All Decked Out: Easter in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Let all rejoice sweet Easter Day, 1881, stock card, published by Geo M. Hayes, Boston Public Library, Print Department: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s officially Easter and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love to dive into the way things were during the holidays. The Gilded Age made of Easter what it made of many other holidays — an opportunity for opulence and excess. But, then, Gilded Agers knew how to enjoy life.

Easter in America didn’t become a spectacle until after the Civil War. In the first half of the 19th century, it was an important holiday for Christians and Catholics, but some religious groups were apt to ignore it. Others made Easter Sunday a day of mourning the fallen soldiers of the war. 

But things began to change around the 1870s (which coincides, not coincidentally, I think, with the birth of the Gilded Age). Easter was still, of course, a religious holiday and honored as such, but the Gilded Age mentality began to slip in. Gilded Agers saw it as a time to celebrate spring in the best way they knew how — by showing off.

Now, here’s a cartoon that is a sign of the times: An elderly Victorian lady dressed to the nines points toward a lavish Easter bonnet on a maypole while other equally garish women gather around to worship this sign of Gilded Age opulence. But the New Woman isn’t buying it and, in her sensible and comfortable suit, gives her a look like, “Seriously?”

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions

The tradition of new Easter clothes took off during this period. Easter was the perfect time to jump into spring with bright, pastel shades and adornments. As with other holidays, such as Christmas, consumerism ruled, and it suddenly became a necessity rather than desirable for women and men to get new clothes for the holiday. Advertisements for men’s clothes urged them not to wait to order their new Easter suits, and buying a new hat for the holiday was the order of the day for most women (thus was born the “Easter bonnet”). As you can see from the photos on this page, not a ribbon or a frill was spared on these elaborate headgear. 

Where did Gilded Agers take themselves to display their new Easter garb? To church, obviously. In fact, there were those who weren’t regular churchgoers but would make an exception for Easter Sunday so their fellow worshipers could admire their new spring clothes. Another place Gilded Agers went to see and be seen in their new Easter garb was restaurants and hotels. Just as with Thanksgiving, hotel dining rooms had special menus for Easter that might have included lamb and asparagus (a vegetable just coming into vogue in Victorian cuisine). And the height of showing off in the Gilded Age was the Easter parade. In fact, the idea of the parade was conceived when aristocratic Victorian ladies flocked down Fifth Avenue dressed in their finest after church. In 1948, the musical Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire epitomized this Easter tradition, especially in this song where Garland tackles all the cliches of Easter in one tune.

Want to read about one Nob Hill family and their rise and fall in the Gilded Age? My entire Waxwood Series is now available!

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Resort Life in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: The Beach and The Sea, Blankenberghe, Belgium, from “Views of Architecture and Other Sites in Belgium” catalogue, 1905, Detroit Publishing Company: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)    

“Get a thousand people crowded into one hotel … and let ’em buzz around—that seems to be the present notion of enjoyment.” (Warner, location 22)

If you’ve subscribed to my newsletter or have been reading my blog, you know Waxwood, the setting for the Waxwood Series, is a small seaside town that morphs into an exclusive resort town as the 19th century comes to a close (to read about the real town that inspired Waxwood, go here). Starting in Book 2, False Fathers, the Alderdices become one of the many wealthy Gilded Agers who make staying at a resort for the summer season part of their yearly agenda. 

My original conception of the series included the idea of the Alderdices spending their summers in a small resort town. But I didn’t realize that there was a thing such as resort life until I read Charles Dudley Warner’s book Their Pilgrimage. Warner was a contemporary of Mark Twain and, in fact, cowrote with Twain the book that coined the term “the Gilded Age” (which you can read more about here). Published in 1884, Warner’s book takes place at the height of this age and focuses on the rocky romance between a young man born to “old money” and a young woman of the “new money” class. The romance happens against a backdrop of resort town life, where King and his artist friend and the Bensons wander around from one hotel to another along the East Coast.

Resort life for the wealthy, as Warner depicts it, was relaxing, exciting, and, many times, boring. Some traveled for their health to places such as Palm Springs in California. Others traveled in the winter to get away from harsh weather in their home town. And many did it because it was “the thing to do” among the wealthy. 

The idea of seeing and being seen was prevalent throughout the Gilded Age, and resort life offered just the platform for this. As one guest remarks to King, “‘So few women know how to listen; most women appear to be thinking of themselves and the effect they are producing’” (Warner, location 146). What people do or what they see seems less important than who they see and who they know. At the same time, the anonymity of resort life gave the tightly-laced Gilded Age blue bloods a freedom to be themselves that they didn’t have at home. King himself observes, “[It] is precisely in hotels and to entire strangers that some people are apt to talk with less reserve than to intimate friends” (Warner, location 164). Away from the resorts, wealthy Gilded Agers had to watch what they said and did so as not to be shunned by their neighbors or get their names in the papers. But at a hotel, no one knew them, and they could loosen their grip a little bit.

