Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Symbol of our Freedom for Veterans' Day

*  A Note from Nancy  *

On this Veterans Day we thank all our veterans who have served to protect and defend our country.  My family has had a long line of veterans, from my dad in World War II, to a grandfather in World War I, to two great-grandfathers in the Civil War, and another "great" fighting in the Revolutionary War.  God bless America!

Thinking of Veterans ignites a swell of patriotism in my breast.  And the symbol of what our country stands for is the Statue of Liberty.

A month ago she celebrated her 128th birthday...

October 1886.  As we all learned in grammar school, the Statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, to celebrate the friendship between the two countries that was started during the American Revolution. Basically, if it weren’t for France sending ships and men to help our cause, we all might be talking with a British accent.

The Statue was supposed to come about in 1876, to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, but funding issues—on both sides of the Atlantic—made for an ten year delay. The deal was, France would give us the statue and assemble it, and we would build the base to put it on. 

Note the hand on its side
Assembled in France

Reassembled in America

To spur Americans to donate, Joseph Pulitzer (of the Pulitzer Prize) used his newspaper, “The World” to shame people into giving. He got after the rich for not giving more, and got after the middle class for relying on the rich to do the giving. It worked.

A foot bigger than mine!

 The sculptor was Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who asked Gustave Eiffel (the designer of the Eiffel Tower) to figure out the iron framework underneath the copper plating—which was only 3/32” thick.
The torch on display in Paris
The Statue was put together in Paris, dismantled into 350 pieces, and packed into 214 crates. Parts of the statue were displayed in Paris during the construction. It took four months to put it all back together.

The presence of the Statue in the harbor--Lady Liberty greeting the influx of millions of immigrants--made her evolve into a symbol of freedom and hope. In 1883, Emily Lazarus wrote the poem “The New Colossus” for an auction to raise money for the pedestal. Only after her death was the poem married with the Statue. Since 1903 the poem has been on a plaque at the foot of the statue.

C.W. Jefferys painting

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Enjoy the photos, and remember all she stood for—and has come to stand for.//Nancy

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Pioneer's Ghost Story

The Ghost Story

                    Reprinted from a 1912 edition of Pioneer Tales of the Oregon Trail and of Jefferson County by Charles Dawson.
This reprinting is an exact reproduction of the original with the exception of a few nods to more modern punctuation and paragraph formatting, 
solely for  the purpose of making the text more accessible to readers in 2014. Submitted by Stephanie Grace Whitson

