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 

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I love seeking out historical traditions of our beloved holidays so that you know how the Alderdices in my Waxwood Series would have spent their holidays. I’ve done this post on Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age, and I’ve also written this post about New Year’s Day traditions in the 19th century. So it’s fitting that we take a look at Christmas traditions as well.

Many of us in the 21st century grumble about the way Christmas has become so commercialized (Christmas in July, anyone?) Many of these commercial ideas about Christmas were planted in the Gilded Age. For example, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree was brought over from Germany, but the Gilded Age added its own philosophy of splendor and excess. As you might recall, modesty was not exactly the order of the day for Gilded Agers. They liked lavishness and glitz, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads into a display of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels, creating a commercial enterprise of Christmas tree ornaments.

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of the Gilded Age, began producing Christmas cards less for profit than for an opportunity to give a lesson in fine art on a budget. He saw his cards as mini artistic achievements that even the working and middle classes could afford. This idea of democratizing fine art, an exclusive domain of those who could afford it, was not one Gilded Agers were willing to embrace. So predictably, Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside when other manufacturers decided to cash in on the trend and produced cheap variations. It was then that Christmas cards became big business.

Also big business was the gift-giving that now dominates Christmas in our modern world. Today we might find it appropriate to give a family member or friend an Amazon gift card and let them choose what they want, but in the Gilded Age, such gifts just weren’t to be had. Presents had to be individualized and carefully thought out and chosen. It was also an opportunity to show one’s generosity by the expensiveness of the gifts one was giving others.

Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fit in with the idea of elaborate presentation that characterized the age. Here also, people like the Alderdices could flaunt their wealth. Plain white wrapping paper was more about the gift than what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones that one bought the gift at the “right” place.

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, generous white-bearded, somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the Gilded Age, Santa also 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.

Here’s where you can find out all about the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga. 

Want to explore the nooks & crannies of history, the stuff that isn’t in the history books?Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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The 19th Century Bluestocking

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19th century, bluestocking, women, intellectual, Gilded Age, fiction, novels, family saga, 18th century

In this caricature, made at the end of the Blue Stocking Society heyday, the disbanding of the club can only be seen in terms of violence and hysteria because women who didn’t fit the mold of the “angel in the house” were seen in this way. So in the thinking of the male artist, even their intelligence and wit can’t save them from behaving like women!

Photo Credit: Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club, Thomas Rowlandson, 1815, hand-colored etching, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, Drawings and Prints: TemboUngwe/Wikimedia Commons/CC0

In Pathfinding Women, the third book of my Gilded Age family saga, the young women of her wealthy society accuse the protagonist Vivian Alderdice, of being a “bluestocking.” Like many terms referring exclusively to women, this one has positive origins but became negative with time.

The term referred to an actual 18th-century British club called the Blue Stockings Society and was created as a place where both women and men (though mostly women) could discuss literature and the arts. The name comes from a type of casual dress style (the worsted wool “blue” stocking) which was generally not considered proper dress for anyone but the peasants (ironic, considering the group was made up of well-to-do people, and its aim was to discuss formal topics…).

The society was led by author and social reformer Elizabeth Montagu. Montagu provided a place for intelligent and privileged women such as playwright Hannah More and author Frances Burney a safe place to bring forth their passion for the arts and gain support from fellow enthusiasts. The club was active and popular until the late 18th century, and, looking back at history, we might understand why. As I wrote here, the philosophy of the separate spheres began to take precedence in the thinking of intellectuals about the role of women and men in society around this time. Women, remember, were regulated mostly to the private sphere, destined to take care of their family and limit their public interest to church and charity. Thus, intellectual pursuits for women were discouraged, and any woman who didn’t fit the mold was looked upon in a negative light.

This is also why the term “bluestocking” began to take on unflattering connotations in the 19th century. These women were seen, by Victorian standards, as unmarriageable either because they were too unattractive, too old, too educated, or any combination of the three. They were a nuisance in society, trying to compete with intellectual men (and unable to, of course). Many caricatures went out during this time about the bluestocking (like the one by Rowlandson above).

So it’s no surprise when the wealthy young women of Nob Hill in my book get catty, the first thing they do is insinuate that Vivian, because she prefers books to flirtations, is a bluestocking. At one point in the novel, Vivian laments:

“Her daily walks made her less fragile than Amber and her friends and she had heard sniffing remarks on her “bluestocking” pursuits in pockets of parties and after-dinner conversations.”

