Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Frontier Medecine, Trials, and Cancer

Those of us who enjoy historical fiction are also very thankful that we don't actually live "in the good old days," and one of the reasons is modern medecine. I remember the day when my children were learning Nebraska history and I told them that, if we lived in the late 1800s, only one of them would be alive. Three of the four darlings pictured at the right back in our home-schooling days would have been lost to illnesses that, today, are honestly "no big deal," thanks to that gooey pink stuff called Amoxicillin and 'wondermous' things like IV antibiotics.

My heart has mourned with pioneer mothers. I've shed real tears over words like these, "our little daughter was taken from us. I had borne all, or tried to, without murmuring until now. This trial, this great sorrow. How could I bear it?"

In the writing of Sixteen Brides, I was challenged to find bona fide treatment for a compound fracture that wouldn't require amputation. Happily, I was able to find a "new" treatment documented in a German medical paper from the era that allowed rancher Lucas Gray to keep his leg. But that was the exception rather than "the rule" back then.

Over a century has passed since the days my imaginary friends inhabit, and so many more sick people survive than they did "in the good old days," but we still have to contend with disappointment when it comes to medical issues. That happened for our family back in 2001, when my husband Bob graduated to heaven after a five and a half year encounter with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Twenty-two days before Bob's departure, he taught Sunday School. His lesson that day was titled, "What God has Taught Me." Here are some of the things Bob shared. I hope they encourage you with whatever difficulty you may be facing.

"Through cancer and the process of dying, God has taught me that I am on earth to:
  • Be a light to the world, revealing Jesus Christ, all that He is and all that He has done, by what I say about how I live my life. Ephesians 5:8-10
  • Trust Him, His purpose in trials and suffering is for His glory and my good. 1 Corinthisans 6:20, John 16:14, Romans 8:28.
  • Conform to the character of His Son, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthiasn 3:18; Philippians 3:21; Romand 8:29-30)
  • Be shaped. Trials and difficult circumstances are tools in the hand of God used over time to shape me into His likeness. 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 1:29-30, 3:10; John 16:33, 15:2; James 1:2-4; Galatians 5:22.
  • Prove my faith in Him. Job 23:10; Psalms 66:10
  • Provide visible and genuine evidence to the world of my faith in Him through each trial. Job 23:10
  • Continue trustying and obeying Him, through adversity and not grumble, murmur, or complain about it. I Corinthians 10:9,10; Philippians 2:14.
  • Strengthen my faith muscles. Romans 10:17
  • Develop enduring strength for greater usefulness. Hebrews 12:7-11
  • Grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. 2 Peter 3:18
  • Learn to view adversity from God's perspective, through His Word. Philippians 3:7-11; Job 2:10, 23:10.
The pioneer woman I quoted above who lost her child and wondered how she could bear it also wrote, "I am afraid I almost rebelled against God, and still He was good. She was too frail for this hard life and He transplanted her to a fairer clime and I have since been glad it was so. She is waiting to welcome us home." Julia has been reunited with that child ... just as family and friends who know Jesus will one day be reunited with Bob Whitson.

I'm humbled and amazed by the faith that saints sometimes exhibit when life and this fallen world throw terrible things their way. But they give me hope. If they could do it ... maybe I can, too.

May you be encouraged today by pioneers and brothers in Christ who faced some of the worst ... and responded in the best way possible.

--Stephanie G.

P.S. The kids on the haystack are doing great (praise Him).........here's proof.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Ladies Mile

When we shop we often go to a mall, where all the stores are consolidated in one place. But just like the idea of the department store (see last week's blog), the idea of creating an area especially for shopping is over 160 years old. In the late 1850's in New York City, the Ladies Mile was born. The demand for "department stores" was growing so quickly, the retailers responded by moving close together uptown. The area on Broadway and 6th Avenue between 9th and 23rd Streets, came to be called the "Ladies Mile" (it's now encompassed in the "Flatiron District".)

Remember the saying, Build it and they will come. Oh yeah. They came. In droves. An article in the New York World newspaper said that if you wrote out a listing of all the items sold at Macy's it "would reach Central Park." The article further described Macy's, saying it had "spread itself out along Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue until one is at a loss to tell where it begins or where it ends. It is a bazaar, a museum, a hotel, and a great fancy store all combined."
Adding to the allure were large windows showing off the merchandise. Again, we take this for granted, but "window shopping" was something new in the nineteenth century. It started with Bloomingdale's. The usual practice was to clutter up a display window with a bunch of goods available inside. But Bloomingdale's—and soon all the other stores—started decorating the windows with fewer items and more props, creating scenes and an ambiance. A lure to come inside.

