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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Trailblazers: Lady Lawyers in the 19th Century

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Book 3 of my historical cozy mystery series the Adele Gossling Mysteries, introduces a new character into the small town of Arrojo. Rebecca Gold is a lawyer who has come to town to open her own practice after having been treated like a clerk rather than a lawyer in the big city law firms where she worked. 

How common were women lawyers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? As you might imagine, not that common. The separate spheres made it difficult for women to venture outside the private sphere of home, family, and church. The law, being one of the most public spheres out there (right alongside politics and business) was, therefore, largely off-limits. 

But there were a few who did brave the social and sometimes legal limits to study law. The first of these was Arabella Mansfield. In 1869, she became the first woman lawyer in America. Although her home state of Iowa forbade women to take the bar exam, Mansfield defied this practice and took it anyway. Her very high marks swayed Iowa legislation to relax these laws and allow women to take the bar exam. Mansfield became an apprentice at her brother’s law firm early on during her studies. However, once she passed the bar exam, she decided to forgo law for activism and education, including suffragism.

Alongside her was Ada Kepley who, in 1870, earned her law degree from Northwestern University. However, her home state of Illinois also didn’t allow women to take the bar exam and, unlike Iowa, Illinois legislation wasn’t budging on this. So Kepley was unable to actually make use of her law degree. Kepley did eventually take the bar exam in 1881 and passed but, like Arabella Mansfield, chose to use her experience and knowledge for activism, particularly temperance and — you guessed it — women’s suffrage.

Photo Credit: Drawing of Charlotte E. Ray, before 1911, unknown author: Gobonobo/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

And let us not forget Charlotte E. Ray who was the first African American woman to practice law. She received her law degree in 1872 and was admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. Unlike Mansfield and Kepley, however, Ray did eventually open her own office, specializing in corporate law. Sadly, she only kept her doors open for a few years, as racial prejudice made gaining a steady clientele difficult. She took her knowledge and experience and became a teacher, focusing on education and later, women’s suffragism.

You’ll notice a pattern here: these three women either never put their law degree to use or they only practiced for a very short time. Why? I’m sure mistrust of women in so lucrative a field had something to do with it (and we know in Charlotte E. Ray’s case, there was added racial prejudice). Maybe it was also that the time and dedication needed to practice law made it difficult for these women to juggle both the public and the private spheres (since we might assume they also had the duties of the home on their shoulders whereas a male lawyer was largely exempt from that). Or maybe it was just the ideologies of the separate spheres die hard, even for progressive women. 

In my book, however, Rebecca Gold is a practicing lawyer and her first case gets her in plenty of hot water. Find out how in Death At Will, the third book of the Adele Gosslnig Mysteries. And how about Books 1 and 2? Well, you can pick up all three books in a lovely box set at a great price 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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Fun and Mischief: Halloween in the Early 20th Century

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It’s Halloween in the United States today, and if you live in America, you likely already have bags of candy stashed on the front table near your door, expecting little nippers to come knocking and calling “trick or treat!”

Halloween these days is a relatively tame affair where fun is the name of the game. It means dressing up in costumes, taking the kids door to door to get candy, and for some, attending a party or settling on the couch to watch spooky movies (I already have my collection of Val Lewton films geared up). But in the early 20th century, kids had a very different idea of what constituted “fun” for Halloween. Mischief and mayhem were the order of the day (or, I should say, the night).

What do I mean by mischief? Watch this clip from the 1944 classic film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film is set in 1904 and gives a pretty accurate glimpse of how kids celebrated Halloween in the early 20th century. In the scene, kids build a bonfire, throwing into it anything flammable they can get their hands on (and one suspects some of the chairs they’re throwing in might have been ripped off neighborhood porches). Then, they huddle together, trying to figure out who they’re going to torture with their bags of flour (yes, knocking on someone’s door and throwing flour in their face was a thing back then). That was the turn-of-the-century’s idea of Halloween fun.

Photo Credit: A non-grotesque and non-creepy Halloween costume of a witch, 1910: jamesjoel/Flickr/CC BY ND 2.0

Another thing about this scene is that it shows how kids dressed up for Halloween over one hundred years ago (and if you’re curious to see more costumes from this era, you can look here). Unlike today where we’re more likely to see cute costumes on smaller kids and spooky-fun costumes on older kids, kids used whatever they could find around the house. The results were creepier and, in some cases, even grotesque.

Trick-or-treating is a largely organized affair in the 21st century, as in my neighborhood in a small Ohio town, where the local newspaper designates specific days (not necessarily October 31) and times when trick-or-treaters can go around town. In the early 20th century, things were a lot more chaotic. Kids would go trick-or-treating in parades and they could become quite unruly. And did they get candy? Not always. Until the mid-20th century, kids got whatever was lying around. That could be a toy or a game the child of the house didn’t want anymore or some non-candy goodies or fruits or nuts (which would make many moms and dads very happy today).

But what really characterized early 20th-century Halloween was mischief. In addition to the bonfire and the flour-in-the-face, it wasn’t unusual for kids to vandalize the homes of people in town they didn’t like or even steal things off their lawn or porch (in the film clip above, one of the adults warns her children to make sure and return a neighbor’s hammock after they steal it). I remember when I was a kid, Halloween meant you were at risk of being “egged” (having kids throw rotten eggs at your house) if you didn’t open the door and give out candy. Thankfully, that practice has largely gone out of style. 

Want to have even more Halloween fun this year? Come solve a mystery with the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries series as she helps search for a missing child from the community Halloween party! You can get this story (plus a novella and other goodies) only if you sign up for my newsletter here. And to check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series, you can’t do any better than the box set for the first three books in the series! That’s on preorder right now at a great price, so pick it up here

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Death Outside the Battlefield: Lida Beecher

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Last month, I posted a tribute to World War I veterans. The war made people realize death can come too easily in the 20th century. However, not all deaths in 1914 took place on the battlefield. Some, in fact, happened in the backwoods of America and were just as shocking as those happening in Europe. 