Despite the fact that Vivian is a progressive young woman, she falls victim to the stigma attached in the Gilded Age to any “bookish” unmarried woman and asks her mother in a worried tone, “Do you think he [Monte Leblanc, the man she’s pursuing] has the notion from Fern that I’m a bluestocking?” Her mother reassures her Mr. Leblanc has no such idea.

If you’d like to take a look at Pathfinding Women, you can do so here. To find out more about the series, you can go here. You can also find information on Books 1 and 2 of the series here and here. Book 4 of the series, Dandelions, will be coming out in December 2020, so come check it out here

Want to explore the nooks & crannies of history, the stuff that isn’t in the history books?Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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The History of Father’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Story Time (Portrait Of The Artist`s Father And Daughter), Ekvall Knut, 1843-1912, taken 11 April 2013 by Plum leaves: Plum leaves/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the history of Mother’s Day. In honor of Father’s Day, which this year will be on Sunday, June 21 in the United States, I’m taking a look back at the history of Father’s Day too.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little more vague. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that are thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd, inspired by Mother’s Day, which was becoming a popular holiday at that time, campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, largely wanting to commemorate her own father, who had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened on a wider but no less personal scale. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who were killed in a local mining explosion.

But as far as official lobbying and support goes, this was slow in coming. There were national political figures, such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge who supported a national Father’s Day, but these recommendations didn’t get much traction. There are several reasons for this. As many of us know, Mother’s Day has becomes a commercially viable holiday and was that way from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt that fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal as mothers, mainly because the sentiment attached to mothers from the long history of the separate spheres wasn’t attached to fathers. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th century was more of a teacher and disciplinarian. The same sentimentality also seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis, especially in the late 19th and early20th centuries. 

There were even some int he 1920’s and 1930’s who lobbied to abolish Mother’s Day and, instead, create an overarching Parent’s Day, arguing that it wasn’t the separate role of the mother, or the father, for that matter, that should be celebrated — it was the institution of parenthood that deserved the celebration (and my home country, Israel, went a step further and abolished Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the 1990’s in favor of Family Day). But the lobbying for a Father’s Day was strong and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Fathers play a role in my Waxwood Series, though in a less conventional way than in most books. In False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, Jake Alderdice’s biological father is absent and, instead, his entire life had been filled with substitute father figures. It’s one of these figures that leads him to both chaos and maturity in the book.

Want to grab a copy of the book for Father’s Day? False Fathers is at a special price through Sunday. You can find out more about it and buy it at your favorite online retailer here. To find out more about the series, you can go here.    

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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

In the United States, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May. This year (2020), the holiday is on May 10. This also happens to be the exact day when, in 1908, Anna Jarvis, editor and activist, created the first official Mother’s Day by holding a celebration 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 home town to commemorate her own mother.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first one to come up with the idea. Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis, has that honor. From all accounts, Jarvis’ mother was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist of sorts, but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. That is, her work was confined mainly to areas where it was acceptable for women to instigate changes. Her activist work was nonetheless important, as it consisted of forming Mothers’ Day Club events, where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene so as to curtail 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 general. Her daughter, on the other hand, confined her 1908 celebration to her own mother, and her advocacy to make the day a national holiday was about men and women honoring 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.

Putting this activism in the historical context in which it belongs, it might seem a little contradictory that the fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century. This was the era of Progressive reform where women were taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in the social and political arena for their rights and identities as individuals. So it might seem a little odd that Jarvis would lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was, for all intents and purposes, one of the New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But if we take a second look, it actually isn’t so incongruent. Suffragism was also about making women visible and respected on their own merits and for what they had to contribute to society. Mothers fit right into this category, so it makes sense that the fight to get mothers recognized and respected would find a lot of support.

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

Jarvis campaigned with the government for Mother’s Day and won. In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in the United States. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a very profitable one, specifically for florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this commercialization of Mother’s Day toward the end of her life, and she spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she and her mother deserved for being the godmothers of the holiday. 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 appreciation 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 the Lessons collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother. Note quite the sort of mother whom you would want to tuck you in at night, she nevertheless has an admirable strength and survival that runs throughout the series.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out all about them here.    

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The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.     

I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name. 

This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.

That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.

The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment. 

But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it. 

This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.

The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.

If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.     

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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