Wednesday, May 31, 2006

How Victorians crossed a river before there was a bridge: Part IV (Windup)

I try to limit my research to acquiring enough information to make a scene come alive, but the process always works its magic and I discover I have learned a whole lot more. While researching cable ferries I gained insight into why communities were so keen to have one. Bridge engineering might have advanced rapidly in the first half of the 19th century, but bridge construction was costly and required manpower. Many communities couldn’t mobilize the finances or the workers to undertake such a project.

But they could manage to build a cable ferry, which was relatively cheap and quick to construct and could be operated by a single ferryman. With its flat platform securely tethered to an umbilical wire cable or chain, it stayed the course against wind and rain, and a river’s swift current. Its wooden aprons, hinged to the ferry platform at either end, were lowered to the river bank to load and unload people, livestock and cargo.

Victorians used the cable ferry to open the countryside to settlement and economic progress. No longer was their march across continents blocked by rivers. Many communities were born at the site of a cable ferry crossing, fledgling communities guaranteed their success by constructing cable ferries, and established communities used them to attract new commerce and industry.

A skilled ferryman held an important position in a community. He not only helped to further economic progress, but also played a communications role, collecting and dispensing local gossip and posting signs and advertisements on the ferry where everyone could see them. He assisted community’s social committees by clearing the ferry deck for use as a dance floor. Local lawmen counted on him to mark a stranger in the community and alert them to any suspicious behavior.

A community relied on the ferryman's skills, and his job could be dangerous, especially when the river was high or there was ice. Accidents happened. Weather was unpredictable. Cables broke and mechanical parts frequently failed. Cargo shifted or chains fastening cargo broke, capsizing the ferry and dumping cargo and people into the river. But for most Victorians, the benefits of having a cable ferry more than offset the risks.

19th century cable ferries have pretty much faded into history, replaced by permanent bridges. However, modern versions continue to ply the water in many places around the world, transporting people, goods and livestock across rivers and bays—meeting the same needs and fulfilling the same role as the ferries constructed by the Victorians.

Researching 19th century cable ferries has been a challenge, but finally I can picture one in my mind, hear the sound of the water rushing beneath its boards, feel the tug of the cable, and appreciate the skill of the ferryman. It’s time to put my heroine on board and see her safely to the other side of the river.

Until next time,

What Victorian Gents Wore - Part III

Most Victorian gentlemen owned four different types of coat to fit every occasion. These consisted of the business coat, frock coat, dress coat and overcoat. The business suit, otherwise known as the sack suit, would be considered leisure wear for a gentleman, but farmers, laborers or cowboys would wear sack suits for dress occasions, such as church.
The sack coat was large and baggy in the 1850s, then became more fitted through the 1860s and beyond. This garment was popular with working class men because it was affordable.
The frock coat could be single or double breasted, usually black, and longer than the sack, coming to just above the knee. The frock coat was worn with contrasting pants and a top hat, although in the South and West low crowned hats were often worn instead.
Vests were worn with the frock coat. In the 1860s, colorful vests of Chinese silk were worn. After that, black, white or gray vests became the norm.
For evening wear, gentlemen wore a black tail coat, white bow tie, black or white vest, black trousers and a heavily starched white shirt.
In harsh winter weather, a greatcoat was a necessity. This was a full-length overcoat made of wool in dark or drab colors. The coat had an attached single or double cape over the shoulders.
Men also wore raincoats made of oilcloth and water-proofed wool; capes worn as formal wear by the well-to-do; and shawls, which for men were plain, functional garments. Lincoln kept his shawl with him all the time. Fur coats made from Buffalo or other animal hides were worn in coldest weather by those who could afford them. Sweaters were popular with farmers, homesteaders, and immigrants. These were knitted at home from wool.
More links:

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Telltale Embroidery

Telltale Embroidery

Embroidery experienced a revival (along with anything else Elizabethan) during Victoria’s reign. Authors writing about characters in the 19th Century, therefore, can utilize embroidery detail in their characters’ costumes to help set the backdrop for whether the fashions are current or older.

