Thieves, Pickpockets, and Sex: The Dark Side of Circus Life

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While today we think of the circus as something fun, colorful, and family-oriented, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, before the Progressive Era, the circus was considered adult entertainment and not very savory entertainment at that. Even in later years, Hollywood liked to portray the circus as a place filled with vice and crime. For example, the film noir Nightmare Alley (the 1947 version, not the 2021 version) opens with a view of some typical circus side shows with thieves lurking in the crowds and a swindling spiritualist. The police suddenly raid the circus, making accusations of soliciting crime and claiming one of the performers’ costumes is indecent (as defined by the standards of the 1940s). Of course, the circus manager has an explanation for everything, but the police order them to move to another town anyway.

The circus worked hard to clean up its act (no pun intended) in the 20th century. The circus in America really began in the 18th century and for two centuries, was considered the place for crime, vice, and sexual titillation. Circuses were rumored to have made deals with pickpockets who roamed the crowd and then gave the circus manager a cut of whatever they got. Men could come and ogle women in tights and leotards in eras where women kept their entire bodies covered and even a curvacious table leg could be considered risque. There were rumors of prostitution, though there is no evidence that this actually occurred. 

This cartoon is taken from a book called Peck’s Bad Boy at the Circus by George W. (Wilbur). According to the caption, the boy Peck’s father is run out of the circus by the police because he was caught standing behind the lion’s cage creating the animal’s roar when the lion had a sore throat. This is an example of how even in the early 20th century, circuses were still seen as dishonest places that were always trying to swindle the public.

Photo Credit: Image from page 108 of “Peck’s bad boy with the circus [microform]” by George W (Wilbur), 1907, University of California Libraries: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr/ CC0 1.0 Universal

Circuses started to reassess their image in the late 19th century and move toward the more family-oriented entertainment we know today. Circus managers became very strict about things like drinking and men and women socializing together. They included more children-friendly acts such as animals and clowns. The more adult entertainment moved away to the side shows rather than the main circus tent. 

Why did the circuses change their image in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? First, these eras marked a period of change and reform in America. America had prospered in the Gilded Age but with it came the baggage of greed, corruption, and extravagance. These reformers wanted a cleaner, better America and pushed for reform in the entertainment field as well, including burlesque, vaudeville, and circuses. And second, they changed for the same reason Las Vegas changed in the 1990s: money. This era also was the birth of leisure and family fun and circus managers shrewdly realized, just as the Vegas hotel managers did, that children were a lucrative market they were missing by entertaining only adults. 

Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, which turns a year old this month, is all about the circus. The conflict between the circus as vice and the circus as decent entertainment unfolds within the mystery of the death of the star performer. If you want to grab your copy, you can do so here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Historical Christmas Traditions

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I recently started teaching English to students from all over the world and one of the things I love to hear from them is about their holiday traditions. I was surprised to hear from a student of mine that she celebrates Christmas in mid-January and her traditions are more focused on the religious aspect of Christmas than gift-giving (although her family exchanges plenty of gifts too!)

In America, Christmas traditions haven’t changed much. Love it or hate it, Christmas in America has been big business since the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were filled with opulence, glamour, and progress. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and holidays were at the top of the list.

Before the late 19th century, ornaments on the Christmas tree were pretty simple. The tradition of Christmas tree decorations was brought over by German settlers in the 1830s, but Gilded Agers turned it into something much more elaborate. The word “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 past decades into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a big commercial enterprise during this time, replacing these homemade ornaments.

Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with a banner and band. 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 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 during this time as well. It was an opportunity to show one’s generosity with elaborate and expensive gifts. Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fits 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 and white-bearded man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. But in the early 20th century, Santa had 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 Capitalism.

Why not treat yourself to some fiction from the past that features women who don’t just take the confines of their era lying down? You can start with two free books! The first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries is free on every online bookstore and so is the first book of my Waxwood Series. You can get  The Carnation Murder here and The Specter here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Resort Life in the 19th Century

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When doing some research recently, I discovered that today is the day summer officially ends and fall begins.

This summer hasn’t been easy for many of us. I recently moved from Texas to Ohio and it looks like I might have chosen a good time to leave, as many of my Texas friends experienced higher-than-usual temperatures this summer (I’m taking 105 and 106-degree type weather). Even in the Midwest, people told me it was an unusually hot and humid summer for our town. One of my neighbors posted the following sign on her lawn, maybe in an effort to encourage the colder weather to come:

A few weeks later she took it down. I guess she got discouraged by the continuing high temperatures!

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when there were no A/C units, no cooling systems, and fans that were inadequate, summer was the time for people to get away. Remember my blog post about Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (which you can find here)? Gillette lured his victim to the Adirondacks with the promise of a honeymoon vacation. The Adirondacks was a popular resort town in the East in the early 20th century.

Both Brown and Gilette were working-class people, and at the turn of the century, resorts such as the Adirondacks were just becoming accessible to them. But for the very wealthy, such resorts had been at their disposal since the 19th century. There were even those who made hopping from resort to resort a way of life.

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

Resort life for the wealthy, as Charles Dudley Warner depicts in his book Their Pilgrimage (1884), was relaxing, exciting, and, oftentimes, boring. Some traveled for their health to places such as Palm Springs in California. Others traveled in the winter to get away from the harsh weather in their hometown. 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 late 19th and early 20th centuries, and resort life offered just the place for this. What people did or what they saw in terms of the local attractions was less important than who they met and mingled with. At the same time, the anonymity of resort life gave the tightly-laced blue bloods of this time freedom to be themselves, a luxury they couldn’t afford at home. Away from the resorts, the wealthy 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 and Progressive Era man couldn’t take time off for vacations. 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

Those who have read my Waxwood Series know the way of life of resort towns well. The Alderdice family aren’t exactly the kind of Gilded Age travelers that Warner’s novel depicts, as their lives are firmly rooted in San Francisco society. 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.               

