Researching the Etymology of Words for Historical Fiction


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miners big_8543bc4ba3

Miners in the Gold Rush era

I try to keep the language I use in my historical novels true to the time period I’m writing about. This is particularly important in the dialogue between characters and in the thoughts of my point of view character. The accuracy of the language I use is as important to the verisimilitude of the novel as the settings I describe in my books.

But it is a constant battle. My current work-in-progress takes place between 1848 and 1850. I’ve caught myself using a lot of modern idioms as I’m writing, and my critique partners also help me find and eliminate these anachronisms.

For example, in a recent draft of the book, I wrote that my protagonist “tuned out” other characters who were squabbling in his presence. One of my critique partners told me that phrase didn’t sound appropriate for 1848. So I googled “tune out first use”. Merriam-Webster told me the first usage was in 1908. I rewrote that sentence.

On another occasion, I wrote that a character “updated” my protagonist about his family’s activities. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “update” was first used as a verb in 1944, and wasn’t used as a noun until 1967. Out it went.

In a recent submission to my partners, I had one character say he was not “suited” to another. My partners questioned this language, but this is an old usage. In fact, it “suits” my time period perfectly. I kept that—at least for this draft. Who knows what the final text will read?

In another chapter I wrote that one character “blasted” another (meaning he spoke angrily). When I was asked about this, I had to admit it sounded wrong, so I researched it. In fact, “blast” meaning “to belch forth” dates back to Old English, and has been used even to mean “to blow up by explosion” since the 1750s. (Though “blast off” dates only to 1950.) Still, I might change this in the final version.

A novelist friend and former newspaper writer swears by the Oxford English Dictionary.  I don’t have a subscription to the venerable OED, but I would never dispute its accuracy. I do use the free version sometimes.  But my favorite online resource for researching first uses of words and phrases is the Online Etymology Dictionary.  It doesn’t tell me everything, but it tells me a lot.

A writer friend recently told me about how to use Google Books to research the time periods in which words and phrases have most been used most frequently. Pull up the Google Ngram Viewer in your browser and type in the word or phrase you’re curious about. You’ll see in an instant how often your term has appeared in books over time.

ngram blast

Google Ngram Viewer

Making sure my language can be understood by modern readers, yet evokes the era I’m writing about, is a difficult task. Almost every page in my manuscript presents a challenge. People may not have changed much in 160 years, but our language has changed a lot.

Writers, when have you been caught using an anachronism?

Da Vinci: Renaissance Man and Inspiration for the 21st Century


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da Vinci Mona Lisa cropped 20160413_132044

Mona Lisa, showing da Vinci’s principles of design

I’ve always wanted to be a renaissance woman—to be like the educated class of the Renaissance, free to pursue a variety of interests, not as a dabbler, but as an expert in each area I explored. The only drawback I could see to such a life was the lack of indoor plumbing. (Well, antibiotics and painkillers are also useful additions to modern life.)

Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two museum exhibits on da Vinci’s work—one in San Diego, and the other back home in Kansas City. I knew, of course, that da Vinci had been interested in many areas—art, anatomy, and flight to name a few. But I hadn’t known the extent of his study of military equipment, architecture, and urban planning.

da Vinci cannon model 20160413_131156

Model of da Vinci’s cannon

Born in the mid-1400s, the illegitimate son of a wealthy notary and a peasant woman, da Vinci began his career as apprentice to a famous painter and sculptor. But he became a self-taught man in many fields. He developed the ball bearing into what we know it as today. He planned the “perfect city,” laid out with canals for sanitation to reduce the risk of illness and wide streets to improve transportation and military control. He designed forklifts, cranes, and drills. He studied hydraulics and ways to channel rivers to reduce flooding and harness the power of water to run machines. He devised buoys, double-hulled boats, hydraulic saws, and diving suits.

da Vinci diving suit 20160413_130657

Model of da Vinci’s diving suit

In the military arena, da Vinci designed catapults, tanks, portable bridges, and cannons. A practical man, da Vinci sold some of these military inventions to finance his art work.

Although dissection of the human body was illegal in his day, da Vinci learned human anatomy through sketches made of dissected limbs and organs. He studied the human body throughout the aging process. His research was both visual and scientific, showing his ability to work in both his left brain and right brain (as we would say today). His careful analysis of the human form contributed both to the realism of the characters he drew and also to the compelling composition of the scenes and the stories his paintings told.

Both the San Diego and the Kansas City exhibits appear to stem from the same source—a group in Florence, Italy, that has worked for many years to construct models of the drawings in da Vinci’s notebooks. Some of these models were duplicated in the San Diego and Kansas City exhibits. But each museum focused on different aspects of the Renaissance Man’s work.