            Without attempt to uphold the beliefs of the superstitious, a ghost story is chronicled. Nearly every community has in its story-lore, some weird tale of people or things that assumes the aspect of the supernatural. Seemingly, all people, regardless of their beliefs, relish the relation of such tales; so the story is submitted on its own merits, just as it was told, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. An old settler gives the story, as follows:
            In the late [18]60’s, wife and I with our bunch of tow-headed youngsters were headed westward, traveling by ox-team, in a canvas-topped wagon, bound for Nebraska, in response to the solicitations of my father, who had settled there a few years previously. Crossing the Missouri river in the early days of spring, at St. Joseph, we joined one of the first caravans of emigrants going westward over the Old Oregon Trail. Traveling over the wonderful prairies and through the rich valleys of eastern Kansas, we had our ideas of the Great American Desert rudely but pleasantly shattered.
            In due time we reached our destination, and encamped on the tract of land that had been selected for us, which was a well-timbered and watered body of land, lying along a spring-fed stream, that ran back into a valley which was flanked on the sides by frowning bluffs capped by ledges of sandstone. As the first tints of green began to appear to bedeck the landscape it was a wonderful sight to witness the unfolding of such picturesque scenery, the like of which we had never seen before.
            Our new home lay about half-way between the Old Trail and the Little Blue river, but this is all I will tell you, for ghosts and their haunts should not be too definitely located, as it might spoil their charms or the veracity, if there be any.
            We immediately commenced the building of a home, and, with the aid of my relatives and neighbors, contrived to erect a habitable log cabin, a one-room affair with a loft above, with a clapboard roof, provided with a mud-and-stick chimney, with a stone fireplace at one end. Compared with our previous places of habitation and modes of living this seemed at first to be very primitive and almost unendurable, but before long we grew to regard this homely little log cabin as the coziest place it had been our pleasure to reside in.
            With the coming of the warm days of spring, we broke out the little flats of land along the creek bottom, and planted them with corn, potatoes, melons, etc. Gardens were made, and we entered into the cultivation of our promising crops, hoping to reap an abundance for our needs. Nature had by now fully bedecked the whole panorama with a wonderful profusion of foliage, blossom, and color.
            Our little world seemed to be filled to overflowing with promise and happiness. Strawberry-time had come. The hillsides were apparently covered with the patches of red luscious fruit. One Sabbath morning, wife and I, light of heart, arms in arm, set out to roam the hillsides to gather a pailful of strawberries. We were soon in the midst of a profusion of strawberries, so plentiful, full and ripe on all sides of us, that we ran here and there, trampling under foot many berries, in our greed to secure the nicest ones.
            Our pail was soon full to the brim, and our fingers and lips stained from picking and eating, till we were forced to desist, for want of further capacity. Then, feeling the tire of contented satisfaction, we sat down upon a convenient rock, lazily viewing the surrounding scenery, resting before we would attempt our home-bound journey.
            With half-closed eyes lying back on the big shaded ledge of stone, my thoughts were dwelling on the incidents of the short past, in which we had left the comforts of civilization and had taken up our abode in this the land of promise, thinking how content we were; and just as I began to conjecture the future, I was aroused by the exclamation of the wife, who was now pointing across the rock-walled ravine to a springy spot, shaded by scattered clumps of underbrush. Brushing aside the sleepy tangles of my eyes, I noted the cause of her excitement, which I first thought might be Indians. Underneath and in the tangles of green were berries—strawberries of great size and blood-red color, rivaling even the choices of the tame ones we had seen in the gardens of our Eastern homes.
            Leaving our already filled pail, we hastened over to view the wonderful sight. Picking and eating the first few that we came to, we decided to take some home in my old hat and in the wife’s apron; so, with many ejaculations of wonder and surprise, we filled these articles, and as I strode through a thick tangle of brush in leaving the patch, my foot caught on an object which threw me to the ground, and on turning over, seeking to arise, I found at my feet the skull of a human being. Leaping to my feet, I rushed out of the thicket almost completely unnerved at my ghastly find. Wife witnessing my stumble and following movements, ran back towards me, inquiring with alarm the cause of this unusual action. Together we walked back, and I pointed to the eyeless bare skull that was apparently grinning at us from his mouldy moss-covered retreat from which my foot had ruthlessly torn him but a moment before.
            Proceeding into the thicket to investigate more fully, we found that underneath the leafy and moulding foliages of the past seasons which had covered their bodies like that of the “Babes in the Wood” were the bones of many other persons. In fact, our strawberry patch had been the burial-ground of the unknown dead. Wife and I, stilled by the presence of the dead, stood with bowed heads, silently offered up prayers to Him on high, who alone could give the solution of this mystery.
            Glancing up, I met the gaze of my wife, and with one accord my old hat was overturned and the corners of her apron were dropped and the berries spilled on the ground. For we both knew without further questioning, what had caused the berries to be so big and red.