Henry Collins Brown, curator of the Museum of the City of New York in 1892, said the Ladies Mile had a "champagne sparkle." Further, "All the world came to Broadway to shop, to dine, to flirt, to find amusement, and to meet acquaintances." Department stores lined the street, but there were also exclusive specialty stores like Brooks Brothers, Tiffany's, and Thorley's House of Flowers. Thorley's was the first florist to use the long white box full of long-stemmed flowers packed in tissue. The exterior of their building was also an attraction, as it was decorated top to bottom with plants and flowers.

Many of these buildings remain--repurposed as the stores moved north. You can see photos here: Ladies Mile Historic District//Nancy Moser

Monday, September 20, 2010

Books and Friends

One of my favorite places in the world is in the middle of a room lined with book shelves. The e-book craze notwithstanding (and don’t get me wrong--I think it’s a wonderful development for us all), there is nothing quite like the company of strangers who can become old friends through the simple act of reading their words.

It used to quite literally freak me out to hear from readers who said, “I feel like I know you,” mostly because I haven’t ever consciously put myself into my own books. On the other hand, I have come to realize that the thing that resonates most with me as a reader may well be the intuitive hand of the author that enables me to make an emotional connection, not just with imaginary friends, but with the “friend” who created the imaginary worlds we love to inhabit when we read. With that in mind, I suppose I could say that I count Jane Austen among my friends.

When I stand in my personal library at home (about thirty running feet of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves) and peruse the shelves, what makes me smile isn’t the books themselves as much as it is the people they represent. How about you? Do you feel a friendship kind of bond with the writers whose worlds you like to visit, even though you’ve never met them? If you were going to have one in for coffee, who would you invite?

You’ve likely never heard of the two women I’m introducing today, but because of the things they wrote, they have had a profound effect on my life:

Katie Goar Maze, author of Looking Backward, who emigrated to western Nebraska in 1883. Met by her husband at the train in Plum Creek, Katie was taken “thirty-five miles away through canyons and hills” to a sod house. When Katie’s young child died, she “could not quite understand why God had permitted our little blue-eyed boy … to be taken from us.” In 1886 a Reverend Brooker conducted meetings and Katie said, “We had come west to find a home and now we had located on the homestead, but God never slumbers or sleeps. He had His eyes on our future welfare … I had always felt the need of being a Crhistian, and I wanted to know more of the life of Jesus and His power to save and keep.” Katie and her husband were saved in those meetings, and went on to full time ministry. Katie wrote, “I think, when I am permitted to enter the pearly gates, that I shall seek out those early missionaries the first thing after greeting my Savior.” I hope to meet Katie Goar Maze soon thereafter and thank her for writing the memoir that has come to mean so much to me.

Dixie Oblinger, who knew life in a sod house as a child and grew up to be a cab-driver in 1936 Washington, D.C. She wrote of one husband (Dixie was married more times than the average woman), “I realize now that what I should have done was call his bluff, even if I had to do it with a chair wrapped around his neck.” “One more of my philosophies is, adversity is for our instruction. Gosh, but I must really be a Dumb Dora, it takes so much adversity to teach me anything.” “It seems like the good are dieing [sic] young. I’ll sure live to a ripe old age if that is the case.” And, lastly, “I live in the best country on earth and I intend to do my share to keep it the best …” As the country faced WWII, Dixie was hoping she would be allowed to enlist in the Navy as a chauffeur. “I could relieve a man around Washington and let him get behind a gun.” Who wouldn’t want to meet Dixie?

May your week be decorated with new friends you meet in books!

Do you have anyone you'd like to introduce us to?

Stephanie G.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Let's go Shopping!

Shop 'til you drop. In regard to women and shopping, my husband teases me, saying that women stand outside stores waiting for them to open, yelling, "I've got money! Let me in!"

Actually, the day after Thanksgiving that's not far off. Last year I went out at 5 a.m. for a special deal. When I came out of the store I was taken aback to realize the sun was just coming up.

Is this love of shopping a new phenomenon? Nope. Enclosed malls may be a fairly recent invention, but the department store? It's been around New York City since 1858. Pre-Civil War. Macy's was one of the first, but other stores eventually popped up: Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's, and A.T. Stewart's.