The exhibit I saw at the San Diego Air and Space Museum was called Da Vinci: The Ultimate Innovator and it emphasized da Vinci’s work in the areas of transportation, military, and mechanical—all natural fits for the focus of this museum on air and space. Models of da Vinci’s inventions depicted in this display included a bicycle, a hang glider, and a helicopter. Each model was shown along with da Vinci’s drawing.

The da Vinci exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City, called simply Da Vinci: The Exhibition, was broader and made use of the wonderful exhibit space at this beautiful old train station. (If you go, take time to stare at the ceiling above the main hall.) Many of the machines displayed were similar (if not the same) as what I’d seen in San Diego. But this exhibit also included an underwater suit and images of what da Vinci thought a modern city should look like.

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The Last Supper, showing da Vinci’s principles of design

In addition to the focus on da Vinci as an innovator, both exhibits also displayed replicas of his most famous paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. We know da Vinci best today because his art has endured through the ages, but his art has been successful because of the breadth of his knowledge in so many scientific fields.

The Kansas City da Vinci exhibit ended with a quote from General Louis H. Wilson, Jr., “True genius lies not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” But in my opinion, da Vinci did extraordinary things extraordinarily well. There was nothing ordinary about this Renaissance Man.

I came away from these exhibits even more impressed by da Vinci than I had been. His conceptual powers let him imagine things far beyond the limits of his age. He envisioned inventions that man would not realize for centuries after his death. And his artistic talent created works that have awed viewers through those same centuries.

I can never hope to be a renaissance woman, nor are my talents anywhere near the caliber that da Vinci had in any field. But I am grateful for the freedom I have had to explore my own more modest variety of interests—from law to business to writing to music. And I’m grateful for indoor plumbing.

If you have a chance, go see a da Vinci exhibit for yourself. The San Diego display is open through January 3, 2017, so Californians and visitors to San Diego have many months yet to see it. But the Kansas City exhibit is only open a few more days—it closes May 1, 2016, so get there soon!

What earlier era of history appeals to you?

I Almost Lived in San Diego


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La Jolla shore 20160404_145616When my husband and I were in our third year of law school, we had to decide where to settle after we graduated. We’d spent the summer after our second year in Los Angeles, each clerking for a different law firm. Neither of us liked Los Angeles—we’d worked there primarily because that was the city where we both had summer job offers. In our first year as a married couple, we wanted to be together.

We talked about where we wanted to live. Many of our Stanford classmates planned to stay around San Francisco, but the Bay area was very expensive even in 1978. The Seattle job market was tough that year—Boeing wasn’t doing well, and in the pre-tech era, as Boeing went, so went Seattle. Plus, I had no real family ties to Seattle then (my parents moved there in 1980, but in the fall of 1978, I had no premonition they would relocate.)

We had spent the 1978 Fourth of July weekend in San Diego, and I fell in love with the city. During that weekend, we spent a day on a rented catamaran in Mission Bay. We drove inland to the desert. We tooled around Balboa Park. We were on vacation—of course, we loved it. What’s not to love when the weather is perfect, there’s a beach, and you’re sailing?

“How about San Diego?” I asked my husband during our discussion of where to settle. He had spent time there in the Navy, and was more than willing to consider moving there.

We agreed to look at both San Diego and Kansas City, which was near where his parents lived. There were good reasons to settle in Kansas City—his parents, the farmland his family owned, and a low cost of living compared to California. But it wasn’t San Diego!

As we interviewed that fall, the realities of the job market hit. Lots of law students liked San Diego. Even in 1978, when San Diego was smaller than today, everyone loved the location. It was Southern California without the smog, and in those days the traffic wasn’t too bad.

In addition to the stiff competition, I had to contend with my lack of connection to the city. My husband could trade on his Navy experience, but all I had was a vacation weekend. I got no job offers from law firms in San Diego. One firm was willing to take me on along with my husband while I searched further, but that didn’t sound like a good option.

Meanwhile, we both had several offers in Kansas City. So Kansas City became our destination. In fact, our big decision was which of us would take the job offered by Hallmark Cards. (One opening, either of us could take it—but that is a story for another post.)

Kansas City has been a wonderful place to live and work and raise a family. It’s a good town with great people.

But it doesn’t have a beach.

I’ve visited San Diego a few times since 1978. We spent a spring break there when our kids were in grade school, visiting Sea World, the Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park. In recent years we’ve gone to watch our daughter row in the San Diego Crew Classic. Each time I’ve been there, I’ve loved it. The weather hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s always been pretty nice—and definitely nicer than the Midwest we left.


