Friday, October 17, 2014

Go West, Young . . . Woman? Part II

We left young Asa Mercer prepared to travel back East to bring home more brides for frontier Seattle.  But he had a few wrinkles to iron out first.  Traveling took money, and the young professor had little.  But dozens of bachelors in Seattle were willing to invest in his scheme so long as he brought them each back a bride of good repute.  Some stories have it that Mercer accepted as much as $300 per bride, a goodly price in those days.  Whatever the amount, he left Seattle with money in his pocket and the cheers of his comrades ringing in his ears.  But his good fortune quickly evaporated.

As a child, Mercer had supposedly met Abraham Lincoln, and he was counting on his connection with the president to win him a decommissioned troop carrier left over from the Civil War as an inexpensive way to transport his bevvy of belles.  He arrived in the capital to find it wreathed in black:  Lincoln had been assassinated.  The story goes that after being shunted from one government official to another, he ended up meeting with Ulysses S. Grant, who agreed that Mercer might have a ship, if he could purchase it.

The price requested was pennies on the dollar for the worth of the ship, but still far beyond Mercer’s means.  Enter transportation magnate Ben Holladay, whose stage coaches had helped fuel the California Gold Rush.  He offered to start a shipping company, buy the ship for Mercer and carry the party of 700 women back to Seattle for a pittance.  Overjoyed, Mercer signed the offered contract and went back to recruiting among the towns between Boston and New York, which had lost not only men but manufacturing jobs because of the war.

He must have sung a good song, for ladies lined up to join his expedition.  That is, until several prominent newspapers began questioning not only Mercer’s motives, but the motives of the women interested in going with him.  Mercer, they insisted, was only gathering bits of muslin that would end up in dens of ill repute or married to brutish husbands who would all but enslave them if they weren’t scalped first.  They called the women Sewing Machines, Petticoat Brigade, and a Cargo of Heifers. One editor firmly stated that any woman willing to go all the way across the country to find a husband didn’t deserve one.  The flood of recruits dwindled to a trickle.

Days turned into weeks and then months, and still the S.S. Continental wasn’t ready to sail. Then Holladay asked Mercer for more money.  It seemed the contract he’d signed stated that if the full complement of ladies was not ready to sail on time, the price for passage went up.  Desperate, Mercer turned to families and then bachelors to try to fill out his order of passengers.  While some women, it appears, had been promised free passage (paid for by Seattle’s bachelors), he demanded that others pay full fare and more. The money he’d been given in Seattle was spent to pay for hotel fees as everyone waited for the ship to set sail.

Only when she did sail did Mercer, and the ladies, begin to realize what lay ahead.

Next week, a gentleman finds the need for a long sea voyage.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fashion Forecast: October 1917

This will, alas, be the last 1917 fashion report, as the research for my story didn’t really need to go much past early autumn of that year. I’ll miss watching the clothes evolve, though—fashion changed much more quickly in 1917 than it did in 1817.

So what was the well-dressed young woman wearing in October 1917, according to The Delineator?

“PARIS STRAIGHTENS OUT THE LINES IN ITS NEW FASHION OFFENSIVE" is the headline for a page of designs from French houses (including one from Chanel, at far right.) Though the barrel skirt still appears, more hints of the coming twenties are apparent, though busts are still visible.

Coats and suits in darker, quieter hues are the big thing in this issue, as is appropriate for fall wear. Details remain subdued as well, with groups of pleats on skirts seeming to be en vogue.

Dresses too are simply adorned. Large collars in both self and contrasting colors and lapels are the big thing, as are tiered skirts. Fabrics mentioned include charmeuse, satin, silk crepe, serge, chiffon, and gabardine--while the styles are simpler, most of the fabrics are still very feminine and luxurious.

Is it just me, or do those very high collars on coats look uncomfortable?

Skirts and shirt-waists remain popular...

And look! Nursing couture!

Clothes for teen girls...not very different from the "older fashions, are they?

More teen fashions...note the girl at far left, with her knitting!

Clothes for younger girls:

More clothes for girls...and check out the mother-daughter pajamas at lower right!

Clothes for small boys, with a few of them decidedly resembling "Campbell Soup Kids!":

What do you think of October 1917's fashions?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Go West, Young . . . Woman? Part I

I’m about to take a major departure, crossing continents and time periods.  Instead of my beloved Regency England, the setting for my November book, The Bride Ship, will ultimately be frontier Seattle, just after the Civil War.  I guess you could say I heeded the call to “Go West, young woman.”

Newspaper editor Horace Greeley has been credited with at least popularizing the phrase, “Go West, young man,” a mantra that led a generation of gentlemen to cross the mountains to the other side of the country. But it was an enterprising young man from Seattle who first conceived of the idea of bringing young women west in large numbers to marry bachelors and help settle the frontier.

