Wednesday, May 31, 2006
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,
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
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: http://www.prettyimpressivestuff.com/blackwork.htm
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
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
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Thursday, May 04, 2006
-- 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
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.