            Then we made a thorough search thereabout for the bones of the unknown dead, faithfully gathering the bones as they lay, endeavoring to give each skull its own and full complement of bones. Finally we felt that this duty had been performed, and the result was twelve skeletons, which we judged were a party of emigrants, men, women and children. After considerable labor, a grave was dug and the bones placed within, and filled up with earth and stones covering the top to mark and protect the grave. Thoroughly tired by our toil, we wended our way homeward, conscious that we had fulfilled our duty to those poor unfortunate beings by giving them at least a burial.
            After the supper meal was partaken and we had gathered on the doorstep in the twilight of the evening, we began to feel content and at peace with all fellow-beings; then there came an uncanny, weird moan or cry, like that of a woman or child in the depth of anguish or despair. Listening in awe, I awaited the repetition of that mournful sound. Soon it came, now in the fringe of trees about the cabin, then in the waist-high corn. Swift recalling the incidents of that day, I tried to assure myself that it was not real, that this was but the result of a befuddled mind, just imagination; but the children now were questioning us as to the cry, and upon receiving non-committal answers, and perhaps reading our faces, they grew frightened and began to cry.
            To assert myself and to allay their fears I arose and said to the wife, “Hand me my rifle and I will go down there and shoot that old, tree-toad, or whatever it may be.” Leaving the wife and children on the porch, I proceeded to search about in the growing corn, around the barn and all through the near-by underbrush, but without result, although I seemed to be following the voice from point to point. Finally it seemed to be at the cabin. Hastening there, I found that my family had fled within and had barred the door. Undaunted, I continued the search, following the clues from when I heard the voice. After vain attempts which led me to the roof, around and underneath the cabin, I contracted the same feelings of the rest of the family, and called for admittance.
            There was not much sleep for us that night, for we could hear the cries of our unearthly visitor at frequent intervals, till the early dawn of the morning. Night after night we had much the same experience until we grew accustomed to it and were but little disturbed. Our neighbors joined with us on several occasions to find the mysterious visitor, but despite the most exacting vigils and search, we gave it up, for not one single object or reason could be found that might be suspected of making the nightly occurring sounds, which the neighbors dubbed “The Lost Woman Ghost.”
            The summer wore on, succeeded by the bountiful autumn harvests. We should have been happy and content, but the “nightly visitor” had worn our nerves, so after the harvest had been gathered, I was only too glad to sanction the wife’s suggestion that we go and live with my father down on the Little Blue river, for the winter, as it was too lonesome away up here by ourselves.
            We spent the long winter down there, hunting and trapping, returning occasionally to see if everything was all right at our homestead, but never staying overnight, so we did not know if our unwelcome guest had departed or not. With the opening days of spring, we moved back, for our crops must be planted and tended, and the first night of our return was celebrated by the usual performance of the unseen voice. Of course this was annoying, but what could we do? Then there was no harm resulting, so we settled down, accepting the situation as best we could. Strawberry-picking time came again, and we started out once more to search the hillsides and ravines for the big red berries. Our wanderings brought us to the burial-place of the unknown party of people that we had found just one year ago. Here we stood for a moment with bared heads in reverence, swiftly recalling the incidents of their past as we knew of them, praying that we might in some way learn who they were, so that their relatives might know of their fate, and as we realized the improbability of this, we turned away with dimmed eyes, and continued to ascend the hill.
            Upon reaching the top, we sat down upon a large flat boulder to rest. The whole panorama lay spread out at our feet, and across the ravine to our right was a hillside almost mountainous in appearance, cut and intersticed by irregular, rock-filled canyons and gorges, down which trickling spring-fed streams flowed, the rock-strewn hillside being covered with straggling growths of dwarfed oaks and hackberry trees, with the hill itself rising high to the blue sky-line, capped with heavy ledge of brown sandstone, irregularly set, cracked and fissured deeply with dark recesses underneath the many overhanging shelves, which suggested ideal retreats for wild animal life.
            As we searched with our eyes every part of its face for some new wonder of formation, a ghastly sight came to our vision—the skeleton of a human being. On closer investigation we found it to be that of a woman, huddled in a crouched, squatting position, back against the wall of a cavern-like place, seemingly as though she had taken refuge here, only to be found, and had raised her arms to ward off the blow that had stilled her life.
            Tenderly we gathered up the bones and carried them down to the burial-place, and interred them with the rest, whom we judged to have been her companions. That afternoon was spent in the search for others that might be lying unburied on the hillsides, but the search proved fruitless; our only find bein
g a few piles of fire-warped wagon-irons and charred wood-work, near which lay bones of oxen, many having the wooden yokes still around their necks. A few arrows were found scattered about in these piles of bones, so we knew that this was the work of Indians.