Resort life was predominantly for women, though there were men and children as well. The hard-working, aggressively competitive Gilded Age man couldn’t take time off for vacations in the Gilded Age. Ironically, women found a level of release and independence in the resort hotels that they couldn’t have at home, with the rigid boundaries of the separate spheres:

“There was a preponderance of women, as is apt to be the case in such resorts… American men are too busy to take this sort of relaxation, and that the care of an establishment, with the demands of society and the worry of servants, so draw upon the nervous energy of women that they are glad to escape occasionally to the irresponsibility of hotel life. (Warner, location 68)

There were some who traveled year round, going to summer resorts in the winter and to winter resorts in the summer. Resort life was so popular that these hotels were often crowded to capacity during the season. Warner makes a keen observation about the atmosphere at these resort towns and hotels at the beginning and end of the season:

“The first man of the season is in such a different position from the last. He is like the King of Bavaria alone in his royal theatre… It is a very cheerful desolation, for it has a future, and everything quivers with the expectation of life and gayety… Nothing is so melancholy as the shabbiness of a watering-place at the end of the season, where is left only the echo of past gayety…” (Warner, location 276-281)

The resort towns, then, were aimed at offering luxury and leisure to their wealthy guests but became like ghost towns when those guests left.

The Alderdice family aren’t exactly the kind of Gilded Age traveler Warner’s novel depicts. They come to Waxwood for summers, but their lives are firmly rooted in San Francisco. But, like their blue blood companions, they take full advantage of the extravagances offered once they do arrive and, in more ways than one, they become different people immersed in resort life for even just that short a time.

You can read about the Alderdices’ experience of resort life in Book 2 of my series, False Fathers. Book 3, Pathfinding Women, coming out this summer, also gives you a sense of resort life in the last year of the 19th century. If you want to find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can check out this page.               

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Warner, Charles Dudley. Their Pilgrimage. 1884. A pubic domain book. Kindle digital file.

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The History of Father’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Story Time (Portrait Of The Artist`s Father And Daughter), Ekvall Knut, 1843-1912, taken 11 April 2013 by Plum leaves: Plum leaves/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the history of Mother’s Day. In honor of Father’s Day, which this year will be on Sunday, June 21 in the United States, I’m taking a look back at the history of Father’s Day too.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little more vague. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that are thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd, inspired by Mother’s Day, which was becoming a popular holiday at that time, campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, largely wanting to commemorate her own father, who had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened on a wider but no less personal scale. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who were killed in a local mining explosion.

But as far as official lobbying and support goes, this was slow in coming. There were national political figures, such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge who supported a national Father’s Day, but these recommendations didn’t get much traction. There are several reasons for this. As many of us know, Mother’s Day has becomes a commercially viable holiday and was that way from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt that fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal as mothers, mainly because the sentiment attached to mothers from the long history of the separate spheres wasn’t attached to fathers. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th century was more of a teacher and disciplinarian. The same sentimentality also seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis, especially in the late 19th and early20th centuries. 

There were even some int he 1920’s and 1930’s who lobbied to abolish Mother’s Day and, instead, create an overarching Parent’s Day, arguing that it wasn’t the separate role of the mother, or the father, for that matter, that should be celebrated — it was the institution of parenthood that deserved the celebration (and my home country, Israel, went a step further and abolished Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the 1990’s in favor of Family Day). But the lobbying for a Father’s Day was strong and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Fathers play a role in my Waxwood Series, though in a less conventional way than in most books. In False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, Jake Alderdice’s biological father is absent and, instead, his entire life had been filled with substitute father figures. It’s one of these figures that leads him to both chaos and maturity in the book.

Want to grab a copy of the book for Father’s Day? False Fathers is at a special price through Sunday. You can find out more about it and buy it at your favorite online retailer here. To find out more about the series, you can go here.    

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The Order of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Marble bust of Actaeon with animal skin on his head, Hadrianic Period (AD 117-138), Museo delle Navi, Nemi: Following Hadrian/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

As many of you know, if you’ve read my blog post about the title evolution of False Fathers, the idea of Actaeon, the hunter who earned the goddess Diana’s displeasure and paid the consequences, plays a role as a metaphor for Gilded Age masculinity in the book. 

One of the ways that Actaeon (whose story you can find here) figures into False Fathers is in a male fraternity called The Order of Actaeon (or, as they refer to themselves, the “Actaeons”). I talked about the importance of male secret societies and fraternities in the 19th century here. Many men belonged to such societies in the Gilded Age, because it was a way for them to cement their identity as men in the chaotic twists and turns of the last decades of the 19th century, when the definition of masculinity was changing just like the definition of femininity. Women had the suffragists and the New Woman  to help them cope with these changes, and men had their societies and fraternities.

The Order of Actaeon (which, by the way, is entirely fictional) operates on the principle that there is, in the Gilded Age, a “disturbing inclination of modern young men toward falling into the twin traps of profit-seeking and vicious competition characteristic of civilized life and thus losing their manly strength and virtue.” It began, in fact, so that older men (known as “Patriarchs”) could guide younger men (known as “Youths”) and help them live a purer, more decent life with beliefs and virtues that were honorable and admirable. Each Youth enters the order on the recommendation of a Patriarch who then becomes his mentor throughout his life (or the duration of his involvement with the Order).

