Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Beauty and Women's History

A couple of days ago, I (Stephanie Grace Whitson) shared a video on my personal Facebook page because I wanted the young women in my social loop to see it. I wanted them to realize that our culture sets impossible standards by creating beautiful women with technology and then "passing them off as real." I close this post with that video, but the reason it appears here on my history blog is this:  "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Girls in the 1860s used to starve themselves to get the utlimate compliment of being called "fairylike." Sound familiar? Looked at a runway model's figure lately? 

It has been thus in America since before the Civil War. In an era when tan skin was unacceptable, Thomas Jefferson wrote this to a devoted daughter: "Remember ... not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much." Jefferson may have had a way with words when it came to authoring political documents, but I gotta say he could have used a little coaching when it came to communicating on the subject of beauty. Ahem.
In the 1860s, the ideal waist measurement was 20 inches. T-w-e-n-t-y. Of course fashion designers were happy to create corsets to help women achieve the ideal. And physicians were equally happy to express their outrage at what such nonsense did to a woman's innards. But just as it does now, the desire to be desirable and to meet impossible standards of beauty waged unending war with common sense.

According to Gail Collins, author of America's Women, "while virtually everything women read told them that corsets were bad, everything they saw stressed how essential they were." And it didn't end in the 1860s. After all, an 1880s woman wasn't going to achieve this:
 without this:

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote: "We in America have got so far out of the way of a womanhood that has any vigor of outline or opulence of physical proportion that, when we see a woman made as a woman ought to be, she strikes us as a monster ... Our willowy girls are afraid of nothing so much as growing stout ..." 

Did your mother wear a corset? I was born in 1952 and advertising copy back then mentioned that "every woman has a figure problem." 

And so it goes. The older I get, the more I struggle with the impossible standard. After all, at 79 Sophia Loren "rocked" the red carpet. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Civil War ladies didn't want dark skin, but today we try to achieve it with everything from beach days to tanning beds to spray-on foam. So what is considered "beautiful" does change ... but the role of advertising and impossible standards in our quest isn't new.

As a wise man from the East once said ... 

"That which has been is that which will be,

And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Mourning Event, Part I

"I'm going to a mourning event this weekend ... wanna come?"

Not an invitation you hear often, eh? But when I saw news of the event on the web site for the Chatillon-Demenil House in St. Louis, Missouri, I was intrigued. I'm always interested in historic mansions, but I'd never been to a "mourning event." I have, however, had to research mourning customs, most recently for my book The Shadow on the Quilt. I'm very glad I made the effort to go. The event was well planned and very informative. I found it fascinating.

Attendees were welcomed with the sign at the right placed on the wrought iron fence that borders the back of the property. Friends and fellow authors Judith Miller and Nancy Moser and I purchased our tickets and made our way up the sidewalk that ran alongside the house toward the front door. Why did we go in the back way? Well, the front of the house looks out on an access ramp to an interstate. It's sad that the house just barely escaped being razed, and that "the view" isn't exactly inspiring. Still, the mansion was saved and it's cared for by a group of dedicated people.

Each room of the house was dedicated to a certain aspect of Victorian mourning. First, we met a widow in the first stage of mourning. Then we moved into another room where a widow in the second stage of mourning showed examples of mourning stationery and other ephemera. The dining room table was set with mourning china, complete with a tray of funeral biscuits. In the upstairs hall, another mourner told us about one of the great enemies of children in the 19th century--diphtheria. In another room, a nurse shared some of the things she'd used to treat an ill patient and warned us of the importance of keeping a button on our person at all times, so that if a funeral procession happened to pass by, we could hold onto the button and keep Death from stalking us. Mary Todd Lincoln shared her experience with grief. Back on the main floor, the undertaker greeted us in the formal parlor. Each reenactor seemed very well informed, and I learned something new from each one--and came home with a new appreciation for how different things were in the 1800s, when saying good-bye to loved ones was based in the home.

The plate at the right is an example of the mourning china that was on display in the dining room.
I didn't know such a thing existed!

Commercial bakeries often vied for the "funeral biscuit" business ... just as they competed for wedding cake orders. In some areas, biscuits were distributed at the funeral luncheon or supper. In other parts of the country, they were delivered to family and friends as a way of sharing the news of a loss. Printed memorials were sometimes used for the wrapping paper, the packages closed with black sealing wax.

