Making Progress: Thanksgiving in the Progressive Era

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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!

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Trailblazers: Lady Lawyers in the 19th Century

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Book 3 of my historical cozy mystery series the Adele Gossling Mysteries, introduces a new character into the small town of Arrojo. Rebecca Gold is a lawyer who has come to town to open her own practice after having been treated like a clerk rather than a lawyer at the big city law firms where she worked. 

How common were women lawyers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? As you might imagine, not that common. The separate spheres made it difficult for women to venture outside the private sphere of home, family, and church. The law, being one of the most public spheres out there (right alongside politics and business) was, therefore, largely off-limits to women. 

But there were a few who did brave the social and even legal limits to study law. The first of these was Arabella Mansfield. In 1869, she became the first woman lawyer in America. Although her home state of Iowa forbade women to take the bar exam, Mansfield defied this practice and took it anyway. Her very high marks swayed Iowa legislation to relax these laws a bit and allow women to take the bar exam. Mansfield became an apprentice at her brother’s law firm early on during her studies, but once she passed the bar exam, decided to forgo law for activism and education instead, including women’s suffragism.

Alongside her was Ada Kepley who, in 1870, earned her law degree from Northwestern University. However, her home state of Illinois also didn’t allow women to take the bar exam and, unlike Iowa, Illinois legislation wasn’t budging on this so Kepley was unable to actually make use of her law degree. Kepley did eventually take the bar exam in 1881 and passed but, like Arabella Mansfield, chose to use her experience and knowledge for activism, particularly temperance and — you guessed it — women’s suffragism.

Photo Credit: Drawing of Charlotte E. Ray, before 1911, unknown author: Gobonobo/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

And let us not forget Charlotte E. Ray who was the first African American woman to practice law. She received her law degree in 1872 and was admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. Unlike Mansfield and Kepley, however, Ray did eventually open her own office, specializing in corporate law. Sadly, she only kept her doors open for a few years, as racial prejudice made gaining a steady clientele difficult. She took her knowledge and experience and became a teacher, focusing on education and later, women’s suffragism.

You’ll notice a pattern here: these three women either never put their law degree to use or they only practiced for a very short time. Why? I’m sure mistrust of women in so lucrative a field had something to do with it (and we know in Charlotte E. Ray’s case, there was added racial prejudice). Maybe it was also that the time and dedication needed to practice law made it difficult for these women to juggle both the public and the private spheres (since we might assume they also had the duties of the home on their shoulders whereas a male lawyer was largely exempt from that). Or maybe it was just the ideologies of the separate spheres die hard, even for progressive women. 

In my book, however, Rebecca Gold is a practicing lawyer and her first case gets her in plenty of hot water. Find out how in Death At Will, coming out on October 29, but available for a special preorder price here. And while you’re at it, pick up a free copy of Book 1, The Carnation Murder, here

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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Amateur Doctors: Forensic Pathology in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

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It’s well known that mourning practices were an art form in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When I did quite a lot of research on mourning for my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, there was no shortage of information. These rituals and fascination with death is the subject of a future blog post.

Indeed, when it came to mourning death, early Americans were experts. But when it came to explaining death, that was a different story. It’s understandable when we think of how uncomfortable any discussion of death makes many of us feel. I have a friend who builds alters to honor the dead, and she’s always saying how difficult it is for her to talk about what she does because she’s afraid of getting into morbid territory and making people squirm. 

Photo Credit: Woman in mourning, carte de visite photograph, 1860s, Nashville, Tennessee: Et0048/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

And yet, in cases where death isn’t obvious (such as from illness or accident), it’s the law (then and now) to investigate the cause to determine if foul play was involved. For this, a medical examiner is called in and a pathologist (who may or may not be the medical examiner) conducts an autopsy on the body. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, you couldn’t even say American forensic pathology was in its infancy. More like it was in the womb. The role of the medical examiner was pretty ad hoc and didn’t even officially exist until the 1930s. Examiners were not explicitly trained in pathology and often were local doctors who were good at treating the living but had little experience examining the dead. They were amateurs in pathology, though there’s no doubt many of them did the best they could. 

In addition, medical examiners and pathologists were, like policemen and mayors, government-appointed, and as such, they were subject to the kind of corruption that ran rampant in the 19th and early 20th centuries (until the Progressive movement called for reforms). In other words, these men could be bribed to cover up evidence for various reasons. Maybe the victim was a well-respected citizen of the town and the pathology brought up something that pointed toward a less-than-stellar life the influential family didn’t want to be made public. Or maybe the examination of the victim showed foul play that would require important people to be involved in the case who didn’t want to be involved. The examination might even implicate someone important to the town in a dastardly crime so evidence needs to be covered up or distorted. I’m reading a true crime book right now about the death of a woman in the early 20th century where the writers surmise this is exactly what happened.