            In the twilight of that evening I sat upon the broad doorstep of our cabin, thinking of all these things, the part that we had played and who these people might be; then came the though, could there be any connection between them and the ghostly visitor? If so, perhaps it would give me an answer tonight. Though I waited and meditated long into the night I was in one way disappointed, for the voice came not—not alone that night, but never afterwards. So to me the mystery has deepened as they years have gone by. Was this the spirit of the murdered woman beseeching me to bury her bones beside those we had previously buried, who no doubt had met a similar fate? I hope so, and if this gave rest to the Soul, let it be the end.

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 (http://tinyurl.com/n2ykr2f) 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 www.stephaniewhitson.com 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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How Much Things Cost--Then and Now


How much does it cost? It’s an oft-used phrase, an oft-asked question. The cost of living affects every part of our lives. We make choices based on an item’s cost.

I’ve always been fascinated with how much things cost in the past. Much of the time, the items seem ridiculously cheap. And yet . . . and yet . . . when taken in relation to income, often what seems cheap isn’t.

For instance, in a Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog a pair of women’s boots costs $1.75. We can find similar boots today for $49.95.

Yet considering the income of many unskilled city-dwellers was only $740/year . . . They worked 10-12 hours a day, for $.20/hour, six days a week. It’s said that a dollar in 1886 is worth $23.50 now (http://www.measuringworth.com ). Let’s make it x 24 to make it a nice number… $740 in today’s money is $17,760. It seems about even-steven. Even the cost of the boots is commensurate: $1.75 x 24 = $42. It’s actually kind of amazing.

The day dress on the left—with a lot of embellishments—cost $4.75 in the Bloomingdale’s catalog. The one on the right, with a lot of lace, was $12.75. Although it’s hard to find a present-day outfit that uses an equal amount of yardage or trim, if we take the 1886 price x 24, that brings up a modern-day cost of $114-$306 for an outfit with a lot of detail. Again, not out of line. 

Let's look at something fancy. A silver-plated napkin ring cost $.29 each (or $1.16 for 4). Now? $27.84 for 4 (but note the modern ones are simple, with no fancy etching.)

A baby carriage cost $11.50. Now? A collapsible stroller with extra storage and cup holders costs $249. Close to the $276 inflation number.

So where is the discrepancy in what things cost then and now? Or is there one?

A basic not-so-nice apartment rented for $15/month. Times 24 = $360. Can people find any type of housing for $360/month anymore? And only the rich owned carriages while almost everyone now owns their own car.

The cost of living in 1886 was pretty basic: lodging, food, and clothes. No charges for cell phones, computers, cable TV, air conditioning, internet, insurance, gasoline . . .  And no income tax or sales tax. 

We have more to spend our money on nowadays. More bottom-line items in our monthly budgets. Our lives are more varied and comfortable. And complicated. But we work shorter hours, spend more time and money on entertainment and recreation, and have something most 1886 people did not:  FREE TIME. We have more options in every aspect of our lives. Is that a good thing? Are we happier?

It still comes down to the fact that money—and buying things—shouldn't be the source of our happiness. The things that have no monetary cost are the things that are priceless: our family, friends, faith, and freedom//Nancy Moser

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Labor Day

A post about Labor Day 
by Stephanie Grace Whitson

How did your family celebrate Labor Day this past Monday? Were you able to spend the day the way you wanted to, or did someone in the family have to go to work? I was racing toward a September 15 deadline, and so I worked. But I did take a few minutes to learn a bit about the origins of Labor Day. I didn't know that it was a result of the "Labor Movement" at the end of the 19th century, and that it became a national holiday in 1894.

The American Worker deserved to be celebrated. Long hours and what we call “sweat equity” did a lot to develop the tradition that a strong “work ethic” is a virtue. But along the path to developing a healthy work ethic, there were many missteps that the Labor Movement would address over the years.