Overall, this was a fascinating and informative event. The next time I have to kill off a character, I'll know more about how that would have affected the survivors--well, the wealthy survivors, anyway. The "middling folk" wouldn't have been able to participate in such elaborate ritual.

In 2013, we sometimes lament the commercialization of holidays. In the late 1800s, furniture makers, florists, printers, bakers, dressmakers, musicians, stone masons, tailors and more all created product to support an entire industry. Mourning was big business. There is nothing new under the sun.

Posted by Stephanie Grace Whitson 
November 6, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hot Women of History: How Women Dealt With Heat and Hygiene.

As I sit in my air-conditioned house and drive my air-conditioned car, wearing shorts, sandals, and a breezy cotton top, I wonder how women of the past dealt with hot weather. Thinking of all their layers upon layers makes me melt.  Where’s my fan? 

So how did women tolerate the heat?

Perhaps part of the answer is simple:  the change in seasons comes gradually, allowing the body time to adjust.  Plus, it’s relative.  Sixty degrees in April feels warm while sixty degrees in September feels cool. The body adjusts and fabrics change weight and color. 

In “Gone With the Wind” the ladies at the barbecue retire to the shade-darkened bedrooms, strip down to their underwear and nap during the heat of the day.  Daily schedules changed to fit the temperature. People often got up dawn, took a breather in the heat of the day, and went back to work in the cooler evenings.

During the late 1800’s, the wealthy families of the stifling east-coast cities moved their entire households to mansions that took advantage of the ocean breezes of Newport, Rhode Island. People with porches or basements slept wherever they could catch a breeze.  Women carried parasols—which I found handy in Rome.  Note my light-colored cotton clothing.

In the middle ages, the church thought nakedness was evil and baths could make you sick.  Eventually logic prevailed. Later, washing the body, washing the face, and eliminating waste were achieved in three distinct areas: a portable bath tub in the kitchen near the heat source, a wash basin in the bedroom, and an outhouse.  Or a chamber pot—which was emptied in a cess pit in the basement or outdoors.  Putting all the functions in one place didn’t come about until the 1900’s.

If women were traveling, where did they relieve themselves?  They could use outhouses at inns, or if in the country walk away from the wagon or stagecoach, lift their skirts and squat in the grass. Sometimes a fellow woman would spread a shawl or skirt to afford some privacy.  There’s a scene in the movie, “Mrs. Brown” that shows Queen Victoria relieving herself in the woods. Pantaloons were often split in the middle which allowed for this amid all the other skirt layers.

Now comes a question we rarely ask.  How did women handle their periods?  Pads and tampons have been around since ancient times. Moss, leather, and other fabrics were tied around waists or even inserted when wrapped around a stick. In some tribal cultures, women were ostracized during their periods.  But for the most part rags were used, washed, and reused.  And women of status often withdrew during that time, keeping to their rooms—which I suspect played into the image of females being weaker and more fragile than men.

People didn’t wash their clothes often either. To cover the stench they used perfume and pomanders. If everyone smelled, did they get used to it? 

I am so glad I live when I do.  Take a look at my Pinterest board:  What a Lady Wore Beneath it All then check out over 2000 links to wonderful historical fashion!
What could you give up:  Air conditioning, a bathroom, or modern clothing?//Nancy

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Roots of a Dream: The Transcontinental Railroad

Just released is my novel, The Journey of Josephine Cain, which places a spoiled rich girl from Washington D.C. smack dab in the middle of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad after the Civil War.  

 It’s 1866. The Civil War has ended. Tens of thousands of war-weary soldiers need work—and beyond that, a purpose. They long for inspiration and a way to feel united again, a way to feel proud of their country.

Enter the Transcontinental Railroad project. Up until this time, if you wanted to travel from coast to coast, you could take a train as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa or Sacramento, California. Then you’d have to get off the train and go overland by stagecoach or wagon train. It would take six arduous months over mountains, deserts, and rivers.