Pathology (whatever little of it there was in the early 20th century) plays a role in Book 3 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, though not in a corrupt or gruesome way. A doctor is asked to write out a new death certificate because what looked like an accident proves to be anything but. It was possible to retract the death certificate if further examination suggested otherwise. This is what starts the investigation into Thea Marsh’s death in the book.

Death At Will is coming out at the end of this month, but you can grab your copy now at a special preorder price here. And did you know Book 1 of the series, The Carnation Murder, is now free? Get your copy here

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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The Birth of an Art Form: The Kodak Camera

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This Sunday will mark one hundred and thirty-four years since the birth of the Kodak camera. While it’s an interesting fact for us history buffs, I wouldn’t have thought much about its significance except that several years ago, my brother got interested in street photography (as a hobby). Living in San Francisco gave him plenty of subjects, and some of his photographs are pretty amazing. You can view some of them here

So many of us in the 21st century don’t think of photography as an art form and for good reason. Most of us now have access to a camera at our fingertips, from our phones to our computers to other devices we might not even think of (like my iPad mini). It’s so easy for us to just point and shoot that we do it without thinking. It’s not for nothing the word “selfie” was invented some twenty years ago even though the concept of taking a photograph of yourself existed long before that.

In many ways, George Eastman (the inventor of the Kodak camera) is responsible for many of us overlooking the potential of photography as art. In 1888, he did what Ford would do twenty years later with cars: He made cameras affordable and accessible to the general public.

Photo Credit: The original Kodak camera, 1888, Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, National Museum of American History, National Treasures Exhibit: National Museum of American History/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Before then, having your photograph taken (which didn’t really become a thing until the 19th century) was an ordeal. It required a professional photographer to set up the photograph and people had to stay still for a long time to get the picture. If you’ve ever wondered why people look so serious in 19th-century photographs, part of the reason is that it’s hard to keep smiling for that long while you’re waiting for someone to set up the camera and the picture.

But Eastman’s Kodak changed all that. When people could get their hands on a Brownie camera in the early 20th century, for example (which cost only one dollar then – don’t we wish that were true now!) photography became all the rage. People could take pictures quickly and efficiently (so there was a lot more smiling and spontaneity going on). Of course, they had to wait to get the pictures developed, since photo processing labs in places like drugstores didn’t exist until later. People had to send the camera with the film to the Kodak company for development and were sent back the camera with a new roll of empty film along with the developed pictures. 

This was when photography began to get more attention. Photographers like Alfred Stiegler and Walter Evans set the standard in the early 20th century for documentary-style photographic art that captured life in America as people lived it. One of the more famous examples of this was photographer Dorothea Lange, whose documentation of the realities of the Great Depression left its mark in its brutal depiction of life during economic hardship (and makes us shudder when we look at them today, given the more recent post-pandemic economic downturn). 

New inventions characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (as I mentioned in this blog post about the invention of the automobile) and people viewed them with more excitement than we do now. When Missy Grace, the editor and reporter of Arrojo’s only newspaper in my Adele Gossling Mysteries, shows up with her camera, people are all abuzz. She manages to even tame a group of schoolgirls in Book 1 with her camera!

You can read about that in Book 1 here. And don’t forget that Book 2 is also available and Book 3 is now up for preorder!

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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A Survey of Women’s Issues: Revisited

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Today is Women’s Equality Day, so there’s no better time to ask the question: Do we still need feminism?

It seems some of the younger generations would answer a firm “no” to this question. A while back, photos began appearing in my Facebook feed of young women holding up signs reading “I don’t need feminism.” These young women claimed to admit we still need feminism creates a victim mentality and demonizes all men, encouraging man-hating among women. As someone from an older generation who writes about women’s oppression, this was disturbing, to say the least!

Women have had a lot to fight for: in the 19th century and 20th and (dare I say it?) even the 21st. It’s not the fight that has changed but the nature of the issues.

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. 

This meme is from Tumblr site called “Confused Cats Against Feminism” and is meant as a tongue-in-cheek attack against the anti-feminist movement of the 21st century. You can read more about it here

Photo Credit: Meme from the Confused Cats Against Feminism, taken 27 July 2014 by Jym Dyer: Jym Dyer/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

But the question still remains: Do we need feminism in the 21st century? My answer would be as firm as the “I don’t need feminism” movement: YES!

Why? Because many of the issues 20th-century feminists were fighting we are still fighting today. To give one example, 20th-century women fought for women’s reproductive rights, including a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby or not. Earlier this year, the supreme court overturned the law (Roe vs. Wade) that legalized abortion. Whether you’re on the side for or against it, there is a deeper issue here of taking away women’s right to choose what they do with their bodies. That freedom is one women have been fighting for for years and will continue to fight as a basic human right.

Find out what Adele Gossling and her friends are fighting for in my Adele Gossling Mysteries! Both Book 1 and Book 2 are out now and Book 3 is coming in October.

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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