San Diego Harbor

Every time I go to San Diego (and we just returned from a trip there), I think about what might have been. What job might I have found? How different would our children have turned out? How much time would I actually have spent on the beach? I don’t regret settling in Kansas City, but I can’t help wondering about the other path we might have taken.

Where might you have lived, other than where you do? Do you have any regrets?

La Jolla, California—A Jewel of a City


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Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial 20160404_133915My husband and I were fortunate to spend a recent weekend in San Diego, California. One afternoon we drove through La Jolla, a suburb to the north of the city. According to the La Jolla visitor’s website, the origin of La Jolla’s name is not clear. It either derives from the Spanish “la joya”, which means “the jewel” or from the Native American “woholle” meaning “hole in the mountains”. It is a jewel, so I prefer the Spanish interpretation.

Our first stop was the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial, a monument to veterans from all branches of the military over the last several decades. The monument is owned by the nonprofit Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. Over 4000 families have honored their veterans with black granite plaques on walls around the memorial. I was moved by the sight of these plaques, each of which is a story in miniature—a picture and an epitaph describing the sacrifice of the veteran and the love motivating each family to so honor their veteran.

As I walked around the memorial, a group of teenagers got out of their car and raced up the steps. “Where’s Grandpa?” they called out loudly. Perhaps they weren’t very reverent, but their desire to find their veteran was obvious and they soon were laughing and telling stories about their ancestor.

The views from Mt. Soledad were beautiful in all directions.

Downtown San Diego, where we were staying:

SD downtown view 20160404_133506

Mission Bay, where we watched our daughter row in the San Diego Crew Classic (a rowing regatta):

SD Mission Bay view 20160404_133511

Out to the canyons and valleys and hills behind the city:

SD Valley view 20160404_133609

And the Pacific Ocean:

SD Pacific view 20160404_133701

These veterans will be remembered in one of the loveliest settings in America.

From Mt. Soledad, we descended into La Jolla itself. We parked, then walked along the ocean front above the rocks and beaches.

I saw the ice plant that always reminds me of similar walks with my grandmother when I visited her in Pacific Grove:


A ground squirrel that I captured on my camera just before he darted away:

La Jolla ground squirrel 20160404_145337

The sea lions, basking in the sun without a care:

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And people, more daring than I, who shared a beach with the sea lions:

La Jolla sea lions on beach 20160404_150151

And once again, the Pacific Ocean, more beautiful around every curve, and more powerful and long-lasting than any of the flora or fauna that line its shores:


What memorable vacations have you been on?

Milestones: On Turning Sixty


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We have a tendency to mark milestone birthdays more than others. In my last post I described my twenty-first birthday.

I don’t remember my thirtieth birthday—I was too busy with work and child-rearing for the day to make much of an impression. In fact, I remember being bothered more when my husband turned thirty (the same day we moved into our first house) than when I attained that august age some years later.

I remember my fortieth birthday. I was relieved that I had made it into yet another protected class—I could then sue for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act if the occasion ever warranted. (Employment lawyers think that way.)

On my fiftieth birthday, my department at work held a “surprise” party for me. The party itself wasn’t much of a surprise. A colleague had scheduled a meeting with me in her office, and after a few minutes announced that she would escort me to a conference room a short distance away. I knew full well where the conference room was and needed no escort, nor had she had anything to talk to me about prior to our stroll down the hall.

But I was surprised by what I found in the conference room. Not only my co-workers, but my husband. And blown-up photographs of me as a child. My husband had been dragooned into the party preparations, and he, in turn, had talked to my mother about getting the pictures. In 2006, she was still capable of finding photographs that would embarrass me, organizing them, and shipping them halfway across the country. And she delighted in it, as I found out when she called me that evening.


Display of photographs my mother sent for my 50th birthday party

I probably didn’t enjoy my fiftieth birthday party as much as I might have, because I knew what the other attendees did not. Later that afternoon, my boss would announce that I was moving to a special project for several months. My boss hoped that working on the project would keep me from deciding to retire later that year. I thought the project would be a way for me to ease out of the company slowly.

And as I anticipated, I retired at the end of 2006. I wanted to write, and I couldn’t fulfill my dream while working in my corporate role.

A year later I became a part of a local writing group, and I met many wonderful writers in the Kansas City area. Most of them were older than I was.

“Oh, those fifties,” one woman in the group exclaimed in 2008 when we were discussing our ages. I had just told her I was fifty-two. She was in her mid-seventies. “The fifties are so wonderful,” she told me.

I couldn’t disagree with her at the time. Once I had extricated myself from my job, I had embraced the writing life. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I got trained as a mediator and began mediating cases. I found the local writing group and other critique groups and improved as a writer to the extent that I have now published two novels and won some writing contests. I traveled, including trips to visit my parents when they vacationed in Carmel, California. My children were independent and required only occasional hand-holding.

