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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Summer Vacation in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet, 1866-1867, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY: Crisco 1492/Wikimedia Common/PD old 80

This Sunday is the official start of summer. Much of my historical family saga, the Waxwood Series, takes place during the summer months. For us 21st century people, summer means hot weather, swimming pools, and beaches. It’s about fun, leisure, and rest. 

The Victorians, however, had a different take on summer. In the 19th century, only the privileged (like my Alderdice family) could afford to take a summer vacation. Middle-class and working-class people did not take time off in the summer or go on vacation. Why? 

First, there was a philosophical issue involved. Tension existed between work and play in America at that time. Doctors and ministers and other authorities were suspicious of vacations, believing they led people to vice. There was also a very practical reason: Most people just couldn’t afford to take time off and go somewhere for the summer (no paid time off for vacations in those days).

What changed? Our awareness that being the constant workhorse was more unhealthy than the sort of vices vacation destinations could offer. Also, the rising middle class in the Gilded Age could finally afford to a week or two off from work during the summer for some fun and leisure. And, too, as with much of American life in the Gilded Age, there was the question of commerce. The travel and hospitality industries (like hotels and restaurants) quickly realized they could make a lot of money by encouraging Americans to take time off to enjoy the summer and play.

In my series, when summer comes, the Alderdice family vacation in the resort town called Waxwood. Resort life was growing in the Gilded Age among the wealthy and upper-middle class. These wealthy people took their summer vacations very seriously, spending months lounging in resorts, meeting new people, and participating in all sorts of activities and events. You can find out more about my series on this page

Ready to dive into my Gilded Age family saga? Now is a perfect time! Book 1, The Specter, has been updated and revised and is now at 99¢. You can get it here

And if you really want to know what it was like to spend a summer in a resort with the wealthy, you’ll want to read Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, which has also recently been updated and revised.

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Larissa Alderdice: The Alderdice Matriarch

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Photo Credit: jspring/Depositphotos.com 

It’s May, which means it’s not only spring but also the month of mothers (Mother’s Day in the United States was May 9). If we’re talking about mothers, I wanted to say a few things about Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series

I’ve done several blog posts about the Alderdice family already. I did one for Vivian Alderdice, the series protagonist, and for her brother, Jake. I even did one for Penelope Alderdice, the family specter whose hidden past kicks off the whole series. 

Larissa is a fascinating character because she is one of the focal points of the series, and yet, in each book, she remains a minor character. Her influence is not in the number of appearances she makes in each book but the mark she leaves on everyone in the family. I don’t think this is unusual when it comes to mothers. Mothers are a major source of nurture, discipline, and affection in many of our lives (mine sure is) but they often remain in the background, and their influence affects us in ways we don’t always realize until we’re adults and possibly have children of our own.

Larissa had her own beliefs, some of which are quite rigid. Her whole life evolves around society and what the Jones’ are doing. She is very much a product of the Gilded Age in that she is a part of all its opulence and excess. Like the famous Mrs. Astor, there is a “them” and there is an “us” and “we” are more superior to “them”. So, yes, she’s a snob.

Her views are somewhat mid-Victorian. There is a scene in Book 2, False Fathers where she chides her daughter for attending a suffragist meeting:

“You have a mutinous streak, Vivian,” Larissa said gently. “I’m only trying to help you.”

“Don’t worry, Mother. No blue blood woman ever strayed far from conformity.” His sister’s voice was wary. 

“Conventional life has its rewards,” [her] mother reminded her. “Comfort and peace of mind, for one.”

In other words, Larissa finds security in the separate spheres and the chaotic changes that were happening in the last decade of the 19th century and into the 20th were frightening and disturbing to her. 

Where Larissa’s maternal influence is felt most is in the third installment of the series, Pathfinding Women. In that book, the Alderdices aren’t exactly on sure footing with their Nob Hill neighbors, and this is a devastating situation for someone as social-conscious as Larissa. Her solution? Coax her daughter into chasing after a wealthy but somewhat unpolished Canadian buccaneer. Not the most liberating solution in the world, but, given Larissa’s character, predictable. What happens in the book is far from predictable, though.

But Larissa has her good points too. There is no question she is intelligent and brings her views forth in an insightful way. In False Fathers, her daughter remarks, “If social propriety hadn’t distorted your wit and intelligence, you might have achieved something in this world.” Had Larissa been a woman of the 21st century, she would probably have been an entrepreneur or a high-ranking executive of a company because her acumen and social savvy would have been channeled into more useful ways than at high society balls and dinner parties.

But, as it is, her obsession with society and its conventions place her in a position to editorialize about them in ways you would expect from a Mrs. Astor. For example, in a mock interview I wrote as part of the “Meet The Alderdices” packet, Larissa has this to say about Gilded Age debutante:

“For us, when a young lady comes out in society, it is an occasion for celebrating. She is now a woman and must take upon her shoulders the duties and responsibilities of a woman, not only toward her husband and children, but toward society as well.”

Want to read more about Larissa and her role in the Waxwood Series? You can start with Book 1, The Specter, which has now been revised and updated and is at the special price of 99¢. 

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do. Oh, and that Meet The Alderdices packet? I occasionally put that out to my newsletter subscribers, along with a few other goodies, but only to subscribers, so if you’re on my list, you’ll get a chance to get that too!

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A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. Where did this holiday come from? It began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis, editor and Progressive Era activist, decided to pay tribute to her mother in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her hometown as part of the tribute.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first to come up with the idea. That honor goes to Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis. From all accounts, Ann Maria was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. Her work was confined to areas acceptable for women (church and home). Her activist work was nonetheless important, as she formed Mothers’ Day Club events where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene to prevent the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. 

It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in society and family. Her daughter, on the other hand, wanted to make the day a national holiday where both men and women honored their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

The fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century when many women were advocating taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in social and political arenas for their rights and identities as individuals. It might seem a little odd that Jarvis would, at this time in history, lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was one of these New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But suffragism was also about making women visible and respected for their own merits and contributions to society. Mothers fit right into this category (since you have to be a woman to be a mother, right?)

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hairstyle and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a target for consumerism, specifically florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this toward the end of her life and spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she deserved. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the kudos they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of that collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother whose attitude toward life and toward her children changes over time.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. Check out both Larissa and Penelope Alderdice (Larissa’s mother) in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, recently revised and updated and now at 99¢. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out more about them here.    

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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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!

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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