A delightfully presented article supplies a number of good resources on embroidery, in general, and blackwork, in particular:

Blackwork embroidery, for example, was re-popularized in the 19th C, and its original rules of application no longer applied. Embroidery had become rather freeform. Originally, blackwork consisted of black threads cross-stitched onto natural linen along cuffs and other visible places. The once-sumptuary embroidery form may be described in its original styles with heraldic elements and Arabic geometrics, or, it may be useful to show characters with the then-trendy picturesque scenery in blackwork. Some modern re-enactors and artisans have revived the embroidery form in stylized scenery. Black and white threads together became common, along with whitework and even goldwork (commonly noted in ecclesiastical attire), and many other styles.

A number of terms were well in use in relation to embroidery, such as the coining of the term “Spanish work” when referring to blackwork embroidery. Catherine of Aragon is often credited with popularizing its form when she took numerous blackwork-embroidered dresses with her to England from Spain. The running Holbein stitch got its name when informal portraits were done by new artists such as Hans Holbein simply for the sake of recording new items made for the wardrobes of the members of the court. By Victorian times, embroidery of many forms often emulated and even surpassed its historical roots and in reflection of the increasing freedoms of the times, the rules of embroidery were often broken in creative designs.


Monday, May 22, 2006

How Victorians crossed a river before there was a bridge: Part III

So, how did 19th century cable ferries work? I haven’t taken any engineering courses, but based on my research this is how I see them operating--

The simplest cable ferry was pulled back and forth across slow moving rivers where keeping a ferry under control wasn’t too difficult. A long cable was attached to one end of the ferry and to a hand-operated winch on the river bank; a second cable was connected in the same way to the other end of the ferry and a winch on the other river bank. The winch wound the cable to pull the ferry across the water. When the ferry reached one side, the winch on the opposite bank was put into action to pull the ferry back. The wound cable was released as the ferry moved across the water. Whenever possible, horsepower was used to turn the winch.

Once chain was widely available, Victorian entrepreneurs began constructing chain cable ferries suited to shallow rivers and bays where there was little water traffic. Heavy chain was fastened to each river bank, allowing sufficient length to reach from shore to shore along the river bed. On board, the ferryman turned a notched or toothed wheel to lift the chain up from the river bed and drop it back again as the ferry moved ahead. For greater control and safety, a chain and wheel could be operated on both sides of the ferry.

Reaction cable ferries answered the Victorians' need to cross rivers and bays too wide, or too deep, or too fast-flowing for the other types of ferries. They were also faster as they used the power of the water’s current to propel them. To build one, a tower was raised on each side of the river to a height that allowed river traffic to pass underneath. A wire cable was strung from one tower to the other. Several methods, including a pulley system, were used to connect the ferry to the cable. Each was designed to enable an experienced ferryman to angle the ferry into the perpendicular force of the river current and use the current to propel the ferry though the water.

Tune in for the windup—when I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the importance of ferries to Victorian communities.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hurdy-Gurdy Girls

An author new to my must-read list, Alice Valdal, has an interesting newsletter. Her May issue covers the topic of Hurdy-Gurdy girls. I'd heard the term before, but I never knew how they got the name, or really, what they did. Could this have been the beginning of the phrase "sex sells"?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

What Victorian Gents Wore - Part II

Victorian Menswear
Trousers of the mid-nineteenth century
Men's trousers of the mid-nineteenth century weren't much different from men's pants today, with the exception of zippers. Pants were full in the leg, baggy in the seat, and touched the tops of the feet. They were cut snugly at the waist, so braces (suspenders) weren't needed to keep them up. The waistband was split in the back and a string or lace was inserted to hold the gap. This way the waistband could be adjusted to fit.
Pants were constructed of wool, homespun, jeancloth (which was wool & cotton or cotton twill), or linen. Wool was preferred in black, brown, gray or tan. Only fancy trousers might come in plaids, stripes or designs. Wealthy gentlemen may have worn linen pants in summer.
Braces (or suspenders) were used to hold up working men's pants. These were made of canvas, leather or other fashion items. They all had leather tabs at the ends with buttonholes that attached to buttons on the waistband of the pants. Buckles on the front of the braces could be adjusted for height. Belts were not worn during this period to hold up pants, although soldiers wore leather belts over their coats as part of their uniforms.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

How Victorians crossed a river before there was a bridge: Part II

Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

-- Thomas Stonewall Jackson

For the past week, I’ve devoted any spare time to browsing the collection of historical materials available online from the Glenbow Archives in Alberta. As a writer, I rely on archives as a source of accurate information and for those critical little details that breathe life into the people and communities portrayed on the pages of my novels. If you are fortunate to have an archives in your community, I encourage you to support it generously.

As luck would have it, I came across a photograph of a ferry that crossed the Bow River at Calgary in the 1880s. Eureka! I’m on my way to writing the scene where my heroine crosses the river on a ferry in 1883. But I’m not there yet. First I need to know where the ferry was located and how it operated.

It seemed obvious that a ferry entrepreneur would go to great lengths to avoid choosing the wrong place for a river crossing, so that’s where I started my research. I learned that some things haven’t changed much. Elevation and slope of the river bank were critical, as they are today. Cliff faces were obviously unsuitable, and steep inclines were dangerous and hard on men and horses pulling heavy loads. Above all, an unstable bank must be avoided, and a low-lying area might appeal but would likely flood every spring and after a heavy rain.

I realized a ferry entrepreneur had to do what I am doing: first, he had to do research. The river bank would be thoroughly reconnoitered on both sides before any decision could be made. Possibly, the best site wasn’t exactly where he wanted, but he knew the soundness of the location would reward him in the long run. Rather like having to adjust a scene to accord with research findings, and being rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing you got it right.

I’ll keep cruising the net, looking for information on how cable ferries worked. Come again, and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Birth control in the Victorian Era

When we think of the Victorian period, we probably don’t consider birth control. Surely this was not a part of Victorian life, right? Wrong. It became increasingly important as we moved from an agricultural society, where the children were a blessing, to a technological society, where children were more of a burden. While there were various forms of birth control the one that appeared to be used most by married woman was douching.

Douching had several benefits. First, of all it was legal through the entire period. While the Comstock laws made pretty much anything related to reproduction “obscene” and could therefore not be transported through the mail, douching was considered by most doctors as an important part of women’s health. Secondly, the more acceptable method of method of birth control, withdrawal, depended upon the male and his willingness to practice it, whereas douching put the control in the hands of the wife, who, after all, paid the most for the outcome.

In the years before the Comstock laws douching was openly marketed as a way to prevent conception. Syringes could be bought early in the century from physicians and peddlers. By mid-century they could be bought through the mail. While some women used plain water in an attempt to avoid conception, others used readily available spermicides such as vinegar and baking soda. By mid century they could buy pre-made solutions that claimed to be more effective, using substances as carbolic acid (ow!), tannin and salicylic acid. Information on how to douche and other methods of birth control were available early in the century in pamphlets and books by several different authors, most notably Fruits of Philosophy by Charles Knowlton.

Of course this method of birth control was not highly effective by current standards. We expect rates of 85-99%. Douching could not come anywhere close to these standards, but it did work better than nothing at all, and was widely practiced. Most married women would expect, and want, children from their marriage--just not one every year which is what this method of birth control prevented.

For purposes of writing, this is useful information if you’re writing about a married woman. Most of my books, however, are about single men and single women, and so in my next blog I’ll discuss the sort of birth control more likely to be used by that section of the population.

What Victorian Gents Wore - Part I

Victorian Menswear
Shirts & Undergarments of the mid-nineteenth century
What men wore in the mid-nineteenth century wasn't that much different from what men wear today.
Shirts were cut full in both the body and sleeves. All shirts were loose fitting with collars. Dress shirts buttoned down the front, while work and non-dress shirts were pullovers. A placket with four buttons down the front of the shirt allowed the man to fit the shirt over his head.
The materials used for shirts were wool, flannel, cotton, muslin and linen. Dress shirts came in white only, while work and non-dress shirts could be white, plaid, striped or calico.
Undershirts were generally worn beneath shirts. They consisted of wool or cotton and sometimes old shirts served as undershirts. Drawers were worn beneath trousers. These were full-length, constructed of wool or cotton and had a fly front opening and closed with a button at the waist. A one-piece Union Suit was worn in extremely cold weather. These buttoned up the front, had a fly front opening and drop down panel on the seat ( A good example of this is the scene in "Back to the Future III" where Michael J. Fox is practicing his draw in front of a full-length mirror.)
Some links with photos: