Getting Their Priorities Straight: Easter in the Early 20th Century

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Easter is this Sunday so, in light of my new series set in the early 20th century, I wanted to give this holiday another look. The cartoon below got me thinking about my blog post last year which talks about Easter in the Gilded Age and what Easter was like just a quarter of a century later.

Just to situate you, the Gilded Age is roughly the last quarter of the 19th century while the Progressive Era is generally thought of as the first few decades of the early 20th century up until World War 1. These aren’t hard-and-fast boundaries, but generally, that’s what we’re talking about.

It seems like a subtle difference, but change was very rapid during this period in America, unlike the 21st century where things seem to be evolving at turtle-speed (until COVID came along, that is). What changed in the attitudes toward Easter?

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

The cartoon above gives us a good idea. It pits a Gilded Age woman against a New Woman of the early 20th century. The Victorian woman, all feted up for Easter, points at a lavish hat sitting on top of the Maypole as if to say, “And where’s your Easter bonnet, my dear?” The New Woman, dressed in more sensible garb, looks at her with some amusement as if to say, “Madame, I have bigger fish to fry. Off to the suffragist parade!”

In my blog post last year, I wrote about how the holiday turned into another reason for Gilded Agers to show off their excesses and wealth by way of the Easter bonnet, Easter parade, and other holiday traditions. Progressives, however, had a totally different agenda. By the turn of the century, America the prosperous had become America the problem-filled nation that needed fixing. This is why reforms such as workers’ rights, women’s rights, and environmental issues became such a big part of the political and social agenda of the time.

Progressives took themselves seriously and their attitude toward Easter changed because of this. They saw it as a time of renewal. In the framework of Progressive Era priorities, this makes sense. Change is about renewal and change was the word of the day in the early 20th century. Renewing the nation, so to speak, was the passion of the progressives, so the symbolism of spring Easter represents fit right into that.

My protagonist in The Adele Gossling Mysteries fits right into that spirit of renewal and change. She’s unabashedly a New Woman and stands up for women’s rights, sometimes a little too passionately, in the eyes of her more conservative brother and Arrojo townspeople. Her fight for women to be heard and recognized extends not only to the living but to the dead. It’s her motivation for getting involved with crime. She wants justice for every woman, even those that can no longer be heard.

Take a peek at The Carnation Murder, Book 1 of the series, for just 99¢ on preorder now at this link. It’s been chosen by Barnes & Noble as a Top Indie Favorite!

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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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