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 Safe and Sane 4th of July

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Today is Independence Day in America, also known as the 4th of July. Americans have always been enthusiastic about their freedom, especially when you consider it’s an integral part of the American philosophy of life. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era were no exception. America was coming into its own during the late 19th/early 20th centuries in commerce, politics, and society. The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought America into the world stage for the first time. Things were pretty good.

Photo Credit: Drawing of a skeleton dressed up for the 4th of July celebrations, 1899, lithograph, created by L. Crusius, Welcome Collection: Look and Learn/CC BY 4.0

But Americans carried their enthusiasm a little too far. We know the staples of 21st century 4th of July celebrations (before COVID, that is). It’s a social holiday with family BBQs and fireworks to boot. The latter is especially synonymous with Independence Day for most Americans. I’ll never forget the first fireworks display I saw when I was living in San Francisco in 1995. My brother took me to Crissy Field to see the fireworks over the bay. It was an impactful show of country spirit and dedication.

It’s hard to believe in the Progressive Era, some politicians were pushing for a “quiet” 4th of July, encouraging Americans to stay home instead of going out into the street and celebrating with fireworks. But they had good reason. The enthusiasm for the 4th had by that time gotten out of hand. Children were going around shooting off toy guns to join in the fun and sometimes their aim wasn’t so careful. Fireworks, as you might imagine, weren’t exactly sophisticated in those days so safety wasn’t a priority. In addition, there were canons, firecrackers, and other explosives set off that caused many injuries and even death. And we’re talking serious statics here. In 1903 (the year my Adele Gossling Mysteries opens), more than 400 people died and 4,000 were injured during the nation’s 4th of July celebrations. Many of these came from tetanus as a result of shrapnel wounds from dangerous explosives or careless toy guns.

These well-wishers of what was dubbed the Safe and Sane movement weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. We know many Americans made fun of the reform movements taking place in the early 20th century and they resented these politicians who wanted to take away their fun on Independence Day. Many cities began to implement ordinances to try and curtail these dangerous celebrations. In San Francisco (where part of my series takes place) women’s clubs worked to get toy guns out of the hands of kids younger than seventeen.

This movement encouraged other cities to implement more community-related events around the Fourth (like the yearly firework display at Crissy Field in San Francisco that I saw in the 1990s). Other events besides fireworks were sports, games, and picnics. These events gave Americans a chance to celebrate the holiday in a social environment that was, well, safe and sane!

Want to see more Progressive Era politics in action? Read the Adele Gossling Mysteries!  Book 1 is now available for purchase. Book 2 will be out at the end of this month but you can get it now on preorder at a special price.

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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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!

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 Gilded Age New Year

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Photo Credit: Fanciful sketch of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Marguerite Martyn, 1914, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 January 1914, Editorial Section: BeenAroundAWhile/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Since this is the holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on the holidays in history, particularly in the 19th century. I wrote about Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Gilded Age. No holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

New Year’s in the 19th century was then, as it is today, about seeing off the old year and bringing in the new. In the earlier part of the century, celebrations were rather modest. It was not uncommon to have a “watch night” on New Year’s Eve where people (especially in rural areas) would watch and wait for the clock to strike midnight so they could leave their old sins behind and begin the new year fresh to commit new ones.

Gilded Agers turned New Year’s into a real party holiday for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a dining extravaganza: They wanted to show off. So they threw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls that included eight-course dinners and plenty of champagne even before the clock struck midnight. There are anecdotes about these Gilded Age party-goers, most of them wealthy, who were indeed determined to leave their sins behind them in the old year. It was not uncommon for them to go from house party to house party, making complete fools of themselves, and getting their names in the society columns the next morning. What a way to start the new year!

There were other traditions that are staples of New Year’s which came in the 19th century. One of them is the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a sentimental farewell to old friends and experiences. The song was actually an 18th century ballad composed by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the tradition of singing it at midnight on New Year’s Day began in the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until later in the 1920s that it became a permanent staple of our New Year’s tradition.

And the famous New Year’s Eve ball, that gigantic globe of light that drops at midnight every year in Times Square? That originated on New Year’s Day in 1905. The original ball was seven hundred pounds of iron and wood with a hundred light bulbs. The ball has been updated several times, the last in 2008, so it now weighs over twelve hundred pounds. Rather than lowered by hand with ropes as the original ball was, it now has a laser atomic clock located in Colorado.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for midnight to strike so we can let go of the old year’s sins and enter the new fresh. In fact, the reason New Year’s Day is on January 1st has to do with just that idea. Julius Cesar was the one who implemented the new calendar year to begin on that day, naming the first month of each new year January after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. Janus has two faces — one face facing front and the another face in the back of his head. Why? So that he can look back to the past and look forward to the present and future. For anyone who has read my fiction, this is exactly what my characters do. So, in essence, if I had to chose a holiday that belonged to the Waxwood Series, it would be New Year’s.

Want to read about how Vivian Alderdice looks back into the past to find her future? Start reading the Waxwood Series for only 99¢! Get all the information here

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

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A Gilded Age Christmas

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Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. Note the card has the makings of a work of art (see below for more details about Prang and his philosophy of Christmas cards). 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

I love the holiday season and it’s fascinating to see how the traditions we know and love were shaped by history. I’ve done this post on Thanksgiving and this post about New Year’s here, I tackle Christmas, the holiday that comes at the mid-point of the holiday season.

Christmas in the 1890s was very much like Christmas in the 2020s in more ways than one. Love it or hate it, Christmas is big business aud the Gilded Age was when it all started (alibi on a much smaller scale than today). You might recall from my post here that the last quarter of the 19th century was filled with a passion for opulence, glamour, and progress (no wonder Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner christened this time “the gilded age” in their 1873 satire of the same name). There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and Christmas was at the top of the list.

The tradition of Christmas tree decorations was brought over by German settlers in the 1830s, but the Gilded Age turned it into something much more elaborate. As you might recall, modesty was not in the vocabulary of the era. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads of the past decades into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a big commercial enterprise during this time, replacing 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: 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 this idea of democratizing fine art was not one Gilded Agers were yet willing to embrace. They were, however, happy to take the idea of the Christmas card and make it more illustrative and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards to art fell by the wayside but it started a trend with other illustrators producing cheaper variations. However, as this article shows, they were still quite beautiful.

The gift-giving that now dominates today’s Christmas commercials on TV and online became big business in the Gilded Age. It was an opportunity to show one’s generosity with elaborate and expensive gifts. Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fit in with the idea of garnish presentation that characterized the age. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford, but 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)

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, the Santa icon 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 their support of capital “C” Capitalism.

Want to know more about life during 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 seeks truth and meaning in her past and her life for just 99¢ here

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

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