Stewarts isn't around anymore, but it was the inspiration for the department store owned by the Tremaines in my novel Masquerade. Their original downtown store at 280 Broadway can still be seen and is known as the "Sun Building" because the New York Sun newspaper had its offices there for decades. Stewart's was heralded for its grand staircase and skylit atrium. You didn't just go to the department stores to shop, but to have an experience.

Many of the stores got such a following that they began to manufacture their own brand of goods. Macy's had "Red star" silk and velveteen, and were the exclusive distributor of Foster kid gloves in New York. They also made their own line of underclothing, linen articles, and men's shirts.

Stores began to advertise—which was heretofore unheard of. And as competition grew, they earned their customers' business by offering additional services. "Granted that the merchandise was of acceptable quality, people tended to patronize the stores which gave them the most attractive surrounds, the most convenient delivery, and the most satisfactory all-around treatment." In 1888 Macy's announced it would deliver goods in a 100-mile radius for free ($5 minimum order.) It worked well. In 1896-97 Macy's delivered 2.5 million packages a year! Seventy-five percent were delivered by Macy's own people (at a cost to them of 7.85 cents per package) with the rest subbed out for delivery (which cost 8.75 cents/package.)

Unlike many of its competitors, Macy's didn't allow customers to buy on credit. "Cash only" kept their prices down. A perk we take for granted was considered revolutionary at this time: the ability to return goods. Customer satisfaction came to the forefront, allowing customers to return defective merchandise. But it wasn't as carte blanche as it is today. There had to be a reason. But Macy's always gave you more than you asked for.  They erred on the side of the customer.

Some stores offered luxurious "rest" rooms for those who'd traveled from a distance. In 1892 Macy's advertised a sumptuous ladies "waiting room" that included $11,200 in artwork (about $250,000 in today's money.) Lunchrooms made it possible to stay on the premises to refuel. Elevators made it easy for customers to have access to additional floors. Electric lights and even electric fans made shopping more pleasurable: "Electric fans supply artificial breezes. They're as pleasant and inspiring as the winds that blow from wooded hill tops."  Department stores opened up another job opportunity to young women, many who left home to work there. One young woman, Margaret Getchell La Forge, started as a cashier at Macy's but was promoted to bookkeeper and then superintendent—one of the first women executives.

Macy's was determined to undercut the prices of all others. They had employees who scoured their competitors' stores to make sure Macy's prices were lowest. Once, in 1902, Macy's had some Japanese silks that sold for .41/yard. Hearn & Son started a price war. It ended the next day with Macy's selling the product for 11 yards for .01! This kind of price slashing was rare, but Macy's was also known for advertising comparative prices for like items. What one did, the others were often forced to do to keep up.

Dresses were often customized and made in-house. In Masquerade I have a "Pretty Woman" type scene, with the main character trying on clothing in a department store, with her man sitting close by, giving his approval—and paying the tab. In the 1886 Bloomingdale's catalog, clothing was offered in a multiple of color and fabric options. And if you wanted the trim changed, you simply had to include a fabric swatch so they could match the color. If you ordered a hat, you were to state your complexion color so a hat could be made that was flattering. This illustration shows a dress from the Bloomingdale's catalog. The caption says: "No. 41. Very handsome suit of plain material, trimmed with yak-lace; skirt with 3 rows of lace flouncing; short front drapery looped at side with ribbon bows; puffed back drapery; plain jersey waist; camel's hair or homespun. $21.75 and 24.50. No 42. Same of Cashmere or Nun's Veiling, trimmed with Egyptian or oriental lace….. $16.50, 18.75 and 20.50."

Catalogs were created for rural customers to pour over. Hence the term "wish books". If you ever find an original one, hang onto it, as they were so heavily used it's hard to find one intact.

Then, as now, shopping in department stores was often a women's event. Men were slower to change their ways and buy their clothing at such a place. That's why many stores put the men's departments on the first floor, to lure men inside for a quick job of it.  My husband would approve.

What did small specialty shops think of the department stores? What do small stores today think of Wal-mart and Target? They were not—and are not—amused. But progress will not be denied.  I have money!  Let me in! /Nancy Moser

Monday, September 13, 2010

Solomon Butcher and Pioneer Photographs

Last week's blog about pioneer labors and gardens elicited some great questions about the people pictured in those old-time photographs history-lovers often see. Vince said that he'd label last week's "bleakness personified." He makes a good point.

