For Richer or Poorer: The Gold Standard in America

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As of this writing, America is experiencing the highest inflation rate in 40 years. Inflation shot up from 1.7% in 2020 to about 7% in 2021 and 2022, with the highest rate in 2022 being 9.1% in June! In spite of the fact that we’re shelling out more money at the grocery store (a friend of mine recently reported she spent over $100 on baking supplies for the holidays), the 7% this year is peanuts compared to 1920, when the nation had almost 24% inflation, or after the American Revolution in 1778 when inflation was 30%.

But there is one way to fight inflation: create a gold standard. This is exactly what people in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era did, though the results weren’t favorable to all. The concept of the gold standard is very difficult to explain and for people to wrap their heads around, so bear with me while I try to outline what it is and why it failed.

In 1900, Congress passed the Gold Standard Act which meant the value of American money was tied to the value of gold. Until then, the currency exchange was based on bimetallism (gold and silver). That meant people were able to buy gold or silver coins with paper money, which was to their advantage because these precious metals were much more stable in their value over time, whereas the value of paper money was basically determined by what federal or state officials determined it to be worth. It was also not an international currency (just as today when we can’t use British pounds to do our Walmart shopping in Cleveland) and it wasn’t even always, at that time, transferable from state to state, since states had their own paper money. So if you moved from Vermont to California and tried to cash a $20 Vermont bill in a California bank, you weren’t guaranteed to get the full $20 value of that bill in exchange.

The gold standard also meant silver was no longer an accepted exchange for paper money. People could only buy gold coins. There were a few problems with this. First, gold coins were in limited supply. Second, since gold was valued at the time at about $22.00 an ounce, people needed to shell out $22 in paper money for one ounce of gold ($1 bought them about 25 grams worth of gold). 

Why did people even want to buy gold coins when they paid much more for them with paper money? Why didn’t they just keep the paper money? Because at that time, paper money was very unreliable in terms of value, as I explained above. Also, gold and silver were precious metals and scarce compared to paper money so they were worth more and their worth didn’t fluctuate as much.

The gold standard was such a hot-button issue that this campaign poster for the Republican party (with William McKinley as the presidential nominee and Theodore Roosevelt as the vice-presidential nominee) put the party’s support of the gold standard as the top political issue on their party’s agenda during the campaign.

Photo Credit: Headshots of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt against the American flag for a Republican party campaign poster during the 1900 elections, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain

The gold standard became a major political issue in the Progressive Era because it was tied to class. The poor and working class were usually paid in paper money and used paper money to buy their goods, and since the value of paper money was now tied to the gold standard, they had to pay more for their purchases. For example, if something cost $2 gold coins, they would have to pay $44 in paper money for it. 

Hence, the Populist movement was born. This movement largely consisted of farmers and poor people who wanted to convince congress to go back to the bimetal standard (because silver was valued less than gold and they were able to secure silver coins more easily than gold.) In 1896, the Populists merged with the Democratic party, as the two shared several items on their political agenda such as limiting the number of terms a president could serve and advocating an eight-hour work day, as well as the call for bimetallism. This accumulated in Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s moving and rallying “Cross of Gold” speech.  

Bryan ran for president in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era with bimetallism as one of his main themes three times and lost three times. But then, so did the gold standard, eventually. It was withdrawn in the early 1930s by FDR in an effort to combat the Great Depression. From the post-World War II era to the 1970s, the gold standard did make a comeback, but in 1971 Nixon abolished it, both to combat the inflation at the time and to keep foreign governments from buying up American gold supply with their dollars. 

In my upcoming new release, The Mystery of the Golden Cat, the Gold Standard Act is in full force (the book takes place in 1904) and not everyone is happy about it. For one person, it leads indirectly to crime. Though the book comes out at the end of this month, it’s at a special preorder price now, so don’t wait to snag your copy!

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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The Theft Made the Mona Lisa Notorious

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The Mona Lisa has been scrutinized and poeticized and theorized for decades, even centuries. It’s probably one of the most famous paintings in all the world, if not the most famous painting. And yet, before the 1910s, it wasn’t that big a deal. Thousands of people had been through the Louvre and caught a glimpse of it in a row with other paintings of similar size. 

It might be a little hard to tell here, but the space on the wall is where the Mona Lisa was discovered missing after the theft. As you can see, the painting was hardly a standout among other paintings at that time. It sat below the massive painting of Paolo Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (a painting, ironically, that was seized by Napoleon and his men illegally during the Napoleonic wars), which got top billing in the display.