Child labor was one reality that needed changing, and it raised issues that weren’t necessarily “black and white.” After all, any child raised on a farm will tell you that they learned to work hard and long at a young age, because farming families work together. Children can provide meaningful help, and they feel good when they contribute to the family. That’s a good thing. But prior to the enactment of child labor laws, children could easily be exploited. During the Industrial Revolution, entire families often went to work in a factory where the “work week” was 68-72 hours long in dangerous conditions. Even after labor laws were enacted, they didn’t always apply to immigrant children.

The photograph at right shows a group of "Breaker Boys," who were employed in the coal industry early in the 20th century. According to a 1902 study, nearly 18,000 persons were employed as slate pickers in the anthracite coal industry. "The majority of these are boys from the ages of 10 to 14 years."

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and just as photographer Jacob Riis did much to call attention to the plight of immigrants in the city of New York, so did a photographer named Lewis Hines do much to decry the plight of child workers when, in 1909, he published the first of many photo essays showing children working in potentially dangerous places. See some of his copyrighted work here: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/about.htm

Here’s a photo that reminds me to be thankful for the hard work of others. Because Grayson Irvin (shown here in the uniform he wore to work) spent long hours behind the wheel of a truck, hauling freight for Yellow Transit, I had a childhood free from hunger. I had the freedom to study and to get a high school diploma (Daddy never got beyond the 8th Grade, because he had to drop out and got to work to help feed his siblings).

I'll end this blog post on a happy note. The photograph on the right is my favorite "Labor Day" photograph. Why? Because in September of 1982, I labored (literally) to bring a little boy into this world. And here he is today...a hard-working husband and father and a superb fisherman. My truck-driving Daddy loved to fish. He'd be proud, and so am I.
  • Has a photograph ever inspired you to make a change for the better, either in your own life or in the life of another person?
  • When did you get your first job?
  • Belated Happy Labor Day!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'll Take Thirty Dresses

 A Note From Nancy *

I've been sewing since I was a little girl.  It's in my blood.  As such I like fashion, and I like to write about dressmaking...

Made-to-order workroom in Stewart's
My novel An Unlikely Suitor begins in a dressmaking shop in New York City in 1895. Off-the-rack clothes were no longer a novelty and could be purchased at a myriad of department stores (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Stewart’s, Bergdorf-Goodman…) Many stores offered both custom made clothing as well as ready-to-wear, which was often sewn to fit on the premises. Women could also order clothing from catalogs. But with all these options, most high-society ladies still had their wardrobes custom designed and sewn, often in small dress-shops. In my book it’s Madame Moreau’s Fashion Emporium. The “Madame Moreau” in the store’s name is in reaction to a fascination with all things French. Actually, the woman who runs the store is named Mrs. Flynn, who had the uncanny ability to adopt a French accent when dealing with her clientele. These dressmakers often imported Paris fashion—to copy, although in the 1890's they were taking more and more pride in their own developing American fashion.
Bloomingdale's 1888 catalog

Although the complexity of the bustle-era was gone (illustration at left is 1888), dresses in the mid-1890’s were far from simple. The focus moved from the back of the dress to the sleeves—or actually to the waist. For by making the sleeves ridiculously huge, a woman’s waist appeared tiny in comparison. And in the everything-old-is-new-again phenomenon, it should be noted that these sleeves were also popular in the 1830’s. But during that time, skirts were also wide, making women look as if they were swallowed up by their clothes!  Too much.
Fashion is all about silhouettes. To create the hour-glass silhouette of the 1890’s, a wide top and small middle was needed. 

bodice pattern
The over-sized puffy sleeves were called gigots, or leg-o-mutton sleeves. They were often made from four separate pieces of fabric (most sleeves nowadays are cut from one piece), and they could be stuffed so they kept their shape. Skirts were often four or six gores, or had insets of gathers at the thigh-level (as a seamstress myself, I know these insets would be difficult to do.) Even though the patterns to ,make these clothes were still far from simple, it was a big step for women’s fashion to lose the bustle.

