Friday, January 20, 2017

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Schooling the Others

As many of you know, my most recent series, Frontier Bachelors, involves a number of heroines who were Mercer Girls, ladies who came with Asa Mercer to help settle Seattle after the Civil War. My fictional heroines are among the real-life second batch of approximately 60 ladies Mercer brought in 1866. His earlier trip in 1864 netted him a 11 women, all of whom married and helped civilize the frontier. All, that is, but one. 

I first started researching the Mercer Belles when I was in high school. At the time, one of the reports I found stated something along the lines of the following: “I always wondered why Lizzie Ordway never married. Then I saw her picture.” I thought the comment unkind then. Now I know it’s untrue on every level.

Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Ordway, was born on July 4, 1828, in New Hampshire. Perhaps arriving into the world on such an auspicious day imbued her with a certain spirit of independence. Certainly no one would have expected a small woman with somewhat protruding gray eyes and dark hair to be quite so outspoken, but Lizzie was no shrinking violet.

The oldest of Mercer’s group at 34, she came West to be a schoolteacher. Though gentlemen came calling as she stayed with Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler and his wife, Lizzie wanted to work. As her comrades were wooed and wed, she taught at Coupeville on Whidbey Island, then returned to Seattle as the first teacher at the newly built Central School. When more than 100 children showed up the first time she rang the bell, she “sent the youngest home to ripen” and convinced the school board to hire another teacher. After serving in other schools around the area, she ran for Superintendent of Schools for Kitsap County, a remarkable feat for a woman in those days. One of the regional newspapers even ran an editorial claiming that putting a woman in such a position only served to diminish the role. Lizzie was elected nonetheless.

Her other accomplishments are no less impressive. She joined with Susan B. Anthony to found the Female Suffrage Society in Seattle and lobbied in the state capitol for women’s rights. She was part of the County Education Board, examining and certifying teachers. She helped prepare Washington State’s educational exhibit for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Lizzie passed away at 69. She is said to have called herself “The Mercer Girl who reserved her affections for her students.” Aptly, an elementary school on Bainbridge Island across from Seattle is named for her.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

So What Did You Think?: Victoria

I think it’s probably safe to assume that a number of NineteenTeen readers watched the new offering on PBS’s Masterpiece, Victoria, this past Sunday evening (or, as I did, streamed on-line at And c’mon, you knew I’d be watching it.

The seven-part series is a dramatization of the first three-ish years (1837-1840) of Queen Victoria’s reign. It opens with her reception of the news that her uncle, King William IV, had died and that she, at just over eighteen years of age, is queen.

I’ve more or less come to the conclusion that I should probably not watch television or movie dramatizations of historical events, because, inevitably, the “dramatization” part wins out over the “history.”  History simply doesn’t make very good television: it’s too slow, too messy, too often lacking in the cohesion that makes for good storytelling.

And that was decidedly the case with Victoria. While there was oodles of conflict in the events around Victoria’s coming to the throne—the years between 1835 and 1837 were drama-filled indeed—Victoria chooses to make stuff up (I’m sorry—dramatize) and moves it to the years after 1837. So we basically ended up with a first episode here in which there wasn’t a lot of history.

  • Unlike what is shown in Victoria, Sir John Conroy was more or less out of Victoria’s life the minute she became queen: she barely saw him again, and after a matter of months Lord Melbourne managed to negotiate him out of Victoria’s mother’s household and into retirement (it took a little longer to repair the relationship between Victoria and her mother, but it did mend.) And while Conroy spent considerable time and effort before her ascension to try to force a regency on her, there was no question of it once she became queen.

  • The Duke of Cumberland became King of Hanover the minute Victoria became queen, and was in Hanover by the end of the month, taking up his royal duties...not conniving against her back in London.

  •  Lord Melbourne had certainly been popular with the ladies in his earlier years...but by the time Victoria came to the throne, he was fifty-eight years old and looked it every bit of it. Though he undoubtedly adored his little queen and treated her gallantly, it was very much a paternal sort of affection...and hers for him was that of a girl who’d never had a father figure in her life (don’t forget, her father died while she was still an infant), not to mention a male friend.

  •  Sir Robert Peel wasn’t “common,” as he’s played here—he was the son of a wealthy mill owner and politician and attended Harrow and Oxford. Victoria didn’t much care for him at first, but eventually came to both admire and respect him.

However, they did at least a semi- creditable job with the Lady Flora Hastings scandal and with the Bedchamber Crisis, when Victoria’s stubbornness about losing her ladies because they were married to Whig ministers brought down Peel’s fledgling government. Within a decade, court appointments became more disassociated from party politics.