Before the war, in August 1859, Abraham Lincoln was in Council Bluffs to check on some land that was collateral for a debt, and met with Grenville Dodge where they discussed the possibility of a transcontinental railroad stretching to the Pacific. They stood together on a bluff and looked west, and Dodge (who would become a brigadier general in the war) made a case for going directly across the prairie of the Nebraska territory. Since there was no bridge over the Missouri River between Council Bluffs and Omaha, it was logical to start the project in Omaha.

In 1862, after Lincoln became president, he signed the Pacific Railway Act and created the Union Pacific Railroad. Then he instructed the Union Pacific and Central Pacific to construct America’s first transcontinental railroad connecting Omaha and Sacramento, the Central Pacific heading east, and the Union Pacific heading west. Bonuses were given for miles of track laid, and promises of land for towns was enticing. A lot was at stake for many, many people.

Work started in 1865 and was completed in May 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah. During those four grueling years ex-Confederate soldiers worked side by side with ex-Union soldiers—and ex-slaves. Imagine that. A year earlier they were killing each other. It’s astonishing. And it wasn’t just Americans who worked on the project. Tens of thousands of immigrants left their homelands to work on the railroad. On the Central Pacific line Chinese workers were the prominent work force, and on the Union Pacific, the Irish led the way.

Men were paid varying wages according to their job: $2.50-4.00, or an average of $90/month. Yet the railroad deducted $20/month for food and board. The workers endured long days of backbreaking work, rough living conditions, harsh weather, and the threat of accidents and Indian attacks. Plus, as the railroads entered the Wild West, they came into contact with many people who’d come west to escape iffy pasts and held the law in disdain. Outlaws, shysters, murderers, and con men. Along the way, Hell on Wheel towns followed the crews—just like they’d followed the soldiers in the war—offering booze, gambling, and prostitution.

Why did the men do the work? It gave them food in their bellies, money in their pockets, and even more than that, pride in working toward something big, a project many called impossible. Because of their dedication and courage that six month trip from Omaha to Sacramento was cut down to a few days!

With all this drama and passion in the air it’s not surprising that a pampered general’s daughter from Washington D.C. would find herself a fish out of water. My character Josephine Cain has some choices to make when she is assailed with these rough experiences along the rails. She can choose to run home to what she knows, marry a family friend, and continue life according to the status quo. Or she can cower and be intimidated by the strange new world of the West. Or . . . she can be challenged by the possibilities, and tap into the strong woman she never knew she was. Guess which choice Josephine makes . . .

Come along on this amazing journey of discovery, courage, and faith and be a part of the American dream!
Read an excerpt from The Journey of Josephine Cain here.  Buy it at your favorite bookstores: AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Christian Book .  It's available in paperback or eBook.

Check out Josephine's storyboard on Pinterest. and loads of 1860's fashion here!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I bought three elephants this week.

Really. This little guy on the right was at a local rummage store and my grand-kids have already gotten far more than seven dollars worth of joy out of it. Isn't he adorable?

I imagine some grandpa working in his shop, cutting the pieces, painting the gray ... and then outlining the "saddle" and the cap with those little silver brads. Just too cute not to bring home.

The other two elephants are one-dimensional, embroidered by an unknown hand onto a crazy quilt I won on an online auction. What inspired the maker? Did she love the circus? Had the circus just come through town?

Imagine seeing a live elephant for the first time ... perhaps the only time in a lifetime of days spent on the prairie in the 1800s. The biggest of the two elephants has blue eyes. I love that touch of whimsy ... and even though this quilt is far from "fine" and even though no one else seemed to want it, I'm glad to give it a home. It makes me smile. I think there may be a bit of circus research in my future. I keep remembering sepia-toned photographs I've seen somewhere, of pachyderms making their way down a dusty street in small Nebraska town.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Eye Miniatures

 I was scanning through Pinterest (an addiction--at least I admit it) and saw some "eye miniatures". I had never heard of such a thing.  But apparently in the late 1700's people would commission a portrait of their loved one's eyes.  Or eye.  Just one.
The art was usually watercolor on ivory and was made into a brooch, bracelet, or ring. They're actually quite amazing.  If the eyes are the door to one's soul, then I can imagine wanting to capture that image for all time.

It's said that George III(England's king who wouldn't let the 13 American colonies go) had a mistress who gave him a portrait of her eye. Of course, when that's all there is in the portrait, it's hard to identify who the eye belongs to.  Quite perfect for lovers and mistresses, and hence they were called "Lovers' Eyes".  But eventually, it became a more sentimental keepsake for family members.