Note the inset flared skirts on the right
To herald the new style came the “shirtwaist”. It became the uniform of working women everywhere: a relatively plain skirt with a leg-o-mutton blouse that had a standing band collar and buttons up the back. A simple petticoat was all that was needed—except for the dratted corset, of course. It would still be twenty-five years before women rid themselves of that awful contraption. Wearing this relatively simple ensemble women were able to go to college, work, and enjoy sports such as golf or tennis.

But forget shirtwaists for the rich patronesses of the dress shops. They wanted custom designs that made them stand out from the masses of women wearing the simpler styles.

The dressmaking shops were often staffed by immigrants, first or second generation Americans. They created the intricate patterns for the dresses, cut the fabric (which was purchased in varying non-standardized widths. Now, we basically have 45”, 54”, and 60” widths to choose from), and sewed the garments on machines and by hand (I’ll be blogging about the evolution of the sewing machine next week.) The elite of society kept these shops busy with their need to showcase their family’s successes and wealth through their fashion. To walk the streets of New York City in elegant finery, to take a promenade through Central Park, to go to the opera or Delmonico’s, to attend a ball or dinner at the Astor’s or Vanderbilt’s, demanded fashion that wowed the viewer. Has much changed today? Don’t we also long to be thought of as fashionable?

Now here’s an age old question: did women dress for men or women? Do we dress for men or women now? The fashion of the late nineteenth century tried to emphasize a woman’s figure (even if it was completely covered). But I still think most women dress for the appreciation of other women. For do men really know if something is fashionable or not? Women notice. Women know.

Another reason the dressmaking shops kept busy was the summer season. Many of the members of the Four Hundred of New York society went to Newport, Rhode Island for six to eight weeks at the end of every summer. There, amid the cool ocean breezes, they created another version of society, with as many rules and standards as they had in the city. Each woman needed nearly thirty new outfits for this season.

That’s the starting point in An Unlikely Suitor. A mother and daughter enter Madame Moreau’s in need of an entirely new wardrobe…only the daughter suffers from an infirmity that causes her dresses to hang oddly. Enter the heroine, Lucy Scarpelli to find a sewing solution. And so a friendship between immigrant seamstress and wealthy heiress is born . . . and continues as Lucy gets a chance to join Rowena in Newport. It’s a classic premise of friendship between a poor girl and a rich girl, set amid the lavish opulence of Newport, with the breeze blowing off the Cliff Walk, and handsome young men with time on their hands . . . Trust me, the story is well . . . sewn.//Nancy

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fickle Fashion


Summer makes me think about the fashion of the past. How at ease we are now. How comfortable.  It wasn't always so...

It’s said that women are slaves to fashion. Unfortunately, it’s a very true statement. Here are a few cases that show how fickle women’s fashion has been through the ages, and how we women have meekly followed the trends:

Ruff-Ruff: It’s said Queen Elizabeth I was often sewn into her clothes (it would be 300 years before the zipper made dressing easy.) But beyond that tidbit, I don’t understand the ruff from this era. In order to get fabric to hold its form it has to be stiff. Perhaps this is where the phrase, “Keep your chin up” came about. At least men were subjected too. Enough ruff.

The Anchor Skirt: That’s not a real term, just my take on the shape of the ridiculous side-contraptions that swept through Europe from Russia to France in the last half of the eighteenth century. I understand women often try to camouflage their hips, but please. Didn’t they get tired of entering a room sideways? See 18th Century Fashion
The Great Reveal: After the American and French Revolutions, fashion said off-with-your-head to any dress that required blueprints to create and to wear. The result was gowns that let the skirt fall free from an “empire” waist. As a result, women were discovered to have legs! It seemed as though a dose of reason had finally taken over fashion. But stupidity was just around the corner …  See Regency Fashion