Photo Credit: The Mona Lisa’s vacant place in the Salon Carre after it was stolen in 1911, unknown author, Century Magazine, 1914 February, The Century Company: Meidosensei/Wikimedia Commons/PD anon expired 

So what happened to make the Mona Lisa warrant a wall of her own with a heavy wooden railing and bulletproof glass to protect her? In a word: theft.

Many people aren’t aware the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. And not by some world-renowned professional gang of thieves or a highly skilled and experienced cat burglar either. It was a working man, an everyday house painter, who walked off with the Mona Lisa.

An Italian immigrant working in France by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa. He had been arrested twice before, once for theft (though he claimed it was a misunderstanding) and once for not having his immigration papers on him. He was highly suspicious of the French, who showed a lot of xenophobia at that time, especially against the Italians, who were the largest immigrant group at that time. There are theories he was psychologically unbalanced due to lead poisoning from the paint he used in his job as a house painter. Yet, he managed to steal the Mona Lisa (painting only – he left the frame on the service stairs of the Louvre) and keep it hidden for two years.

Why he stole it is still a mystery. One theory is that it was an act of patriotism. Tensions were heating up in Europe, especially between France and Germany, and Italy, tensions that would eventually cause the outbreak of WWI in 1914. Peruggia, as mentioned earlier, had been subject to a lot of ridicule and prejudice in France for being Italian. His coworkers had nicknamed him “Macaroni” and he vowed one day to show them just who was a “macaroni.” In addition, the Mona Lisa was painted by an Italian — Leonardo da Vinci — and it was believed at the time France acquired it illegally during the Napoleonic wars when it was known Napoleon and his army would loot a conquered city of its precious artifacts and ship them to France. This story turned out to be untrue (da Vinci left all his works to his assistant, who later sold them to representatives of European monarchs, including the King of France) but maybe Peruggia wanted to believe it to have a reason to steal the painting.

Others surmise it was purely for money. Though the Mona Lisa didn’t have the notoriety it has today, it was still pretty famous and could fetch a cool $5 million at that time by some estimates (today the Mona Lisa is estimated to be worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars.) 

Whatever the reason, this relatively small painting (roughly, 2 1/2 x 2 feet – compare with the Last Supper, which is roughly 15 x 29 feet) became a celebrity of its own after it was discovered missing. Media mayhem ensued and a frantic international search began, though it lasted only a few months. After that, all became quiet until 1913, when the painting showed up and Peruggia was apprehended.

Want the full details of this fascinating crime that didn’t involve murder? I’ll be doing a series of newsletters next month where I’ll be exploring all the ins and outs to celebrate the release of Book 4 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries (which is also about the theft of precious items, though none as precious as the Mona Lisa) on January 28, 2023. If you’re not a subscriber of my newsletter, now is a great time to join and find out all about the Mona Lisa heist. And you’ll get a free book when you do!

And if you’re into thieves and golden cats, check out Book 4, which is now at a special preorder price, here

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Making Progress: Thanksgiving in the Progressive Era

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It’s that time of year when Thanksgiving is upon us (at least it is if you’re in the US). Last year, I reposted Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age. But this year, since I’ve been diving into the Progressive Era with my Adele Gossling Mysteries, I was curious to see whether the turn of the century in comparison to the last quarter of the 19th century really made that much of a difference in how Americans celebrated Thanksgiving.

It turns out it did. The Gilded Age was, remember, all about excesses, money, and showing off when it came to the holidays. Wealthy Americans especially thought of the holidays as a time to get into their best dress and parade themselves in hotel dining rooms or swank restaurants for a multi-course Thanksgiving meal that included non-traditional Thanksgiving fare such as oysters and lobster (if you don’t believe me, take a peek at the picture of the menu in last year’s Thanksgiving blog post.) 

Photo Credit: Cover of Puck magazine showing a mother making a pumpkin pie in the kitchen while her four children look onward, emphasizing the family nature of Thanksgiving, 1903, chromolithograph, created by L. M. Glackens: pingnews.com / Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

But the Progressive Era was when Americans were starting to get a grip on all those excesses and realize their country needed to make some changes. Reform was the order of the day, including workers’ rights, women’s rights, and environmental concerns. There was also more emphasis on intimate social circles (family, friends), probably because the modern era brought up concerns of people being fragmented physically and mentally from their roots (something I daresay we struggle with today in the 21st century.)

To that end, Thanksgiving became more of a family affair. Magazines and books came out with Thanksgiving recipes to help encourage Americans to stay home for the holiday. The recipes were much more what we consider traditional Thanksgiving foods, such as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The menu from 1902 on this site still has some oddities, such as oysters, but it looks much more like the kind of Thanksgiving meal we feast on these days than the menu in my previous blog post.