Overall verdict? I was...underwhelmed. The settings weren’t bad but the costumes were disappointing (The Young Victoria movie was much yummier in that regard). I found a lot of the acting stiff, and while Jenna Coleman as Victoria was very striking, there was simply far too much time spent with the camera lingering on her face while she emoted...stiffly.

But that’s just me...did you watch it? What did you think? Tell us!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Little House, on the Spanaway Prairie

Over the holidays, I had the privilege of visiting a local museum. I know, you’re shocked. I mean, I never spend my free time in lovely, lovely research. J

By local, I mean just down the road from me. The Prairie House Museum, operated by the Spanaway Historical Society, tells the story of the area just south of Tacoma, Washington, on the way to Mt. Rainier. Though tall firs surround the house now, when it was built the area was entirely prairie, hence the name.

The house, which looks similar to the one in the picture, was originally built in the 1890s and has been lovingly restored by the society. It was named a historical landmark in 1989. The displays focus on different eras of history, from the early farming days to World War I and World War II. Clustered around the Victorian farmhouse are a smithy, milk and wash house, a large covered shed holding early farming machinery, and a two-story barn.

I have only lived in the area for 2 years, so much of the history the well-informed docent shared with me on my guided tour was new to me. I knew about the large lake at the edge of the community—I live about 3 miles from its shores. But what I didn’t know was that the area was quite the resort at the turn of the century.

It had its own railway that brought visitors in from downtown Tacoma twice a day, led by Old Betsy, the steam engine. There was a streetcar as well, all coming down Park Avenue. (Regina Scott connection—I attended Park Avenue Elementary School in Tacoma.) The lake shore featured the largest open-air dance pavilion in the state, shooting galleries, a bathhouse, a boathouse, hotels, and numerous summer cottages of the rich and famous. 

The community that grew up around the resort included grocery stores, taverns, a cooper, a slaughter house, a creamery, a livery stable, and a sawmill and furniture factory. The area, which the developers hoped would be called Lake Park instead of the native name that had been Anglicized to Spanaway, even had its own newspaper, The Sentinel.

In 1922, a huge fire swept the area, taking with it many of the buildings in the business district. Spanaway never fully recovered. When I was a youngster, it was a wild place, known only for the large city park on its shores. The park still stands, but businesses once more clog it on the north and east, with a residential area to the south and Joint Base Lewis-McChord near the west. The homes that once belonged to the rich and famous for the summer now house more modest families year round.

But walking through the museum, you can hear the whispers of splashes from swimmers, the faint strains from the band at the pavilion. And you can catch a glimpse into a lovely past others might never know existed.

You can learn more about the Prairie House Museum at its website

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

First of all, Happy 2017 to you, our dear readers! Regina and I hope you’ll continue to read along as we squee over 200-year-old fashions, tell weird history stories, talk about our books, and generally have fun.

And speaking of reading along...believe it or not (yeah, I’m kinda struggling with believing it myself) the fact that it’s 2017 means we’ll have been writing NineteenTeen posts for ten years come September. I expect we’ll be posting our one thousandth post some time toward the end of the year, which is kind of mind-boggling...but you know, we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t want to. We hope you’re still enjoying reading as much as we enjoy posting.

Since this is a New Year’s celebration post, there are a couple of things I wanted to do...and one of them is to talk about the books we especially loved over the last twelve months. Are there any books with a historical slant, fiction or non-fiction, that you especially enjoyed last year?

My candidate for Most Awesome Historical Book That I Read in 2016 is this one:

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua is...well, I suppose that it gets categorized as a graphic novel, but it’s so, so much more than that. According to the introduction, Ms. Padua started it as a bit of a lark, but things soon got out of hand (oh, I so know that feeling...) It’s the imagined adventures of two real people, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage and amateur mathematician and celebrity offspring Ada, Countess of Lovelace (the celebrity part being that she was Lord Byron’s daughter.)  The historical part is that Babbage designed what was more or less a steam-powered calculating machine (two of them, actually)...and his friend Lovelace, writing a commentary on the designs, more or less posited what would become today’s field of computer science. In real life, Babbage’s engines were never built and Lovelace died tragically young of cancer...but in Padua’s “pocket universe” they’ve teamed up to use the engines to “to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science.”

There’s so much to love here—the illustrations are glorious and historically correct (omg, the clothes are right, and so is the Duke of Wellington’s nose!) The story-telling is witty and erudite but never stuffy (I totally want this illustration of Isambard Kingdom Brunel on a t-shirt for my engineer husband and son), but it’s also real and human—Lovelace and Babbage aren’t cardboard figures, but brilliant and funny and in many ways, tragic. If you have the least interest in technological history or science fiction or the Victorian era or or this book!