They can be quite pricey to collect, from $1000 to $20,000. 

But beware the fake! Here's a fascinating article about it (and Antiques Road Show) here. 

I also found a book about them.

All these painted eyes seem quite lovely, but are missing one thing.


You can't convince me that none of the subjects had crow's feet. 

Sorry.  Sometimes I'm just too practical.  Where is my romantic side?  Lost in the past, no doubt.

Take a look at my Pinterest board that has loads of Antiques and Vintage Fascinations. Check out these other links to the boards I have about fashion (from most every era), accessories, underwear and corsets, portraits, jewels, history that intrigues me ...  Once there, click on the boards to Follow me!  (saying that I feel like the character in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade")

If you're new to Pinterest, let me warn you, it's addictive.  But in a nice way.//Nancy

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Name This Character. Please.

Name This Character

Names are my nemesis.

I can find faces. I spent a lovely couple of hours yesterday finding faces and "auditioning" them on the toile-covered board in my office.

 ... but names. ARRRGHHH. 

The fact that I've already used so many names in past books complicates things immensely. 

So many of the women's names I like have already been "taken." 

So here's "her" photo. The clothing is wrong, by the way. It's only 1861 in the book and this is probably more 1890s (the leg o'mutton sleeves on the coat are a dead give-away), but that face---perfect. 

This is my leading lady. 

Do you see Jenny, Lydia, Madaline (I suppose she would be called Maddie?), Rosalie,or some other name I haven't considered?

By the way, I collect names from historical documents and tombstones, just to make sure it's a name that was in use. 

In this case it would have to have been in use in 1843 when my leading lady was born. 

It isn't a contest, but I'd appreciate your input. And if I choose the name you suggested, I promise to thank you when I write the acknowledgements ... and I'll send you a free book when it's available next spring (this book doesn't release until spring of 2014). Well, there you go ... maybe it is a contest, after all.

Stephanie G.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Easter ... a re-post, a reminder

If you are new to "Footnotes from History," this will be a new post. If not, then you may remember is from last year ... but I still need the reminder (as I plan Easter baskets for my grandkids). If you are like me, you often re-read books or re-watch movies. I hope you won't mind a re-run here.

Human History's Crowning Event

Next weekend we'll be commemorating the single most important event in all of human history. A first century itinerant teacher's death. But don't forget the rest of that bit of history. Jesus wasn't just a great teacher. He also created the known universe. He was the only One who could solve my sin problem, and He did it ... and then He proved it by leaving the empty tomb. Imagine. Climbing out of one's own grave. The ultimate "it is finished." I've spent a great part of my adult life trying to wrap my brain around that concept and I just can't do it. Faith has to step in at some point, because it just isn't humanly comprehensible. Which is OK by me. Who needs a God they can explain.

Listening to this song makes me think of  the apostles gathered in a dark place. Hiding away ... and wishing they could see a way through the darkness that descended with Jesus--their hope--lay in a tomb. Thought I'd share that song with you as part of this unconventional post.


In one of my former lives I was a secretary at the University of Nebraska (back in the day we were still called secretaries). One of my bosses was a devout Roman Catholic whose wife wrote an award-winning column for the local newspaper. I'd like to share her 1986 column about Easter. It isn't intended to spoil the fun ... fun is great ("He gives us all good things to richly enjoy"). But it's also a challenge to remember the primary purpose for this season we celebrate every spring. Mrs. Costello was the mother of a tribe of kids, and I hear her challenging herself with these words. To remember the primary purpose. Wisdom from over a quarter of a century ago by one Mary Costello:
Two thousand years ago, an itinerant preacher was hanged as a common criminal. He died on some trumped-up charges, probably because he was different. Mainly, the problem was he didn't fit in with those in authority, and they were afraid of him. He was going around the countryside doing some strange things and stirring up trouble. So they thought they'd better get rid of him--as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

And that's how we continue to commemorate his death--as quickly and efficiently as possible. "Oh, yes. Good Friday. I remember that. But I have to work."

This man, who was  God, died for us. To redeem us, and to bring us to his father. And we remember his death with pink stuffed bunnies and chocolate eggs.

