Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Epitaphs and a free Ghost Story from 1912

Steph's turn to blog (scroll down for the free offer)

Halloween seems to be a time when folks develop a somewhat macabre interest in cemeteries and tombstones, but my interest in these things isn't seasonal, and it isn't really macabre. I've sought out pioneer cemeteries and the stories hidden behind the epitaphs since I was a girl tromping about with my family. 

When I was working on A Captain for Laura Rose ( I spent some time exploring a St. Louis cemetery, led there by mention of steamboat pilot, Isaiah Sellers (Mark Twain knew him!)

This past year I even developed a program to give on these "Stories in Stone." Who wouldn't admire the artistry present in the stonework, zinc, and bronze forms used in memorials across the centuries. I'm also moved by the epitaphs (I tend to collect them).

In 1904, this epitaph was cast into a bronze plaque mounted on a granite boulder:
Warm summer sun, shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind, blow softly here,
Green sod above, lie light, lie light,
Good night, dear heart, 
Good night, Good night.

In 1876, this epitaph tossed a bit of realism at anyone who happened to pass the grave:
Dear companion remember me,
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me.

This one from 1895 made me wonder about the life it sums up in a rather acerbic manner:
She hath done what she could.

We don't often associate a sense of humor with epitaphs, but in Kentucky a woman's epitaph gives an order: "Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not here. I did not die." Her husband's epitaph asks a question: "If we didn't die, what are we doing here?" I imagine these two were the life of every party they attended!

One of my favorites is short and simple, but there is a world of story in the message:
Born to die, August 4, 1840
Died to live May 30 1878

This reminds me of the epitaph I'll have put on my tombstone one day. It's part of a lovely poem written by Calvin Miller:
Graves are only doorways cut in sod,
And dying is but getting dressed for God.

Are you like me? Do you enjoy wandering old cemeteries and wondering about the stories represented by the grave markers? What's your favorite or most memorable discovery?


PS: If you'd like a copy of a 1912 story originally told by a homesteader from Oregon Trail days, go to and subscribe to my newsletter. Everyone on my mailing list will received the story in a special mailing sent out the first week of November. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Women Kept Track of Their Stuff

*  A Note From Nancy *

I am constantly losing my keys in my purse, along with my glasses, my Chapstick, my pens...
Nanny whistle, pacifier,
and rattle in one

When I did the research for my Gilded Age novels Masquerade and An Unlikely Suitor, I discovered their solution to this age-old "losing things" problem: chatelaines. These pieces of jewelry were the answer to organizing a woman's stuff.  Whatever items women deemed necessary throughout their day were simply hung from chains and clipped to their waistbands or belts.

They were very specialized. Nannies had kid-stuff at their fingertips: a nanny whistle, pacifier, and rattle.

Seamstress chatelaine
Seamstresses had scissors, needles, thimbles, and bobbins of thread at their fingertips.

Maids mights have keys, scissors . . . hmm. I can't see the details on this picture. What else might she have on her chains?

Fine ladies might have a small purse attached, perfume, mirror, and pencil. Or a watch. They were made of sterling or gold, with semi-precious stones.

As a collector of antique purses, I can vouch for the fact that purses of the day held next to nothing, and actually, the wealthy ladies had no need to carry money or keys. They rarely went out without their men, so relied on them to carry such things. Chatelaines were a nice (and pretty) way to carry around some bulkier items--and to show off some gold and stones as an accessory.

Plus, when I think about the logistics of carrying a purse, I see the advantage of the
hands-off chatelaine. With bustles and gloves and parasols . . . a lady needed her hands free to deal with her clothes, getting in and out of carriages, holding up her skirt so as not to trip on stairs, and finding a way to sit and move through a room without getting caught on a stray table or Victorian gew-gaw.

Ah, the freedom we have in our fashion today!  But a chatelaine . . . it has real possibilities.

If you'd like to take a look at hundreds of fashion examples from the Gilded Age go to my Pinterest fashion boards:  Fashion of the 1870's  Fashion of the 1880's  Fashion of the 1890's  Accessories  Shoes of the Past  Antique Purses  Historical Undergarments  Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Romantic Stroll along a Cliff

*  A Note From Nancy  *
The Cliff Walk… doesn’t it sound like the perfect place for a romance, or a Gothic tale? That’s one reason I chose it as an integral element in An Unlikely Suitor. Walking along its 3.5 mile length with my husband conjured up images of Newport in its prime, during the last half of the 19th century…

The nice thing about nature is that the basics remain the same. And so the essence of the Cliff Walk remains much as it was so long ago. Considering Newport has been around since 1639, the original paths along the shore of Rhode Island Sound and the Atlantic were probably originally worn down by deer and the Narragansett Indians. When European settlers lived there, they would go down to the rocks to recover goods from ship wrecks. 

For the sea could be harsh and the rocks along the shore were (and are) jagged and dangerous. Yet there’s something very exciting about walking on a narrow path with civilization on the one side, and the fierceness of nature on the other. Standing on the Walk, looking out to sea, the centuries fall away and you feel a connection with all that came before.

Newport began to be a summer haven of wealthy New Englanders as far back as 1850. As is the way since time began, people liked having a home with a view, and so homes were built along the edge of the ocean. As the century progressed, the first homes were replaced with palatial mansions that had grounds rivaling the lush estates of Europe. Instead of merchants and politicians building there, the extraordinarily wealthy “Robber Barons” of the Gilded Age took over: the Vanderbilts and Astors built summer “cottages” that were as large as twenty homes.

The Forty Steps
The Cliff Walk was a place for all classes. Although the wealthy lived along its edges, the servants who worked in those houses were free to use the Walk. At the north end are the 40 Steps. Here’s a photo of the wooden steps taken during that olden time. The steps ended on the rocks. It was a gathering place for the working class who would have parties where they’d dance and sing Irish music. Since that time, the steps have been improved, from wood to more sturdy stone.
Servants gathering
on the Cliff Walk

As the Walk gained in popularity, improvements were made a little at a time. Now, most of the Walk is paved, though there are still areas where you are virtually walking on rocks. But in the 1890’s (the era of my book) it was a more dangerous place and every year there were accidents and even deaths. I’ll leave it at that…

My husband on the Cliff Walk
telling me "How about this one?"
What did the rich home owners think about the lower classes walking within a hundred feet of their back porticos? They were not amused. At various times in history, the homeowners tried to restrict access. At one point they even dropped the Walk 12’ below the land-line so walkers couldn't see their houses. They’d plant bushes, put rocks in the way, or even use guard dog.

But many embraced the merging of their property and the Cliff Walk and made improvements, including nice walls to sit upon and bridges. The bottom line is the walk is a public place and all are welcome to embrace its beauty and honor its history. Go to Newport and take a walk.  You won't be disappointed.//Nancy