Progressives carried their reform into the holidays as well. One thing we see with turn-of-the-century Thanksgiving which was less prevalent in the Gilded Age was the idea of giving thanks and gratitude by helping others. Missionaries and other charitable organizations hosted large Thanksgiving feasts for the poor all over the country. In addition, holiday gift boxes became popular just as they are today (my local Sprouts Market prepares gift bags with food every year that customers can purchase and have the store give to a family in need).

Here’s wishing everyone a joyous, warm, and happy Thanksgiving this year!

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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🥳Release Day Blitz for Death At Will!🥳

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Title: Death At Will

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries: Book 3

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: October 29, 2022

Teddy Roosevelt is running for president and even Arrojo can’t deny progressive reforms are here to stay. Rebecca Gold, one of the era’s New Women, chooses just this time to set up her own law practice in Arrojo and lands the affluent Thea Marsh as her first client.

When Thea dies unexpectedly, the trail of suspects leads to her own family. The beloved and favored eldest son, Theo, is accused of the crime. Could such a placid man really be guilty of matricide?

The police think so. So Rebecca turns to her new friend in town: businesswoman and fellow suffragist Adele Gossling. Adele has already proven herself to be adept at helping the local police solve crimes, much to the shock and chagrin of the town’s conservative citizens. Despite promises never to involve herself in crime detection again, how can she refuse a friend in need?

Will Adele make a case against Theo’s guilt for the police out of a stained teacup, a fountain pen nib, ashes that should have been in the fireplace, and daisies that should have been fresh? Or will Theo go to the gallows and the real murderer escape justice?

“The characters are true to life, and the early methods used in criminal detection are fun to read.” – Amazon reviewer

What reviewers are saying:

“Entertaining page-turner!”

“Intrigue that will draw you in and make you want more.”

You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers.


Excerpt

Within fifteen minutes, her brother sauntered into the shop, the silver deputy sheriff’s badge shining in the sunlight. “All right, Del, why the hush-hush?” 

“Does the sheriff know you’re here?”

“I told him I was going to the Bush farm to check on that stolen horse,” he said, amused. “Those girls of yours insist you have a murderer locked in your storeroom.”

Adele laughed. “I’m afraid they let their imaginations run away with them. No, no murderer, Jack.”

“Not yet,” Nin said.

“Are we playing guessing games now, Miss Branch?” he asked in a stiff tone.

“I never guess, Mr. Gossling,” she answered. “I take evil and death in any way it comes.”

He crossed his arms, looking at his sister. “Well?”

She told him all Rebecca had said about her employer’s death as the woman sat silently with her hands in her lap. It was as if Jackson’s badge made her nervous again.

He looked at Rebecca. “It would be better, Miss Gold, if you would tell the sheriff of your suspicions, just as my sister suggested.”

“I promised Theo I wouldn’t,” she insisted. “I promised him there wouldn’t be any scandal.”

“But if Thea Marsh didn’t die of natural causes —”

“I didn’t say that wasn’t true!” she insisted. “I merely said I had a feeling about it.”

He sighed. “I understand your trepidation. But there’s a procedure to these things, you know.”

“Fiddlesticks!” Nin burst out. “Don’t you believe in helping a friend?” Rebecca gave her a grateful look.

“When there’s no crime involved, I’m the first to help anybody,” Jackson’s tone was crusty. “But if there is a crime—”

Adele took his arm. “We need your professional and astute eye, Jack. If there is nothing in it, no harm done. If there is something, Rebecca will convince the family to go through the proper channels.”

“They won’t have much of a choice,” he remarked.

“Then you have no reason to object a look around Mrs. Marsh’s room, do you?” She gave him a sharp look. 

“I have no objection as long as there is a method to it,” he insisted. “One simply can’t go bursting into a room with a magnifying glass hollering ‘murder afoot!’”

“Don’t tell me the Anspatches never entered a room permission.” She eyed him.

He looked away and she was sorry she had spoken. But then, he said, “I suppose it can’t do any harm to look around as long as the family consents, and we’re very careful. But only if we have their full consent, Del.”

“That you have, deputy,” Rebecca said in a relieved tone.

And I have your full promise if there is anything in the least suspicious, you go to the sheriff.”

“You have my promise.” She bowed.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started her first novel at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes engaging, fun-to-solve cozy mysteries set in the past. Her mysteries empower readers with a sense of “justice is done” for women, both dead and alive. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and feature sassy suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling. Tam has also written historical fiction about women defying the emotional and psychological confinements of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in Texas because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy vegetarian dishes in her kitchen.

Social Media Links

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

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Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

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

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

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

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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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