Asa Shinn Mercer was a young college graduate Illinois.  He had traveled west to join his brother, Thomas, in the fledgling Seattle.  He helped build the territorial university (now the University of Washington), then stayed on at its first president and only instructor.  It would have been a fine, respectable position for a young man, but for two things:  he had only one student old enough to actually graduate any time soon, and too few prospects for more.

You see, following the Civil War, men outnumbered women in Washington Territory by nearly nine to one.  There are stories about men paying young fathers for the rights to marry a baby daughter, once she reached marriageable age.  And the concept of marriageable age was questionable in some people’s minds.  One story goes that a young couple appeared before the Reverend Daniel Bagley, one of Seattle’s first ministers, begging to be wed.  Suspecting the young lady to be too young, he demanded to know her age. 

“I’m over 18,” she proudly proclaimed. 

Unwilling to call her a liar, he married them.  A short while later, her parents came pounding at his door, looking for their runaway daughter.  It seems the couple had stopped first at the home of the irrepressible Doc Maynard, one of Seattle’s most colorful founding fathers.  Maynard had advised the girl to write the number 18 on two pieces of paper, then stick them inside her shoes.  The thirteen-year-old was indeed standing “over 18” when she was married.

With women at such a premium, Mercer could see his vision of a prosperous future dimming.  So, he conceived of another vision.  The Civil War had left widows and orphans back East, young ladies with good educations, superior morals, and plenty of backbone.  All they needed was the knowledge of the need to come West.  He could provide that knowledge.  He could serve as Seattle’s Emigration Agent and bring home the brides.

Now, I will tell you, there are two schools of thought on Asa Mercer.  There is no doubt the citizens of Seattle applauded his initiative.  And after his first foray netted him about a dozen women, he was voted into the Washington State senate.  But other contemporary sources are less kind, particularly when Mercer decided to take his adventure to a grand scale.  He vowed to return to the East Coast and request a troop carrier from none other than President Lincoln, planning to bringing as many as 700 women to Seattle’s shores.  And what happened then, is beyond legend.

Next week:  Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Retreating to the 19th Century

I had the pleasure of attending a Historical Fiction Writers retreat this past weekend given by Moments in Time, a vintage dance group, at the amazing Senexet House in Woodstock, CT. While the high Victorian era is not a period I’ve written within at this time, I certainly had a wonderful, productive weekend. And ate a lot of delicious Victorian food!

Senexet House was built around 1886. It was interesting archi-tecturally in that while it was rather oblong and plain-looking from the outside (aside from the charming carving at the front door you can see in the photo above), inside it’s exactly what one thinks of as a Victorian dwelling: fun architectural details, fireplaces, oddly shaped rooms, and a sense of spaciousness and repose.

Not that the house saw a lot of repose, once everyone descended on it!

Dinner Friday night was lively as we got to know each other, which continued at breakfast the following morning. I fled to my room after breakfast to, you know, write...but others gathered in the living room to try on Victorian clothes and under-garments brought by the retreat’s organizers. Check out the bustle along with the corsets in the second photo at right!

After lunch, I felt virtuous enough after writing all morning to go on an expedition to an antiques mall with two other retreat-goers, and found an awesome designer purse...but otherwise showed admirable restraint. Four o’clock had us in tea gowns and some splendid hats for a delightful tea featuring gargantuan amounts of cakes, cookies, tiny scones with clotted cream, and other goodies, all from 19th century recipes (my favorites: the seed cake and the rout biscuits) Dancing followed (a good thing, after all that food!) and we learned the steps of a quadrille danced in the old resort town of Nahant, MA in the 1830s.

Dinner that evening was an elegant affair (our table at left, pre-dinner), served by candlelight and also featuring 19th century recipes...and then a talk on Victorian spiritualism, followed by some curious unexplained incidents (not joking!) while a few retreaters played with a Ouija board.

On Sunday I again holed up in my room to write all morning, and after lunch took a walk around Senexet House’s grounds in beautiful sunny October weather. The party broke up in mid-afternoon as we all said good-bye to each other... and to the manager Kit’s adorable Pomeranian, appropriately named Bear, who had kept us company all weekend.

I’ve been to a few writing retreats over the years, but this one probably tops the list for fun. If there’s another one in the spring as organizer Nicole Carlson has threatened, I will totally be there!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Costuming the Author, and the Reader

Fall is in the air, and Halloween is coming!  Already I'm seeing advertisements for masquerades and costume contests.  Marissa has posted in the past about the types of costumes our nineteenth century lads and lasses might have worn.  They enjoyed playing dress up.  Today’s author of nineteenth century romance is not immune, and, I'm betting, neither is her readers.  So, to get you thinking about how you might design your own outfit, here are some examples from my sister romance authors.

You can, of course, pay a seamstress to design you a costume.  I am so envious of these amazing gowns worn by the talented Collette Cameron and the wonderful Ella Quinn.  Looking good, ladies!

Or, you might be handy with a sewing machine yourself.  Several patterns are available these days.  Immediately below is acclaimed Regency author April Kihlstrom in a fetching red gown. And farther down is Golden Heart Award winner Kristi Ann Hunter in one she and her mother made together.

Then again, you might find a costume awaiting you in your favorite thrift store.  Doesn’t the delightful Georgie Lee look festive in her frugal find? 

Finally, some fashions from earlier years can be readily adapted to “faux Regency.”  When I wear this one with the flocked orange roses next to Marissa in her seamstress’s creation, I always say I must be the poor relation.  J

But then again, I have another costume I much prefer.  That's Sir Reginald with the regal Marjorie Allen.  

What do you think?  Any of these approaches appeal to you?

Many thanks to my models, most of whom are members of my beloved Beau Monde Chapter of Romance Writers of America.TM

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Girls and World War I, Part 3: Getting Down and Dirty (in the Garden)

With the clarion call to American women to save food at home so that the starving of Europe and the troops fighting the Kaiser could be fed, 1917 could be called the year of the canning jar...sort of.

It started in the spring. American women were exhorted to plant gardens and preserve their crops, and by July, the women’s magazines blossomed with advice: July’s McCall’s article “Uncle Sam’s Kitchen Brigade” gave a detailed list of how each type of garden bounty could be canned, both fruit (apricots, plums, berries, and cherries) and vegetables (bean, peppers, asparagus, cabbage spinach, cauliflower, carrots, and beets).

The Independent featured an article on dehydrating foods in June as did The Ladies’ World Magazine in August which suggested dehydrating foods--including leafy greens like spinach-- to preserve them (as the lady above is doing, with wire mesh trays and a house fan!) for a very practical reason: because of the success of the canning campaign, there was a national shortage of canning jars! The Ladies’ Home Journal included an article about “the new containers”, primarily different types of coated paper--the forerunner of our paper milk and juice cartons today.

In addition to all the encouragement
to can, preserve, and dry, American women were also encouraged to change the way their families ate. Based on the number of articles and recipes published about salads this summer (in Women’s World and The Modern Priscilla in particular), I have to wonder if anyone actually ate them before 1917.  The salad was a somewhat different creature from today’s greens and chopped veggies: it tended more to be a collection of foods mixed together and served cold, thereby saving cooking fuel and using up not only the garden’s bounty but also anything else that happened to be lurking in the icebox.  How can you resist a tasty Baked Bean salad, presented by such a fetching young lady?

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Longitude and Latitude of St. Petersburgh

Political cartoons have been around a long time.  One of the most famous caricaturists of nineteenth century England was George Cruikshank.  Below is one of my favorites of his, dubbed the Longitude and Latitude of St. Petersburgh.

Why, you might ask?

The scene is Almack’s, that exclusive ladies' club of London.  The gentlemen all sport the requisite knee breeches and white stockings.  The ladies are in their finery, ostrich plumes waving.  And every eye is turned to the couple dancing to the music of the orchestra in the box at the upper left.  That couple, it is said, is Prince Pyotr Borisovich Kozlovsky of Russia and the Countess Lieven (later Princess). As you can see, they make quite a pair. 

It wasn't only their looks that contrasted.  The prince was from one of Europe’s oldest royal families, but wasn't particular bright or ambitious.  He was a bit of a womanizer and somewhat associated with literary circles, mostly through connections, not achievements.  He entered the diplomatic corps, served for a time in Sardinia, and was a part of the Congress of Vienna.  As wide as he was tall, he visited England with the Russian delegation in 1812 and seems to have paid court to many a lady, married or not.  The novelist Maria Edgeworth is credited as saying of him, “If he throws himself at my feet, he will never be able to get up again.” 

Dorothea von Lieven, on the other hand, also came from a Russian royal family and was wife to the Russian ambassador in London in 1812.  She was everything the prince was not--tall, slender, intelligent, and ambitious.  Her social skills made her invitations among the most sought after in the land, giving her husband’s career a major boost.  She was the first foreigner to be made a patroness of Almack’s and is said to have introduced the waltz to England.  Somehow, I doubt she saw herself dancing it with Kozlovsky and certainly not to be ridiculed in cartoon afterward.

The prince, however, thought the whole thing hilarious.  He would.