60s.

In 2017, I started my newsletter and wanted to give subscribers a free gift for signing up. So I took a scene from the old novel and expanded it into a short story called “After the Funeral”. The plot took place at Penelope Alderdice’s funeral where an uninvited guest claimed to have known “Grace” in her youth, revealing an entirely different person than the Penelope that Vivian knew. As I was developing the books in the series, I realized Penelope’s story had to be expanded into a book. That story became The Specter, the first book of the Waxwood Series.

I realized my earlier mistake in dismissing Penelope as just another Angel in the House. She was, in fact, a much more complex character, emotionally and socially. Her secrets follow Vivian like the ghost in the book’s title. Penelope’s story, which begins about halfway through The Specter, tells of the sort of woman you would expect to see in Gertrude Atherton’s The Californians, a book about  San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850s and 1860s. Penelope’s upbringing prepares her for her role as the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman, but there is more to her than that. Her one moment of rebellion in 1852 has ramifications for the entire family, past, present, and future.

What those ramifications are, you’ll have to read about in the series. But you can start with The Specter, which has been updated with a new prologue and a better pace (at the request of readers). You can get your hands on it for free here https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/the-specter-waxwood-series-book-1.

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!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Chaos and Commerce: The Gilded Age

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Big businesses controlled the government in the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons,” the name given to railroad tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money, lording over the tiny mice of the senate. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age since 2009 when I went back to school for a short time, intending to get a Master’s degree in history, and took a course on the Gilded Age. For some reason, the Gilded Age got buried in the annals of American history in favor of other eras. Most notable were the 1920s, which made a comeback ten years or so ago when the film The Great Gatsby was released, and World War II, which still dominates the bestseller lists in the historical fiction genre.

There is some dispute as to the time frame we know of as the Gilded Age. Most historians and scholars don’t dispute it began in the 1870s. But some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push the end to 1900. For my purposes, because the new century brought about the Progressive Era, I consider 1900 as the stopping point.

The publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873 coined the term. Ironically, the title wasn’t meant as a label for the era but as a tongue-in-cheek dig against it that turned out to be wildly accurate. When we think of the word “gilded” we think of something that is bright and shining but also fake and misleading. With a sharp eye and sardonic humor, Twain and Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction. The book, which is actually my favorite of all Twain’s work, depicts various scoundrels, fools, and charlatans who seek success and prosperity by taking advantage of the era’s propensity for “wheeling and dealing” — and getting away with it because the American public was too naive or ignorant or both to see through them (this would be rectified in the Progressive Era). 

What was happening in America was, in the context of the time, understandable. When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America was going through a recession that ended with the Panic of 1873. People were determined to bounce back financially and politically to show the world the United States was anything but finished. Since finance and politics are, let’s face it, inherently dirty, many used dirty methods to do it. Stories of graft, greed, and corruption permeated every corner of American life. Money and commercial interests ruled. In an effort to encourage the kind of economic growth that could rival European markets, America became, as the saying goes, too big for its britches.

This painting represents the kind of gaudy extravagance common with the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

As many of us know, when Americans have money, they aren’t shy about spending it. All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of aristocrats. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the nouveau riche (people who had recently become wealthy through business rather than inheritance) infiltrating the established societies of big cities like New York and San Francisco where “old money” families dictated what was and wasn’t socially acceptable. The recently launched series The Gilded Age is all about a young woman trying to break into the heavily guarded New York upper class.

The Gilded Age became notorious for the gaudy displays of the socially privileged. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working-class resentments that would explode into the unions and reforms of The Progressive Era.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Twain and Warner’s book did not do well when it was published. An important critic of the day, author William Dean Howells, thought it degenerative and disgusting. In the 21st century, the book gives us a new way of looking at social, economic, and political life with an eye toward not repeating the same mistakes (we hope!).

If you’re interested in the Gilded Age, you’ll want to check out my Waxwood Series, a family saga set in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s a great time to do that because I’ve just updated and revised Book 1, The Specter, to make it even better! And you can get it for FREE on all book vendors. For more details, go 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!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Making Progress: Thanksgiving in the Progressive Era

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

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!

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

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

More Than Brando’s Mouthpiece: Sacheen Littlefeather

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

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!

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

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail