Saturday, April 22, 2006

Victoria and Albert's dream house

I was given a heads up about this interesting article at The Royalist. Apparently, even Queens want a home they can call their own.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Flamenco Guitars and Gypsy Troupes Part I

Victorians found the sonorous notes of guitars and their accompanying wailing love songs to be especially endearing during moonlit forays or on starry nights.

Music was evolving both on and off the Continent (Europe), like everything else during the Victorian Era. International sentiments were mixing into America’s melting pot, including in the realms of musical entertainment. The telegraph and shipping line innovations were making the world smaller. Europe’s popular music was quickly available in burgeoning America.

Back in Europe, the Iberians were evolving the guitar and spanning the gap between Gypsy fairground antics and Royal courtroom entertainment. Flamenco, in particular, was coming out of its Primordial-egg state and even reached one of its golden eras during the late Victorian era. With the increasing demand for the guitar in global markets, its popularity increased quickly with its availability. During Victoria’s reign, Flamenco was incorporating multi-cultural elements and was even becoming a preferred dance form.

In Europe, Valencian-aristocracy (descended from the Kingdom of Navarre) were especially taking an interest in the commonplace entertainments of Gypsies and their musical collusion with the Arabic and Jewish communities amongst Mediterranean port cities. To be frank, the said aristocracy began showing up in formal black ball gowns and attire to partake in the wild festivities the Gypsies made available to the public. Although the Valencian ladies dressed formally in silks, their full-skirts were unsuported with wires or cage-like structures for such wild nights on the arms of their "dons." The flamenco was the in-thing, and its popularity was already hitting the current and former Spanish colonies and territories, all the way up to the royal courts of Mexico, as well as in Europe. The guitar, of course, was heavily in use at such locales and was being competitively mastered, as the Iberians had a history of driving musical-technique innovations -- the wilder, the better.

The guitar’s acknowledged Gypsy roots also helped increase its popularity among the masses across the Atlantic as Gypsy bands migrated. The Gypsy bands were appearing regularly at fairgrounds -- part of the reason that guitar music became synonymous with the musical forms that moved Westward to entertain settlers and business moguls, alike. After all, what would a campfire have been without the five-string?

Guitar music had reached the echelons of royal-court entertainment during the Renaissance and in the Victorian era guitarists were mastering it with renewed vigor as the Wild, Wild West re-popularized it. With the addition of new strings, not to mention its new shape -- that of a woman’s torso, the guitar became embedded in every level of society. A nicely translated term paper from Spain posted on the Internet details a few of the key innovators along with timelines of the evolution of the guitar and its roots in Spain.

The popular instrument was invented in Spain. It was a legacy from the Arabs after the Islamic-Moorish invasion in Europe. When Crusade-era Spanish Kingdoms re-conquered the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages, their Aristocracy immediately incorporated the Arabic forms of arts and entertainment, including lute music. Authors of Victorian literature can get a feeling of the Victorian guitar music from modern performers such as Loreena McKennitt.

Renaissance-era creativity then incorporated the instruments, including the Arabic stringed instruments, into everyday entertainment. About as amusing as playing chess or engaging other parlor entertainment to the later Victorians who became well accomplished at both.

The Victorian era saw many new businesses arise, and musical instruments are not to be overlooked since they comprised the largest part of available entertainment as the West was won. In Spain, prominent name-brands were already synonymous with the increasingly esteemed guitar and commanded hefty price tags. As Americans increased their wealth, they also increased their imports of pricey European luxury items and the rising name-brands. Let’s face it: the incorporation of guitars into Society’s classical soirees also had a hand in the guitar moving Westward. Variations on classic sonatas and the like from the Victorian era are still popular and available today.

Moveable guitar chord-patterns, however, weren’t in play quite yet, and wouldn’t be until around the beginning of the Edwardian era, but a clever author can always allude to whatever musical innovations their heroic characters can improvise. Strumming and picking were well in play. Add into the equation the percussion instruments of those guitar-aficionados, the traveling bands of Gypsies, and you can understand why on-looking crowds went wild and tossed coins in their requests for more of the mostly Iberian-derived, innovative music.

Cowboy crooners singing to coyote moons around campfires come close to comparing to the traditional songs of unrequited love and broken hearts that the Gypsies brought with them from the Iberian Peninsula when they made a showing in America.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Mary Walker, M.D.

I researched Dr. Mary Walker years ago and used her along with a few other Victorian women whose stories I admired as a composite for my fictional young heroine in my young adult novel, UNDER THE GUNS.
Mary Walker grew up in rural Oswego, New York and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Her parents raised her to regard corsets as an unhealthy form of dress. Later in life she adopted a style of reform dress, a short, fitted knee-length dress with bloomers worn beneath the skirt. She believed crinolines, petticoats and yards of long skirts to be dangerous and unsanitary.
She married young, but refused to assume her husband's last name. He was also a doctor who she'd met while in medical school. They started a joint medical practice that lasted thirteen years as did the marriage.
When the Civil War began, she volunteered as an army surgeon, but because she was female, she was only allowed to serve as a nurse. However, the nursing duties she performed were actually those of an assistant surgeon. Although she was the first female surgeon in the United States Army, she served as an unpaid volunteer.
She made her own army uniform, which consisted of a knee-length fitted dress, designed to look like a Federal Army frockcoat. Under this she wore trousers. This outfit caused her much ridicule.
While serving in enemy territory, she often crossed over the lines to lend assistance to civilians. She also reported anything she learned of military value to her superiors, causing her to be labeled a spy.
She was captured while in Rebel territory and taken as a prisoner-of-war. She spent four months in Richmond, Virginia's Castle Thunder. She was released in a prisoner exchange and took great pride in the fact that she, being a woman and only five foot tall was exchanged for a six foot tall Confederate major.
After the war, she received the Congressional Medal of Honor. No other woman before her had received that honor. It was rescinded in 1917 because Congress revised their standards to only award the medal to those in "actual combat with the enemy".
Mary refused to give it back and wore it proudly until she died two years later.
Now that's a heroine!
For a more in-depth account of the life of Mary Edwards Walker, M.D. read:
Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War by Elizabeth D. Leonard
W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 0-393-31372-7

Monday, April 17, 2006

How Victorians crossed a river before a bridge was built: Part I

This morning I sat before the computer painting a word picture of my heroine riding a cantankerous mare named Maud across the dusty plains of Alberta to the Bow River at Calgary. She needed to get to the other side, but I knew there wasn’t a bridge across the river in 1883. How would she have gotten across?

I stopped writing and started researching.

Various sources informed me that the most common conveyance in the early 19th century was a raft, which was either poled or paddled across the water. Aboriginals used bull boats, miniature canoes with a rounded wood frame and animal skin stretched across the bottom. By mid-century iron and steel had been invented, and out west, enterprising individuals were constructing cable operated ferries. One of these ferries began crossing the Bow River at Calgary in 1882.

19th century cable ferries were basically large rafts that crossed the river by means of an overhead wire cable or an underwater chain cable. A wooden platform formed the base of the ferry, and huge wooden aprons hinged to the platform at either end were lowered to the riverbank for loading and unloading cargo, and raised when the ferry was ready to set off across the water.

Different methods were used to propel the ferries across the water. Some were pulled across the river with a cable, others propelled themselves using a chain laid along the river bottom, and still others used the current of the river to propel them across. Sometimes horses or mules were used on treadmills to wind the cable and pull the ferry through the water. Ferries called horseboats had a treadmill on board, connected by a gear to paddle wheels. Out west, horses and mules were in scarce supply and cable ferries were generally hand-propelled.

At the end of the day, I knew cable ferries were an important method of transportation during the Victorian Era, especially for small and isolated communities. But before I can put my heroine on a ferry and send her across the Bow River I need to understand how a cable ferry actually works. I’ll carry on, and keep you posted.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


WELCOME to a new series on the Tycoons,
the fascinating men who created today's corporate world. Their heyday matched Victoria's reign almost exactly - although some say their age ended when the Titanic sank in 1912.
The Tycoons created the industrial system that gave the United States the most powerful and dynamic economy in the world. Masters of organization, they were visionaries and risk takers who thought and acted on a grand scale.
The fortunes of today's billionaires pale in comparison to the wealth of these men. As a percentage of the US economy, no other American fortune - not even Bill Gates' or the late Sam Walton's - would even come close to John D. Rockefeller's.