Since I've spent literally h
undreds of hours looking over photographs like the one at the right, I thought I'd take a run at answering some questions about these kinds of photographs. At the conclusion of today's blog, I'll tell you how you, too, can time travel back into the photographic record of these lives.

Did the photographer have us in mind when he took the picture over a century ago? Why was the photo taken in the first place?

We may never know all the answers, but we do know that one thing that Solomon Butcher (the photographer) had in mind was feeding his young family. Butcher's own homesteading adventures had not been successful when he came up with the idea of producing a photographic history of Custer County (Nebraska). Butcher's father provided a wagon and a team on which Butcher could transport the equipment necessary to accomplish the project. (See the name on the wagon to the right?)

It sometimes took hours for Butcher to reach a home and family to take their photograph. He supported himself with subscriptions, donations, and the sale of photographs to his subject families. In seven years, he took over a thousand images. He also collected stories -- although not nearly enough to satisfy my curiosity. Still, the history of Custer County he wrote (Solomon D. Butcher's Pioneer History of Custer County: and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska)

is fascinating.

Relatively few of Butcher's original prints remain, but the Nebraska State Historical Society is the repository of the glass plates. In recent years, some who know the collection best have wondered if the photographer was consciously recording the history represented in that era by posing people with their personal possession. Since the folks in the photographs weren't interviewed with modern-day historian's guidelines in mind, most stories about "why" are lost to history.

What happened a few minutes after the photo was taken?

Now, that is the stuff novels are made of! May I suggest Karyn's Memory Box and Nora's Ribbon of Memories by yours truly? They are out of print, but likely available through inter-library loan.

What did the people think?
Once in a while, Butcher did
note people's names or cryptic notes about their personal lives. For example, about the family in the photo on the left, Butcher wrote, " ... in a debate on women's suffrage one time he [Mr. York] said he did not believe in ladies voting. He thought the dear ladies should not bother their brain about pollitics (sic). But sit in their parlor in an easy chair and direct their house work. It is said he would bring his wife home from the neighbors at the end of a black snake whip and whip her home when she stayed longer than he thought proper."

We can only imagine what Mrs. York thought. Perhaps she was too busy sitting in her parlor in her easy chair to contemplate the complex issue of women's suffrage. (Ahem).

Did they get a copy of the photo?

Most likely, yes, since Butcher was selling subscriptions and prints to make a living. I have met many descendents of homesteading families in Nebraska who proudly display a recent reprint of their family originally photographed by Solomon Butcher.

Was there really anything special about this farm or was it chosen because it was so typical?

Historians have compared census records to Butcher's photographs and theorized that he may have photographed as many as two-thirds of the homesteaders living in Custer County. Perusing the collection shows some things that are "typical" and others that raise new questions.

As bleak as life was, wouldn't that farm look like heaven itself to those poor souls in the photos of the NYC slums?

Interesting observation. When John Carter wrote his wonderful book, Solomon D. Butcher, Photographing the American Dream, he actually included one of Jacob Riis's photographs taken in 1889. Riis, the photographer Nancy mentioned who used photography to raise public awareness of the plight of immigrants in New York, and Solomon Butcher way out in western Nebraska, were contemporaries.

To access the Solomon Butcher Collection, go to:

  • Once there, enter the name, Solomon Butcher. You will see results # 1-20 of 3,014. Meaning, you now have access to over three thousand Solomon Butcher photographs of 19th century life in Custer County, Nebraska.
  • Ask for the "Gallery View." This will give you thumbnails of the actual photographs.
  • Click on a photo. Now you have a page of information with a little version of the photograph.
  • Click on the photograph on this page. Now you have a page that has no textual background, but only the photograph.
  • Below the photograph, click on "larger reference image."Give it a moment to load.
  • With your mouse, hover over something you want to see better & click. Voila.
You'll see all kinds of fascinating things, from baseball bats lying on the ground beneath chairs to flowers blooming on windowsills and roofs to lace-edged aprons to china dolls and ... sometimes ... people standing just inside the front door who aren't in the picture. What's up with that?
Another of history's mysteries.

I am endlessly grateful to have access to Solomon Butcher's collection. In many ways, it began my journey into novel writing, when I heard John Carter speak about it at a Lincoln Quilt Guild meeting decades ago. The Butcher collection also fueled a book idea that will have its culmination in a non-fiction releasing next year. But that's another blog post.

