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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Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Thanksgiving family at dinner. No date on the image, but based on the hairstyle and clothes, I’m guessing this is probably around the 1880s or early1890s: Linnaea Mallette/Public Domain Pictures/CC0 1.0

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time of gratitude and giving and many people have a big dinner with “all the trimmings” where both family and non-family members are invited. Although my family isn’t US-born, my parents adopted the Thanksgiving traditions and my mom always had a huge turkey and many of the trimmings (somehow, the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows was always missing…) and we always enjoyed it as a family.

The Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age, which took place roughly in the last quarter of the 19th century. The series involves a wealthy Nob Hill family. How would the Alderdices celebrate Thanksgiving? Did they celebrate it at all?

Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving but not the way we do now. For many of us in the 21st century, Thanksgiving means a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Photo Credit: “Thanksgiving dinner, Occidental Hotel, San Francisco, CA, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, Gilded Age swells didn’t stay at home — they dined at the fanciest restaurants or hotel dining rooms. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair such as oysters, turtle soup, foie gras, prime rib, and Petit fours. The Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on nowadays.

We might be led to believe wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but as I pointed out in my blog post about the Gilded Age, people in this period in American history were obsessed with excess and an “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A family dinner at home simply didn’t fit in with their lifestyle. An extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence with lavish clothes and jewelry. Many went to see and be seen.

If that sounds petty, keep in mind the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the Pilgrims as well. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many stayed behind in England or perished on the journey to America. Historians cite the 1920s Prohibition era and the Great Depression that follows as reasons why elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it had more to do with the post-World War II era when the family became more precious and important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and Thanksgiving associated with an intimate portrait of family.

Book 1 of the Waxwood Series, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of Thanksgiving in the 19th century. The holiday takes place in April, not November. In fact, until Franklin Roosevelt signed a proclamation making the third Thursday of November the official Thanksgiving holiday, you could find the day of thanksgiving during several different times of the year depending upon the state. If you’re curious, you can read more about that here

The Waxwood Series has just gotten a make-over! To find out more about the series, this page will give you all the details.

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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It’s Here… The Waxwood Series Relaunch!

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All covers by Essi/100 Covers

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 4

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Women’s Fiction/Family Saga

Relaunch Date: November 1, 2021

How many myths and half-truths does it take to destroy a family?

Vivian, the daughter and “Dagger Girl”, whose refusal to leave family secrets untold leads her down a dark path to a better future.

Jake, the son, and heir, whose search for a father figure leads him down the dark path of sin and redemption.

Larissa, the family matriarch, whose obsession with Nob Hill’s rigid social codes hides the shameful secrets of her past.

Come dive into this family saga set during one of America’s Gilded Age today. Book 1 is only 99¢!

Click the following links below to get the full details and all the buy links for each book:

The Specter (Waxwood Series: Book 1): https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/the-specter-waxwood-series-book-1

False Fathers (Waxwood Series: Book 2)https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/false-fathers-waxwood-series-book-2

Pathfinding Women (Waxwood Series: Book 3)https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/pathfinding-women-waxwood-series-book-3

Dandelions (Waxwood Series: Book 4): https://tammayauthor.com/books-2/waxwood-series/dandelionswaxwood-series-book-4

Want to read an excerpt from each book? There’s a group for that! Join Tam’s Dreamers and you’ll get access to extra files, including special excerpts and other goodies. Plus, fun stuff about the history you never knew (like Victorian-era pudding recipes and vintage Halloween stickers!). You can request to join by clicking the button below.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started writing at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes historical women’s fiction and historical mysteries. She loves to take readers into the nooks and crannies of the past, and she wants to inspire readers with her resilient and autonomous female characters. Most of her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she fell in love with the city and found her independence and writing voice when she lived there in the 1990s. 

Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon. She’s also published a Gilded age family saga set among San Francisco’s Nob Hill elite titled the Waxwood Series which follows the Alderdices as they discover their place amidst revolutionary changes and shifting values in the last decade of the 19th century.

Tam’s current project is a historical mystery series titled The Paper Chase Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a progressive and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community apt to prefer the previous era’s angel in the house to the current century’s New Woman. 

Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes. 

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.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

To celebrate the relaunch of the Waxwood Series, I’m doing a big giveaway where you could win a grand prize that includes paperbacks of all four books in the series, swag, and chocolate. And there are a few smaller prizes on offer as well. To enter, click the button below.

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Waxwood Series Relaunch Giveaway!!!

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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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