The Order’s activities evolve mainly around masculine pursuits, such as carpentry, fishing, and hunting. In fact, the hunt is an important metaphor for the Actaeons and the reason why they named their fraternity after the Greek mortal. The Order believes that hunting develops skills of “strength, aggression, instincts, pride, and self-control.” To this end, the Order organizes weekend hunts, where each youth is expected to participate and submit to guidance by his Patriarch.

Another important aspect of the order is secrecy. They don’t even allow men to know one another’s real names. Each member that enters the order choses a name for himself by which he is known in the order (Jake chooses the name “Carlton,” his beloved grandmother’s maiden name). Neither are the men allowed to know about one another’s life outside of the order. This secrecy is so important that, as one of the men explains to Jake, one of their founding members was asked to leave after he revealed some of their activities to his wife.

The quotes I use above are from a document that appears in False Fathers, where the Order of Actaeon principles and philosophies are outlined in writing. Harland Stevens, the main father figure in Jake’s life, is the one who creates it, brought into the order as a Youth by the man who was asked to leave it and, now, one of the leading Patriarchs. Stevens’ vision of the orders’ philosophies are very clear and precise:

That emotional attachments may drain a man of his intelligence and virility, and he is to maintain some distance between himself and his loved ones beyond keeping the secrecy of the Order.

That modern man is forced to separate his pure life from his civilized life to cultivate his development and well-being.

That each man shall agree to the virtues of hunting not only as a means of athletic skill and success, but also as a way of developing his strength, aggression, cunning, and wile. He shall seek to make himself a skilled hunter and help others do the same.     

The order and especially its vow of secrecy plays a major role in Jake’s journey at the end of the novel. 

If you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers involving the Actaeons, you can do so by joining my readers group. For more about the book, go here. And don’t forget to check out the series page to find out more about the entire Waxwood series.

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Release Day Blitz for False Fathers (Waxwood Series: Book 2)!

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False Fathers Front Cover Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Portrait of a Young Man, Ferdinand von Wright, 1860s, portrait, oil on canvas, Finnish National Gallery: BotMultichill/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired    

Title: False Fathers

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 2

Author: Tam May

Genre: Historical Fiction/Coming of Age

Release Date: December 28, 2019

Sometimes no father is better than a false father.

At nineteen, Jake Alderdice is shy, contemplative, and passionate about art. With the death of his grandfather, shipping magistrate Malcolm Alderdice, he becomes the new family patriarch and heir to Alderdice Shipping and Alderdice Luxury Liner. After two years of mourning, he is ready to add to the family honor just as all the Alderdice men have, but as an artist, not a shipping magistrate. His plans are delayed with his mother announces the family will be retreating to Waxwood, now a fashionable resort town favored by the San Francisco elite, for the summer, fulfilling her father’s dying wish to “go back”. 

On the train, he meets Harland Stevens, an enigmatic but charming older man, who has come to Waxwood as chaperone and guide to his college-aged cousin Roger and Roger’s friends. Mr. Stevens, or, as he tells Jake, “just Stevens”, takes an interest in the young man’s ambitions, and introduces him to the town’s most prominent gallery owner. But when Jake takes his paintings for appraisal, the man delivers a fatal blow — Jake’s mythology-inspired paintings are too original for the market of realistic landscape paintings favored by Gilded Age patrons.

Stevens seizes the devastated and wandering Jake and counsels him toward a more aggressive but moralistic path to manhood inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and Thoreau. Jake proves himself to be more studious and serious than Roger and his friends. Impressed with the young man’s determination to take over his grandfather’s business, Stevens introduces him to The Order of Actaeon, a secret society built upon those ideals favored by his idols.

But the path to emotional maturity and masculine identity is, Jake learns, a complex thing in the Gilded Age. Will his journey free him from the Alderdice family illusions, half-truths, and lies that have kept him a child, just as it did his sister Vivian’s six years before? Or will it lead him into the world of Actaeon, where the hunter becomes the hunted?

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

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Excerpt

The afternoon sun had arrived with its vengeance of rising heat. Jake took out his handkerchief and wiped at his forehead. At the same time, he felt something inside him shiver. He couldn’t help but think of what Vivian would have said, if she had heard the tale. He knew she would have found it one more reason to avoid Stevens, as the story would have struck her as another way in which Roger had been right about the way in which Stevens and his father engineered their will against the will of others.

“I suppose your father understood you.” He put the handkerchief away and made a shot through the hoop in front of him. 

As Stevens set down his mallet down, Jake felt the weight of his expectant eyes. “I thought you would change your mind.”

“Change my mind?”

“About needing guidance,” said the redhead. “You needn’t be abashed. Other young men such as yourself have come to me when they needed a father too.”

“I didn’t say I needed a father.” Jake looked at the tussled grass at his feet. “I only meant I would be grateful for any ideas you have for me about my new undertakings.”

“As you wish,” said Stevens, though his eyes sparkled in the sun.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes fiction about characters who find their future by exploring their personal past influenced by the time in which they live.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, is now available, and the second book, False Fathers, will be out in December, 2019. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.

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