Friday, July 27, 2012

Then and Now...

I’m writing this blog from Saratoga Springs, New York. The birthplace of racing, the place where the rich from New York City went to get away from the crowding, the summer heat, and the bad city air. If they wanted the beach they went to Newport, Rhode Island, if they wanted racing and the Adirondack Mountains, they went to Saratoga Springs

Porch at Saratoga Arms
The main street of Broadway still boasts many of the buildings that were around in the 1870’s to 1890’s. Our hotel, The Saratoga Arms used to be a men’s boarding house.

The evening was perfect, around 70 degrees, and I sat on a bench to people watch. And then I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself back 120-40 years, as a woman sitting on a similar bench, on this very street. I’ve always marveled in how women are essentially the same now as in the past.

Essentially maybe, but not as much as I thought. The differences assailed me:

1. I was sitting alone, waiting for my husband. In 1880, as a woman of bearing (let’s just assume my 1880’s woman is wealthy) I would never have ventured down the street alone without a male companion as my chaperon.

2. As you see in the photo, I’m relaxed and casual. Comfortable is the key word. In 1880 I would’ve been wearing a corset, and would sport a bustle. No slumping allowed!

3. I’m sitting with my legs crossed. No proper 1880 lady sat in such a manner. And risk exposing her ankle? Never.

4. I’m wearing denim capris. Only workmen wore denim (thank you Levi Strauss—in 1873), no women ever wore pants, much less ones that revealed their bare calf and ankle. Brazen Nancy!

5. I wore a voile blouse. Comfy and cool. An 1880’s woman would have worn a dress or a blouse and skirt, to her ankles, with frilly sleeves and collar, perhaps made out of gabardine or cambric or silk. And underneath she would wear the corset, bustle, a corset cover, pantaloons, and a bevy of petticoats or underskirts. Although it was only 70 degrees on this day in Saratoga Springs, two days earlier, it was an unseasonal 100! How did the people of 1880 deal with that kind of heat? (I don’t know. I can’t imagine!)

6. Getting down to the issue of sweat… I’m pretty sure I didn’t offend anyone by my smell. But in 1880? Before deodorants sanitized our nasal palate? And with clothes that weren’t washable? I can’t imagine the aroma of the past.

7. I wore sandals with rubber bottoms, and expensive arches that keep my back from hurting when I walk a lot. In 1880 the ladies wore button-up shoes with hard soles, and of course stockings to above their knees.

8. I wore sunglasses to deal with the glare—prescription, bi-focal sunglasses so I can see far away and read. In 1880 sunglasses were rare. But I would have had a parasol.

9. I sat there with a bare head. In 1880 I would have worn a hat—and not just a visor.

10. I carried a purse containing a credit card, driver’s license, insurance card, makeup, money, phone… I collect antique purses and the ones that I have from this era are delicate and often made of beads. They could hold a small compact for powder, and perhaps a few coins. The women didn’t carry money. The men paid for everything. Sounds good to me.
11. My skin was pampered with wrinkle cream with SPF to protect my face from the harmful rays of the sun, my hands with lotion, my heels with foot cream, and my lips with Chapstick. In 1880 face cream and lotions were around, often homemade, but they were often greasy, and certainly didn’t make wrinkles go away (though I’m not sure the stuff we use now achieves that either.)

12. I took a shower this morning and dried my hair with a hair-dryer. Special, magical Ions made the frizz go away (sort of.) The woman of 1880 might have had a bath in her hotel—whether full or just a hip bath—but it was a big production that involved servants lugging hot water up many stairs. Many hotels, even the nice ones, only had one bathroom down the hall that needed to be shared. If you needed to go potty in the middle of the night? Pull out the chamber pot. But I have questions: were there public restrooms? What did people do when they needed to go? And how did they manage it wearing the many-layers of clothes?
13. The sounds of passing cars invaded the moment, but in 1880 it wouldn’t have been any quieter. Horses and carriages on cobblestones, whinnying, the sound of whips and drivers yelling at their steeds and other drivers. I read that the width of Broadway was determined by how much space was needed for a horse and carriage to turn-around.

14. Now on to my thoughts… Sitting on the bench I was contemplating an idea for a new business that my husband and I had been discussing. In 1880 most women weren’t interested in business, nor would they be consulted about any such decisions. Not because they weren’t smart enough or able enough, but because it just wasn’t a possibility for most of them. What did they think about? What excited them intellectually? What did a woman do when she had aspirations and ambition? Did she sit and stew about it? Or did she make waves? Or… was the idea of her limited place in society so deeply ingrained that she didn’t let such a thought cross her mind at all?

15. I had a caffeine headache and took an Excedrin—with water from my water bottle. The 1880 woman might have some headache powder, but she would have had to go back to her lodging to take it. And carrying around water 24/7? Forgeddaboutit.

16. Then I started thinking about my cell phone, checking the weather forecast, my email, reading reviews of restaurants and things-to-do… we can’t even venture into that arena, as there was no comparable opportunities for quick information in 1880.

17. Speaking of eating… we’d just gotten back from eating at a Mexican restaurant. Mentioning that cuisine, our 1880 woman might ask, “What kind of restaurant?” Burritos, enchiladas, and margaritas were beyond her realm of knowledge and taste.

Detailing the differences between myself and my fellow female in 1880 made me rather sad. Although I often say I would have loved to wear those luscious clothes and go to balls, and be courted and pampered for my femininity, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty listed above, I don’t think I’d trade places with her. Our lives today are so incredibly at-ease, with choices and ways to give ourselves comfort so we don’t need to suffer heat, pain, thirst, hunger, and lack of opportunity. We are capable and able to get (or at least try for) anything our minds and hearts can imagine.