Hug your automatic dishwasher today! Turn on the tap and thank God for the miracle of indoor plumbing! Thank God for your cracked plaster ... your walls aren't made of DIRT. And your husband probably doesn't even own a black snake whip.

Have a great week.
Stephanie G.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day, Pioneer Gardens, & Pickles

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I'd talk about gardening ... which is hard work even in our day of powered rototillers.

When it came time for the women of Sixteen Brides to settle on their homestead, one of the first things they had to do was plant a garden.

The woman pictured here helped me know what to have my women grow in their sod house era garden. Meet Martha Virginia Thomas Oblinger (Mattie) who, along with her husband, Uriah Wesley, homesteaded in Fillmore County, Nebraska.

In 1873, Mattie wrote her family, "I set a hundred and thirty cabbages last week." In another letter, she mentioned squashes, cucumbers, mellons [sic], beans, potatoes, and beet seed. "We have the nicest patch of early rose potatoes in the neighborhood. Uriah bought 10 bushel ... I have nice tomato plants coming on ... I want to set more."

ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY cabbages?!! Ten BUSHELS of seed potatoes? And Mattie considered that a "nice patch"?!!!

After recovering from the sympathy fatigue brought on just by reading some of Mattie's letters, I was able to write this narrative for Sixteen Brides:

They planted pumpkins, squash, and melons, all of it without plowing. Ella slit the soil, and Caroline walked behind her, a bag of seed at her waist as she bent and tucked seeds into the slots. They planted corn that way, too. Five acres to start with, although Ella had plans for at least twenty ... Ella might have worked a farm before, but she'd never marched out on a piece of virgin prairie and claimed it. It was at times overwhelming. There was just so much to do ... By the end of the first week they'd set out over a hundred cabbages. They planted onions and carrots, parsnips, beets, and peas. Nancy Darby brought them tomoato seedlings, and they planted those close to the house inside wire cages lest a jackrabbit nibble the tender plants off. They planted lettuce and radishes, turnips and cucumbers.

While Mattie Oblinger was planting her garden (her children were very young, so she was likely on her own), Uriah was breaking sod (which would have been Ella's primary task in Sixteen Brides. "Uriah is breaking sod today he will soon have 40 acres turned over then it will be ready to go into right next Spring it looks like it was fun to turn the sod over here there are no roots or stumps to be jerking the plow out." To homesteaders from the wooded East, it was wonderful not to have to clear land before planting.

The work took its toll. It shows in this photo of Mattie and her daughter Maggie (her third child, born in 1877). Mattie and Uriah had been homesteading together in Nebraska for about five years when this photo was taken.

The woman who lived in the Custer County, Nebraska, sod house pictured below must have loved gardening. She was obviously determined to keep the "varmints" out of her space! Note the trellis and the sod wall. Of course I can't let this one pass without also drawing your attention to the lace-edged curtains hanging in the window (revealed in the higher resolution version of this photograph at http://memory.loc.gov/award/nbhips/lca/101/10183v.jpg). I think Caroline from Sixteen Brides would have probably insisted on lace edging, too. And Sally would have been happy to attach it with her treadle sewing machine.

In 1873, Mattie Oblinger wrote, "I have 8 dozen cucumbers up."
I don't know what kind of pickles she made, but I can imagine stoneware crocks lined up in her kitchen and the aromas of vinegar and onions in the air.

I've made my share of watermelon pickles, dill pickles, zucchini pickles, cinnamon cucumbers, and relish. But in all my years of pickling, I doubt I've gone through the number of cucumbers Mattie's garden yielded in one growing season.

On Labor Day, 2010, here's to Mattie's Garden. I thought I'd share my Mother's recipe for Bread & Butter Pickles with you. It's relatively easy and definitely time tested, although it assumes basic "pickle & canning knowledge." Mother was born in 1913. She could have known Mattie's daughters. I don't make pickles any more. It's just too labor intensive, what with the gas stove and the dishwasher, the food processor and. . . . never mind.

Nora's Bread & Butter Pickles

1 quart sliced cucumbers
slices of onion
1 cup vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon turmeric

Put all ingredients, except cucumbers, in enameled pan and let come to light boil. Add cucumbers, let come to boil. Boil 1 minute. Pack in sterilized jars. Seal while hot. Process 10 minutes at simmering temperature.

Happy Labor Day ......... from Stephanie G.