Book 2 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is about the death of a schoolteacher. During my research, I stumbled upon the case of Lida Beecher which both horrified and intrigued me. I wasn’t the only one. Residents of Herkimer County, New York where the murder took place were so devastated by the crime that a history of the area written in the 1970s completely excludes any mention of it. 

The story involves many complex players. To begin, the victim is Lida Beecher, a young and lovely schoolteacher whose eagerness to help her students usurped her experience in dealing with the troubled ones. Then there is the perpetrator: Jean Gianini, a sixteen-year-old from a very unstable family environment that included alcoholism, mental disabilities, and physical abuse. Gianini lured Beecher into the woods, hit her with a monkey wrench, and then stabbed her to death, hiding her body in the brush. 

The case exemplifies the limitations of education and medicine in the early 20th century. Schools at this time, especially in rural towns, were a one-room affair (think: Little House on the Prairie). Students of all ages attended and the teacher had to accommodate different learning levels, from the six-year-olds to the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. Teachers were then, as they are now, grossly underpaid and they were also undertrained, especially in dealing with special needs children or children with disabilities. 

Photo Credit: Herkimer County Courthouse where the trail of Lida Beecher’s murder took place, Herkimer, NY, 19 September 2009, taken by Doug Kerr: Pubdog/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 2.0

All the sources on the case agree Gianini was both intellectually and mentally below average. During the trial, he went through several intelligence tests, including the Binet Test, which was used at the time to assess the mental age of children, and he was found to have the intellectual capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen. He also showed signs of mental disabilities. Some have said if Gianini were examined today, he would probably be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Accounts of his time at school clearly showed neither his teachers nor the principal were equipped to understand or help him. Beecher tried but when he misbehaved, she called in the principal, who resorted to the same kind of humiliation and violence Gianini experienced at home. This set off feelings of resentment in Gianini and vows of revenge and, indeed, he gave his reason for killing Beecher as vengeance. 

The case set the precedence for the insanity plea, which became almost overused in the early 20th century. The defense was able to convince a jury that Gianini didn’t know what he was doing and get him committed to an institution rather than suffer the death penalty.

Teachers don’t fare well in Book 2 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, A Wordless Death, either. The book is part of my 3-book box set, which includes Book 1 (The Carnation Murder) and Book 3 (Death at Will) is on preorder right now. So to get 3 books at a great price, check out this link

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The Wage Gap: Is This Still a Thing?

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Today is Labor Day in America, which means we’re celebrating the working woman and man. Women indeed have a lot to celebrate on this day. Working conditions for women have improved dramatically since the early 20th century, and job opportunities for women have expanded considerably. Many workplaces recognize situations related to women that made it difficult for them to work in the past and accommodate these (such as maternity leave and daycare). And sexual harassment in the workplace has largely been addressed.

But one thing we can’t celebrate is the wage gap. That is, women are still not being paid equally to men on average for the same or similar jobs. 

Photo Credit: Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, Washington D.C. Kennedy Center, taken 21 August 2019: Edithian/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

One of my favorite scenes in the classic comedy 9 to 5 is the closing (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film). As the three office workers (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) are going around with the head of the company, showing him all the positive changes they’ve made (like flex time and in-house daycare), the head tells their boss (Dabney Coleman) that the one change he doesn’t approve of is paying women in the company the same as the men. As the credits close and the women are toasting their success, they recognize the wage gap is still an issue. I love this scene because even though by 1980, the second-wave women’s movement had lost a lot of its earlier steam, partly because many women believed they had won the fight, it’s a reminder that the fight was (and is – see this blog post) on.

The wage gap has existed for centuries. In the Victorian era, when fewer women were in the workforce and few had careers, women were often paid half or less what men were paid. The reasons for this were, according to employers, practical. According to the separate spheres, men were the bread winners and expected to support their families so they needed more money (a point Coleman makes to Tomlin in 9 to 5 when he tries to justify his reasons for giving a promotion she’s been wanting to a less capable male colleague). Women were at that time not expected to work for long, since their true calling (per the separate spheres) was marriage and motherhood. Employers didn’t want to pay full wages to workers whom they viewed as temporary (even if they weren’t). In addition, women’s work was undervalued because they were seen as “the weaker sex”. The jobs they performed were limited to what employers thought they could do for the most part (read: boring, repetitive tasks, such as in the factories) and therefore, valued less than men’s.

There was one period in American history where women earned more or less the same as men: World War I. During the First World War, when men were scarce and workers were needed for the war effort, government officials agreed to pay women the same as men to entice them into the offices and factories, and many non-government employers followed suit. Sadly, this didn’t stick, not even during World War II when employers again needed women workers (women got paid about forty percent of what men earned during the Second World War).

Just like the ladies of 9 to 5, we’re still fighting the wage gap in the 21st century. Mid-20th century women were receiving a little more than half the wages of men on average, and that number remained pretty steady after the war. It’s only increased to about eight-three percent, according to a study done in 2020. So we’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.

I believe in the working woman, which is why there are a lot of them in my Adele Gossling Mysteries. There are a number of women entrepreneurs (including Adele herself), but there are also women working for employers (such as the young ladies rooming at Mrs. Taylor’s boarding house, whom readers meet in Book 2). The victim in my new release, The Case of the Dead Domestic is, as the title implies, a maid working for a wealthy family when she gets killed. You can check out this sixth book of the series here

As for the practices of Labor Day in the early 20th century, you can experience what that was like in Book 4 of the series, which takes place on the holiday in 1904!

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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