In the coming weeks I'll post articles on seven of these larger-than-life Victorian Americans. From different backgrounds, their lives were varied, exciting and colorful. I hope to offer some insight into each man.

Part 2: John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) The first millionaire in the US, he made his fortune in fur trading (establishing Astoria while he was at it) and real estate. We'll cover not only the founder of the dynasty, but John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912) the richest millionaire to go down on the Titanic.

Part 3: Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) This steel magnate founded what became US Steel and then founded libraries all over this country. He loved his native Scotland and built a Victorian mansion there in the ruins of an old castle - thereby giving the world (and Madonna and Guy Ritchie) the famed Skibo Castle - the most romantic wedding site imaginable.

Part 4: Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) This American industrialist was
considered ruthlessly anti-union. His partnership with Carnegie, in what became US Steel, is chronicled in the book, MEET YOU IN HELL. During the strike at the Homestead Steel Mill, Carneigie played golf in Scotland while Frisk toiled in the mine office. An anarchist broke in and shot Frisk twice in the neck and stabbed him several times with a poisoned dirk. He received medical attention in his office and finished the work day.

Part 5: Jay Gould (1836-1892) He was a soft-spoken man, called the DARK GENIUS OF WALL STREET. He made a fortune in northeastern railroads and was able to buy out Vanderbilt's shares in the Erie Canal. He controlled Western Union, New York's elevated rails and dabbled in gold futures. His reputation suffered when he posted bond for Boss Tweed.

Part 6: John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1919) Unlike the others, J. P. Morgan was born into wealth. He attended fine schools in Boston and, at 20, he graduated from a German University. The most famous tycoon in his day, his name is still linked with American finance and banking. Well respected, he worked to keep the financial world afloat. He once kept the US economy from sinking in a Great Panic by convincing millionaire friends and foes to agree to underwrite the government for a time. He financed the work of Thomas Edison and made the use of electricity a practical reality.

Part 7: John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) When he died at 98, he was worth $1.4 billion in 1937 dollars.
For many years (the good old days) he virtually controlled the US oil supply. His Standard Oil Company was renamed ESSO in the 20th century and updated to Exxon. Today it's Exxon-Mobil.
By 1905, his worth was $240 million, and in that same year he gave away $13.6 million. Five years later, he gave Standard Oil stock worth $50 million to start the Rockefeller Foundation. As he grew older, he worked as hard giving away money as he'd worked acquiring it.

Part 8: Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) He created the first fortune topping $100 million, but he was a ruthless, unpleasant, ill-educated man who never learned to read and could only spell words phonetically. Born on Staten Island, he borrowed a $100 when he was 16 to buy a small boat, and then hired himself out as a ferry sevice to New York City. He acquired the name Commodore when he got into the steamship business. He started buying railroad stock and soon revolutionized the railroad industry. He was coarse, profane, tobacco stained and snubbed by polite society. Amazingly, the name Vanderbilt has a very genteel ring today.

Watch for upcoming episodes featuring your favorite Tycoons in the VICTORIAN FASTLANE!


An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance.
By Alan Chernow

How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Super Economy.
By Charles R. Morris

The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons.
By Edward J. Renehan, Jr.

Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America.
By Les Standiford

The Robber Barons' Bum Rap
By Maury Klein, Winter 1995

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Dress for Every Occasion

Just as we wear different outfits to the office, a night on the town, exercise, shopping or working or lounging around the house, the Victorian woman of the 1860s had a dress for every occasion.
The main feature of all these dresses (excluding formal wear) was that they all fastened in the front, whether one-piece or two. Otherwise, how would they have gotten dressed in the morning without help? Unlike Scarlett O'Hara, most women didn't have maids to dress them. The fasteners used during the period were buttons or tiny hooks and eyes.
One piece dresses, called wrappers, were often worn while working in the house, garden or field. Aprons were worn over all dresses when doing anything that might soil the gown. Aprons were made from leftover material or old dresses, blankets or other items. The Victorians recycled everything.
While the one-piece dress was worn for work, other dresses were constructed of two pieces, consisting of a fitted bodice and skirt. The skirt was then basted onto the bodice, eliminating gaps and making the garment appear to be one-piece, as most dresses of the period matched top and bottom.
Evening dresses were also two-piece, but the bodices fastened up the back. These bodices were low cut, exposing the shoulders, upper chest (but no cleavage), and arms. Fine fabrics were used and unlike the skirts worn every day, these skirts were often trimmed with lace or ribbon.
The links below give more information and pictures of different types of dresses worn during the Victorian period, 1860s and beyond.
For more information on women's dresses of the 1860s, read:
Who Wore What? Women's Wear 1861-1865 by Juanita Leisch copyright 1995 Thomas Publications ISBN 0-939631-81-4

Friday, April 07, 2006

Chocolate is life

Oh, wait…what do you mean it isn’t part of the Food Pyramid? Are you sure? That has to be an oversight! Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Oh the horror! Who do I talk to about changing that?

Ahem…right then. So before the 1840s, chocolate was mostly drank, had a bitter taste, and wasn’t in solid eating form. Luckily, Joseph Fry, it’s believed, made the first edible chocolate in 1847, and the Cadbury Brothers followed in 1849.

Swiss candle maker, Daniel Peter, joined his father-in-law's chocolate business and in 1867 began experimenting with milk. Yes, you guessed it, milk chocolate, which he began marketing in 1875. Peter’s partner in all this…? Baby food manufacturer Henri NestlĂ©.

That whole process that heats, rolls, and grinds chocolate into a smooth, creamy liquid that’s evenly blended (conching) was invented by Swiss confectioner Rodolphe Lindt in 1879.

Of course, it was once thought of as an aphrodasiac, and that hasn’t exactly been disproven. The Aztec’s loved it. When it was brought over to Europe, it quickly became the ideal gift for a loved one.

Dark Chocolate is even considered healthy for you by people who study that and don’t just indulge.

“Many of the worlds oldest supercentenarians, e.g. Jeanne Calment (1875-1997)
and Sarah Knauss (1880-1999), were passionately fond of chocolate. Jeanne
Calment habitually ate two pounds of chocolate per week until her physician
induced her to give up sweets at the age of 119 - three years before her death
aged 122. Life-extensionists are best advised to eat dark chocolate rather than
the kinds of calorie-rich confectionery popular in America.”

So as I said…I like it and it makes me feel good and no one can make me feel guilty over that.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Mourning Rituals and Customs

Mourning Rituals and Customs in the Victorian Era*

Death is a subject most of us don’t like to think about or even talk about, but Victorians openly accepted it. This is evidenced by the extensive mourning rituals and the social acceptance of being in mourning.

My hometown boasts one of the country’s first Victorian municipal cemeteries ( Notables from the Victorian era buried there include Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony. While it might seem strange to you and I today to ever conceive of having a picnic lunch at the site of a loved one’s grave, in the Victorian era, it was quite common. In truth, the Victorians kept their loved ones close by keeping their death and the world beyond a part of their daily lives. Mourning practices were, quite simply, a part of daily living.

All communities had mourning rules that dictated how long a family would be in mourning according to their relation to the deceased. A woman might mourn her parents for months or even years, but a cousin or distant in law might dictate a much shorter mourning period. A husband’s death, on the other hand, would dictate full mourning for six to twenty four months, with the tradition being one year and one day. This period of deep mourning might be followed by a period of lighter mourning that allowed the woman to slowly return to society. (Many women chose to remain in full mourning the rest of their lives, returning to society, but retaining their “widows weeds”.)

The recommended guide for length of the mourning period (according to author Lou Taylor)
Widow for Husband 2 1/2 years
Widower for wife 3 months (ya gotta love the irony there)
Mother for Child one year
Child for parent one year

In an affluent home, windows and mirrors were covered with crepe and black wreaths of silk and wax flowers were hung on the front door and mantles. The hanging of crepe (an expression we’ve all heard used before) was an announcement to the community of a death in the family and neighbors were quick to respond with offers of food, help and consolation.