And in the “Other Things that Require Celebration” department, may I present this: a new cover for By Jove, being re-released next month from Book View CafĂ©. Gotta say, I'm in love with it.  Look for more news about By Jove in February. 

Now, dear readers, what's your news? Please tell us about your favorite 2016 book, or what you're bookishly looking forward to
this year...and keep reading!

(Fireworks image courtesy of noppasinw at

Friday, January 6, 2017

Escaping Unflappable Winter

It’s finally cold here. Temperatures have dipped below freezing, and we had our first snow. My youngest son, who is studying at the University of Idaho, chuckles as we shiver. The temperature there is below zero, with snow drifts up to his waist. It’s enough to make you dream of balmy breezes and sunny skies.

It was no different in nineteenth century England. During the early part of the century, Europe was in the Little Ice Age, and things could be chilly and damp. Those that could headed someplace that at least seemed a bit warmer: Bath.

Don’t get me wrong. Bath had its share of chilly days and snow, but the coziness of the town—with its river walks, assembly rooms, and spa, made it seem like just the place to be. You met old friends, became acquainted with new ones, drank the waters, and took in the entertainments.

I cannot send you to Bath, alas, but I can provide a cozy read for this winter weather. The Unflappable Miss Fairchild, which concludes in Bath, is free until January 15, 2017.

The ever practical Anne Fairchild knows the proper way to seek a husband. So why is it one moment in the presence of the dashing Chas Prestwick, and she’s ready to throw propriety to the wind? Chas excels at shocking Society with his wild wagers and reckless carriage racing. But his bravado masks a bruised and lonely heart. Can the sweet-natured Anne convince him to take the greatest risk of all—on love?

Find it at fine online retailers:

Barnes and Noble

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas, and Presents Too!

Here we are, at Christmas again. Thank you so much for being with Marissa and me. We’re going to slip out next week and most of the first week of January to spend time with family. But, before we go, we have some presents to give out.

First up, the Jane Austen Festival Regency Promenade of 2016. Is attending one of these on your bucket list too?

Maybe you’d prefer to dream about owning a Regency townhouse. Check out the advertisement for this one on the market in Kent!

If your tastes run more toward Americana, browse through these wonderful photos of Christmas trees, from around the turn of the century.

And, however, you spent your holidays, remember to find the joy, the wonder, the excitement of the season.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fish, Precioussssss...

Ah, holiday customs. At my house, we’ve developed a new one over the last year or two: after exchanging presents and eating Christmas dinner and pulling crackers (we lurrrrve Christmas crackers!) and nibbling at dessert, we usually play a rollicking game of Cards Against Humanity (my 81-year-old mom is a huge fan!)  Although I would dearly love to write a Regency version of CAH some day (imagine the scurrilous things one could come up with to say about Prinny’s personal life!), Regency family games were themselves somewhat less, er, naughty...and also a lot prettier.

Those of you who obsess over details in books (umm, like me) might remember certain references in Pride and Prejudice to family games: “...Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won....”  and in Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy: “...Gertrude...and Amabel...cast themselves upon their brother, with loud professions of delight at seeing him, and rather louder reminders to him of a promise he had made them to play at lottery-tickets the very next time he should spend an evening at home....The card-table had been set up, and Amabel was already counting out the mother-of-pearl fishes on its green-baize cloth.”

(Pause to re-read the hilarious ending of The Grand Sophy.  Ahem.)

No, Lydia was not crowing over winning anchovies. Nor was Amabel handing out minnows, but these handsome little guys. The game was called “lottery tickets,” and was a game of pure chance; utilizing two decks of cards, it was played in rounds, and fish-shaped markers were used for placing bets (sort of), with the winner of each round getting the fish.

Aren’t they lovely? These are of mother-of-pearl (which is darned difficult to photograph well, I’ll have you know!), likely made in China, but they were also made of bone and ivory. Nor were they restricted to just fish shapes (I haven’t been able to discover ‘why fish?’)  Here are several circular ones from my collection—again, Chinese mother-of-pearl, some very elegantly engraved. The wealthy would have theirs custom-carved with their coats of arms or other heraldic devices.

And more, not round. Squares, rectangles, and other shapes are also seen:

I wonder if there's any way to incorporate my fishy collection into our upcoming Cards Against Humanity game on Christmas? Hmm...

While I ponder that question, I hope all NineteenTeen readers will enjoy a splendid upcoming holiday week full of your own happy family traditions, whether they involve fish or not.