He was tortured, hung on a cross with nails in his hands and feet. He was beat with a whip and tortured with a helmet of nails pushed into his scalp. I'll try to remember that between commercials on "Miami Vice" Friday night.

His mother placed him in the tomb and arranged the clothes around him with her own hands. Well, some businesses do close at noon on Good Friday.

After three days in the tomb, the preacher rose from the dead. It was the most magnificent, glorious miracle in the history of mankind. To celebrate that event, I'll get all the kids new shoes.

It was an event that changed the course of history, for all time. It was the focal point, the turning point of man's existence. "Church on Easter. Yes, that would be nice. All the little girls in their bonnets and pink sweaters. But we'll probably just sleep in--haven't had a Sunday off in ages."

His resurrection says to us: "Have hope. I love you. I came to save you; to bring you to heaven with me." So we dig out the little plastic baskets, fill them with green plastic grass and arrange chocolate eggs and jelly beans. Jelly beans have become a great symbol of hope to all Americans. Does that strike you as strange?

To everyone he met, after he rose and left the tomb, he said, "My peace be with you." In memory of that, and to bring peace into my own life, I will spend the entire week before Easter dashing around town, buying candy and eggs and shoes and new stockings to match dresses that will only be worn once, and we will spend Sunday eating too much and fighting over who ate all the marshmallow chicks.

His friends were so happy to see him, they cried. They understood. Between the egg hunt and the ham and scalloped potatoes, if I have a minute, I'll try to remember how they felt.

He lived and died for us, so that we might have life everlasting, but also so that our lives could be filled with hope and peace and joy. In the weeks after Easter--when the world is filled with new life and tiny blue lilac buds, and palest green grass and all the wonders spring brings to us--I'll try to remember his life, and what it has taught me. I hope it's more than pink stuffed bunnies.

In these approaches our celebration of His resurrection, may you 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pride in "Pride & Prejudice"

Two hundred years ago, one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite authors was published. Pride & Prejudice. If you haven't read the book, I'm betting you've seen either the movie or the series.

Most people have a preference as to favorite actors playing their favorite characters. For fun I thought I'd compare the two versions and vote on which version of the characters were my favorites.         

SERIES: Elizabeth Bennet--Jennifer Ehle.
It was was a very bright and strong portrayal.           


MOVIE: Elizabeth Bennet – Keira Knightly
Not enough of a presence in the movie.

SERIES: Mr.Darcy – Colin Firth WINNER 
THE Mr. Darcy. There is no other.
Ask anyone.


MOVIE: Mr. Darcy -- Matthew Macfadyen
Very handsome, but no one can
top Colin Firth.  Sorry abou that.

SERIES: Mr. Wickham -- Adrian Lukis
Very charming and sleazy.

MOVIE: Mr. Wickham – Rupert Friend WINNER.  I might be prejudiced, but seeing him in “Young Victoria” makes me a forever fan

SERIES: Jane Bennet -- Susannah Harker
Sweet, but hated the hair so much I
couldn't believe she was the "pretty one"
even though she is very pretty. She seemed kind of vacant.
MOVIE: Jane Bennet -- Karen Wasyloski  WINNER
So lovely and sweet. Had some life in her.

SERIES: Mr. Collins -- David Bamber WINNER
Again, the hair was a factor.  So greasy
and icky.  And he was so fawning I simply
had to be disgusted by him.

MOVIE: Mr. Collins -- Tom Hollander
Just didn't buy it.

The other sisters, the mother and father, Mr. Bingley . . . the actors in both versions did fine.
The costumes?  Although the bodices in the TV series were sometimes too stiff, the sacks that passed for everyday dresses in the movie made the Bennets look far poorer than they were.

Overall, the mini-series wins hands down.  I just don't think you can edit this wonderful story down to a 2 hour movie.  What do you think?
To cap off my opinion . . . here's one of my favorite pictures of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy's wedding.   True love does exist!

If you haven't read the book, there are hundreds of versions, but one I love is an annotated version that has interesting and sometimes funny comments and trivia. 

Also, if you'd like to read a biography of Jane Austen, that's factual but reads like a novel (it's Jane telling her life story), try my novel, Just JaneIf you'd like to read an excerpt, click here.
     There's good reason that Jane's stories have lasted 200 years./Nancy