If the deceased were an immediate family member from the household, they would be laid out in the parlor, or on occasion, in the bedroom. Vigil was kept on the body for 24 hours a day by family members and servants alike and vigil candles would be kept lit around the room. Flowers were brought in, not just as a gift of remembrance but as an aid in masking the odor of decay. The vigil continued for a period of one to four days, followed by the funeral or burial in a public or private cemetery. (The first public cemetery was designed in Boston in 1832 and other cities quickly followed suit.)

Next time we’ll take a look at a lady’s life in mourning, including dress and decorum.

* information compiled from “The After Life” by Karen Rae Mehaffey.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Those Free Lovin’ Victorians

So you think the Victorians were prudish, uptight people in high-necked clothing, huh? Well I suppose at certain times during the period, and with certain people, that description is apt. Certainly there were quite a few “purity writers” during the 19th century. On the other hand, there was rampant prostitution, an increase in birth control devices, and the free love movement.

The free love movement started in the 1850’s with the help of Stephen Pearl Andrews who believed that “individual freedom, instead of, or in predominance over, social constraint, as the safer and better medium through which to conduct to the higher development of mankind” ( I’m not personally sure if all of the free lovers believed that they were working towards the higher development of mankind, however. Consider a speech given by Victoria Woodhull in 1871, before she ran for president:

“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that, and nothing less!" And the Truth Shall Make You Free (November 20, 1871)

Sounds very little like “for the good of mankind” to me. It sounds to me like Woodhull, (and probably quite a few other free lovers) were concerned more about government interference in the bedroom than the good of mankind. They obviously didn’t have a whole lot of faith in monogamy or marriage. Interesting, as from what I can see many of them (Woodhull not included—she was married 3 times) had fairly long, stable marriages.

So who were the free lovers? As mentioned, Woodhull, Andrews, Mary Gove Nichols and her husband. There were anarchists and feminists, Angela and Ezra Haywood, Moses Harman, who spent two years in jail for publishing obscenity under the Comstock Laws and his daughter Lillian. ( ) And of course John Humphrey Noyes, who started the Oneida Community, an 1850’s commune that practiced “complex marriage”. ( It lasted 30 years and was, regardless of the “complex marriage” issue, a very religious community. Just the not sort of religion you’d have expected in 1850. . . .

All right, so all of this is very interesting, right? 1970’s kind of free love, complete with communes, in the 1850’s—but how? If a woman practiced free love, wouldn’t that mean pregnancy? And how on earth was she supposed to support a child without a husband? After all, women weren’t exactly fighting men for the corner office at this point in history. Women could scarcely support themselves, never mind a child. Well they did have birth control. It was not the Pill, granted, and not as reliable as today by any stretch. But they did have it, and it was legal and available until 1873, when the Comstock Laws--obscenity laws that made pretty much anything relating to sex illegal--were passed. But that is another post, coming soon to a blog near you. . . .

Books on Victorian Free Love:
Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality, Joanne Passet
Free Love: Marriage and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825-1860, John Spurlock

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Not quite the era...

It's the end of the world, as we know it... [REM, Its the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)]
On Wednesday night, at 2 minutes and 3 seconds after 1 in the morning, it'll be 01:02:03 04.05.06. Apparently, this isn't going to happen again until 2106.

Victorian Mary Gove Nichols

Oh wow. I meant to do a blog on the Victorian Free Love movement, which started before the Civil War and lasted through the '70's. In the process of doing more in-depth research I came across a book review about a book on Mary Gove Nichols.

Apparently Ms. Nichols was a true radical (for the times). She believed in free love, in equality for women, and--get this!--went around the U.S. giving anatomy lectures. This, mind you, at a time when some doctors would use dolls and ask women to point at the parts that were bothering them rather than examine them. Amazing! I love this woman. Add her to our first female candidate for president, Ms. Woodhull, and Victorian women really did rock--that is until Anthony Comstock and his obscenity laws came alongin 1873 and pretty much ruined everything for everyone. The more I read about that man the less I like him.