The Adele Gossling Mysteries is grounded more in the grim realities of murder and crime, but I’m not quite done with resort life yet in my books. I already have on my agenda to write a book for this series set in a resort town which will include all of its fascinating psychological aspects amid a backdrop of crime and mayhem.

In the meantime, you can pick up The Carnation Murder, the first book of the series, for free from all book vendors. All the information and links are here. And if you’re interested in a more dramatic look at resort life, you’ll find my Waxwood Series right up your alley. You can start with Book 1, The Specter, which is free on all vendors, here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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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 that it’s an integral part of the American philosophy of life. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era were no exceptions. America was coming into its own during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in commerce, politics, and society. 

But Americans may have carried their enthusiasm a little too far when it comes to Independence Day celebrations. 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 a marvelous show of country spirit and dedication.

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

It’s hard to believe some politicians were pushing for a “quiet” 4th of July in the Progressive Era, encouraging Americans to stay home instead of going out into the streets and celebrating. But they had good reason. 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 people set off that caused injury 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 around the country. 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 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 4th (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 free on all vendors. Book 6 will be out in August but you can get it now on preorder at a special price.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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The Marriage Age in the 19th Century

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In the 19th, and even the early 20th centuries, age was an important factor for both men and women when it came to marriage. This is especially true of women. Pretty much any woman who didn’t get married early was sneered at behind closed doors as being well on her way to spinsterhood (which, today, isn’t stigmatized like it was then). 

In the 21st century, many choose to marry at a later age. I can see several reasons for this. Both women and men are generally established in their careers later in life, so they choose to marry and have a family once they feel they’ve “gotten it together”. Many women prefer to start their careers before they take on marriage and motherhood. There is also a level of emotional maturity and intelligence that comes with age that (we hope) makes relationships and child-rearing more fulfilling. And there is no denying the pandemic and economic downturn in the last three years has something to do with people waiting a little longer to get married.

marriage, 19th century, gilded age, Waxwood Series, women, men

Young married couples in the 19th century knew marriage wasn’t all hearts and flowers. They were practical as well. I’m guessing this is probably an advertisement for Domestic sewing machines.

Photo Credit: Bride & Groom: Karen Arnold/PublicDomainPictures/CC0 1.0

This is in stark contrast to the marriage age in the 19th century. The average age for women to marry was, roughly, 20, while for men, it was 26. Why were women marrying at such a young age? We want to remember women were not as autonomous as they are today. Due to the separate spheres, many women were dependent on others for their livelihood, and marriage was the primary way they could survive when they came of age. There was also the “cult of True Womanhood” mentality where women’s destinies were to be wives and mothers, so marriage was seen as their goal in life. This is even true in the early 20th century when the New Woman. Keep in mind that, as independent and career-oriented as the New Woman was, she was still positioned as offering no threat to the “cult of True Womanhood” in her ultimate purpose in life (marriage and children).

Surprisingly, upper class women took the marriage age more seriously than middle and lower class women. You would think women with social and economic privileges would be more independent than their less privileged sisters, but, in reality, family and social expectations lay heavily upon them (a theme that comes back again and again in my Waxwood Series). Women who expected to marry into high society and/or maintain their position among the blue bloods had to marry young. In her book What Would Mrs. Astor Do? author Cecelia Tichi describes actress and model Evelyn Nesbitt, whose decision to marry the rich but abusive Harry Kendall Thaw came largely from the fact that she was “now over twenty years old, a perilous age for a Gilded Age starlet harboring hopes of matrimony” (location 3210). How much over twenty years? According to Tichi’s book, when Nesbit married Thaw, she was 21 years old.

In Pathfinding Women, the social standing of both Vivian and her mother Larissa hinges on Vivian marrying again. Vivian and her mother and, in fact, the Washington Street blue bloods that make up their social set are hyper-aware of this fact:

Vivian thought with irony of the past few days. “Yes, it would certainly be peaceful for us both if I were to become Mrs. Monte Leblanc.”

“And just what you need at this particular time in your life.”

A pain shot through Vivian. “What do you mean, Mother?”

“You always accuse me of ignoring the truth,” said Larissa. “But you don’t like it when someone else shows you the truth you’ve been ignoring.”

Vivian turned up the gas lamp on the night table and observed her mother’s face illuminated by a yellow halo. “You’ve always been shrewd, haven’t you, Mother?”

“I’m trying to make you see!”

“See what? That I’m not getting any younger?” Vivian’s eyebrows arched. “That’s what you meant, isn’t it? You think I ought to grab the first man that asks me like Cousin Emma did.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as that.” Her mother’s voice was reasonable. “But twenty-six is an age where a woman can begin to expect little out of life if she’s not married.”

You make twenty-six sound like ninety-six,” said Vivian, realizing she was starting to sulk.

Vivian is considered, by the standards of the 19th century, to be well above the marriage age, though she is still young, and this puts her in an awkward position matrimonially, and one that her love interest, Monte, who is considerably older than she is, doesn’t fail to grasp and use to his advantage.

Pathfinding Women, the third book of the Waxwood Series, is at a very special price right now. Find out about the book here. And don’t forget that Book 1, The Specter, is free here 

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

Works Cited:

Tichi, Cecelia. What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age. Washington Mews Books, New York University Press, 2018. Kindle digital file.

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