Idiot Sleeves: I didn’t name this one—it’s the real name of the huge sleeves of the Romantic Era of fashion (1825-35). Skirts were simpler but full again—though sometimes they were short enough to reveal a woman’s ankle. Apparently the cling of the full leg of the previous Regency fashion was too much to bear. Or too tempting?See Vintage Fashion

Frankly My Dear: Hoops. Big ones. A hundred years earlier, women had to walk sideways through doors. Now they had to watch how they sat down or the entire world would get a show. At least this style gave women a pretty bell silhouette. Ding-dong-ding swung the bell as they walked.See 1860's Fashion

Baby Got Back: The 1870’s and 80’s brought about the bustle. Padding and cages and over-draping and flounces, pushing out the back of the dresses. Now women had to sit on the edge of their chairs to leave room for what was behind. Backless bustle-chairs were created to solve this problem. At least when they walked there was a nice sway. See 1870's Fashion  See 1880's Fashion

Baa-Baa: The leg-o-mutton sleeves of the 1890’s made wearing a coat difficult. Supposedly the enormous width of a woman’s top half made her waist look tiny. Maybe I should try it. I can use all the help I can get. See 1890's Fashion

Here’s the Skinny: The second decade of the 20th century brought a skinny silhouette. Finally women could sit comfortably in a chair, walk through doorways, and not fear a high wind. Yet some of the skirts went too far (surprise, surprise) and the “hobble skirt” was born. It’s self-explanatory. See Edwardian Fashion

Dapper Flapper: WWI was over, Europe was free of its oppressors (for the moment) and women took note and freed themselves from corsets, hoops, waistlines, as well as sleeves and long skirts. Bare arms, shoulders, knees, and calves. Yikes! Fabrics were sheer and flowing—great for dancing the Charleston, smoking cigarettes, and drinking a dry martini. See 1920's Fashion

The Pants in the Family: The forties had women taking on men’s jobs while the men were at war. Again. With the responsibilities came the ease of menswear. Finally women were allowed to wear pants! No one wore menswear better than Katherine Hepburn.
See 1940's Fashion

Corsets Again?: From the fabric rationing of WWII came the circle skirts of the fifties. And small waists and pronounced bosoms. Think Deborah Kerr’s wardrobe in “Indiscreet” and "An Affair to Remember." Dreamy. All girl. This would be my choice for fashion. It was fabulously pretty and elegant. Of course, this was also the age of Cary Grant and all his luscious movies, so I can’t be certain he’s not  a big part of my choice. See 1950's Fashion

Hobble Skirts II: Pencil skirts accentuated the bottom half and sweaters and cone-like bras accentuated the top. Girdles were essential. No thanks.

Jackie Oh!: Our first lady was the epitome of class in her tailored suits and sheath dresses. But Mod was also in, and took the sheath to higher heights. Our favorite girl was “That Girl” Marlo Thomas.
See 1960's Fashion
Dippie Hippie: The seventies was all about one thing: anything goes. Mini’s, maxi’s, midi’s. Caftans, bell bottoms, granny dresses, gypsy skirts, polyester knit, and psychedelic tie-dye (I wore them all.) It was grungy and dirty and unkempt, but it was oh-so comfy. But would comfy ever coincide with classy?  See 1970's Fashion

Power Woman: I hate to admit it, but I still have a few suits from the eighties. How do I know they’re from that era? The ridiculous shoulder pads and stupid neck ties—tied in bows. Women were trying too hard to look powerful. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.  I need to call Goodwill for a pickup.

And now . . . Oddly, it’s hard for me to pinpoint fashion right now. Comfort is in, but pants are skinny and wide, long or capris. I have dresses that are reminiscent of the 20’s, 40’s, and beyond. Fashionable boots have high heels or we wear flip-flops. It’s almost hard to wear something that’s out of style. As I sit here in my jeans, sandals, and corsetless torso I can count myself lucky that fashion is one element of my life that I don’t stress over. Have we women finally—finally—found enough confidence to make our own choices? Perhaps. Until the next fashion show piques our interest. Just no hoops please.//Nancy