With this knowledge I vow to appreciate more and complain less.

Oooh, there’s a frozen yogurt shop across the street . . .

If you'd like to read some of my historical novels take a look here.//Nancy

Friday, July 13, 2012

Victorian Servants and Their Uniforms

While writing novels about a Victorian manor house, I came upon an interesting tidbit—one that I didn’t believe at first. For it makes no sense.

When a girl became a maid of any sort—whether kitchen or chambermaid—she had to provide her own uniforms. A black dress and white apron for formal occasions when she was seen by the public, and a simpler dress to wear when she was doing the hard work. This would cost between £4-5 (equivalent to £228-285 today, or $354-442.) In 1900, with a yearly wage of only £22 pounds (£1255/ $1948) she had to provide her own clothes? She had to spend nearly 20% of her first year’s wage on her uniforms.  They also had to do their work wearing a corset. No thank you.  Ever, actually.

The Lady’s Maid, who was often of some social position, usually knew a bit about fashion so they could be of use in advising, dressing, (and mending) their mistress’ clothing. They could wear normal clothing, even castoffs from her mistress (£32 (£1824/$2831.)

The Housekeeper, earning £45 (£2567/$3985), usually wore a dark dress, and the butler--the highest paid at £60 (£3423/$5314)—wore a formal black suit. The cook (who I would consider the most important servant) earned £40 (£2282/$3543.)

Their employers only paid for the uniforms of the footmen—the fancy-dancy livery. The footmen were paid £26 a year (£1484/$2304.) The fancier the livery, the more status for the family. They even were given a stipend to pay for the powder for their hair. So the footmen, who made decent money, didn’t have to pay for anything. No wonder they often had a haughty attitude. And if they were over six foot tall? They got paid extra. And if they were a matching pair…zounds. Now that was something to brag about.  Having good calves was also important and some footmen wore "falsies" to pad their lacking calves. It looks like the two in the photo at the right could have used a little extra padding.  Sorry, chaps. I'm just calling them as I see them.

Just to give you the full picture, the lowest position was the scullery maid, who made £12 (£685 /$1063.). And the lowest male position of hallboy got £16 (£913 $1417.)

I’m still learning about servants—and there’s so much to learn. But paying for uniforms? That seems unfair. And yet… I remember working in a restaurant that had a uniform, and I had to purchase it. But no way did it cost 20% of my annual income.

The good thing about being a servant is that their room and board was provided, so they had few expenses. But they also had little time off and had to suffer the heirarchy of their employers--and the strict heirarchy of their own servant-world (more on that in another post.)

I’ll also be writing more about the duties of servants later. But I can tell you now, I’m very happy I've never had to empty a chamber pot.

Want to read more about servants in action? Try my Manor House Series (Downton Abbey fans will love it!) //Nancy

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Antique Weed

            Every year since my now thirty-something daughter was about twelve years old, she and I and an assortment of friends have spent the Friday before Father’s Day in Walnut, Iowa, at the annual flea market there. We do our best to get there as soon as vendors are open to do business, and we stay until they begin to fold up their tents (almost literally, sometimes). I’ve never worn a pedometer, but my aching knees and feet are testimony to the fact that the day includes a few miles of walking, punctuated by a pause to eat lunch at the Methodist Church lunch tent—and pie. Gooseberry, if I’m lucky.
             Then, on the drive home, we stop for a meal and share “war stories” from the day of haggling and treasure-hunting. And of course we have a grown-up version of “show and tell.”    Over the years, I’ve brought home quilts, quilt blocks, feed sacks, silver charms, stereoscope cards (I love to find ones of places in Europe I’ve visited), and my personal favorite—characters for my novels in the guise of those old sepia toned photographs.
            The silver charms were a passion of my daughter’s childhood. Other phases have included windows from old houses, architectural finials and corbels, and … vintage suit cases. Books are a perennial favorite. This year I changed my mind on a beautiful volume titled The Life and Times of D.L. Moody. The reason I didn’t buy it was that it was $2 until I handed over the money … and then the dealer showed me the “real” price … $50. I don’t mind a mark-up, but that seemed a bit much. And I gotta admit I was disappointed that the dealer hadn’t bothered to erase her purchase price before indicating her own price on another page. Sigh. I’ll read about Moody another way.
            I think that one of the reasons I love “old stuff,” though, is the connection it provides to women from the past. And this year I made a connection that I’ll treasure for many years to come. I bought a weed. Sewing machine. I was attracted to the machine—at the back of a vendor’s spot on the street—because of the simplicity of the design. When I got closer, I realized that once it was “put away,” the machine would look like an end table. The cabinet is lovely, the foot pedals intricately formed. And it works.
            But the best thing about the machine was the fragments of 19th century calico in the tool bin … the attachments … the “1871” pressed into the cabinet … and the fact that the dealer had the original manual. It’s a “Family Favorite” model. The manual was copyrighted in 1875, and some of the parts have patent dates as early as 1856. I’m fascinated. I’ve already ‘sprung’ for a page from an 1868 NY City Directory advertising this machine. And a trade card. Both for sale on ebay. I’ve talked to treadle machine enthusiasts and learned that my “weed” was made in Hartford, Connecticut.
            The machine works. And now it’s sitting to the left of my desk where I can wonder about all the women who’ve made work shirts and dresses and aprons and … maybe … quilts seated at this machine. And I’m already looking forward to next year’s caravan to 2013 edition of the Walnut, Iowa, flea market.
            Memories for sale … and memories made. Fun time with my girls. Priceless.