As my older friend predicted, many wonderful things happened in my fifties. In some ways, it has been the best decade of my life. I’ve been freer to do as I please than I ever have been. I haven’t missed the stress of work. I’ve felt financially secure (even though I retired just before the Great Recession).

And yet in many ways it has also been the hardest decade of my life. Even before I had been told that the fifties were so wonderful, I had begun to wonder if my mother was developing Alzheimer’s. A year later, she suffered a serious physical problem. In 2010, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she went steadily downhill until early 2013, when my father moved her into assisted living. Just after that, my daughter broke her leg. In 2012 my father-in-law died, in 2014 my mother died, and in early 2015 my father died. Along the way, other family members have had health issues. So I have suffered as many losses in the last decade as I ever have.

Yesterday I turned sixty.

I think I’ve learned in the past ten years that every decade has its ups and downs. My fifties may have been wonderful, but they held tragedy as well as dreams fulfilled. As does any period in a human’s life.

So as I face my sixties, I am both optimistic and realistic. There will be great joys and achievements in the years ahead, I hope, and great losses and sorrows, I know.

Oh, those sixties! . . . What will they bring?

First Birthdays With My Husband


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flowers on T's 21st BD

Flowers on my 21st birthday

My husband-to-be and I started dating about a month before my twenty-first birthday. We were first-year law students at the time. When my big day rolled around, he gave me flowers and took me out for a really nice dinner in downtown Palo Alto, California. (We were law students. Any dinner in a restaurant with tablecloths was a nice dinner. But this was a REALLY nice dinner at an upscale restaurant—the kind of restaurant patronized by lawyers, not law students.) I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it was French and served the very best Strawberries Romanoff I have ever had. Mouth-wateringly delicious. Better-than-chocolate-delicious. (I’ve written about these strawberries before, but they are worthy of mentioning again.)

I’m sure we had wine with dinner, being that it was my twenty-first birthday. But having alcohol with dinner was no biggie for me, because I’d gone to college in Vermont when the drinking age there was eighteen. And restaurants in town didn’t card the college students. I’d been served drinks with dinner since I was a seventeen-year-old freshman. Indeed, California was a step backward for me, in terms of alcohol consumption.

We married just seven months later, in November 1977, during our second year of law school. So we were already married before my twenty-second birthday in April 1978, when he gave me the first birthday presents he had to purchase besides flowers and a meal—the first birthday presents that required real thought.

He gave me sandals and a raincoat.

I burst into tears when I opened the packages. I did not consider sandals and raincoat very romantic. I guess I expected wrapped birthday presents that could match the Strawberries Romanoff from the year before.

“But they’re Clarks,” he told me of the sandals. “They’re really good sandals.”

They were clunky, not sexy.

“And the coat is L.L. Bean. It’ll last forever.”

So it would. It was rubberized on the outside and made me sweat. (These were the pre-Goretex days.)

Both were very functional gifts. I wore the sandals for years, until their pebbly soles started pebbling off. I wore the raincoat from 1978 until 1998, when I bought a new coat because the rubber on the L.L. Bean coat had begun to crack.

I suppose what’s more important is that our marriage has been even more durable than these early functional gifts. After thirty-eight years of marriage, I now expect presents that have been given a lot of thought and little romance—presents that will serve me well and for a long time, just like the man has. I am rarely disappointed.

And on my fiftieth birthday, he did give me lovely black pearl earrings. Occasionally, there’s a spark.

Happy Birthday to me (tomorrow)! I wonder what I’ll get this year.

An Empty InBox


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2RZVIMDLQQ laptop coffeeMany years ago, my department at work took the Gallup StrengthsFinder survey to find out what we were best at, as defined by Gallup. At the top of my list was “Input.” That sounded odd to me, but the description of this strength said it meant I liked to collect things.

I’ve never had a collection of anything, but I do amass junk. Or so says my husband. I keep a lot of paper junk, but also a lot of digital junk. Still the Gallup terminology puzzled me. I decided that in my case “Input” meant I liked to collect information. I love to research. I like knowing things. I keep all my paper and digital files because they contain information, which I might need someday. I don’t know when I’ll need it, but I might. Someday.

A month ago, I smiled in amusement at a friend’s posting on Facebook about his project to clean out his email inbox. He had a few hundred messages in the inbox, apparently, and was determined to get the number down to zero.

Hah! I thought to myself, what a waste of time. What difference does it make if his inbox contains lots of messages? He doesn’t have to do anything with them. The emails can just sit there. They aren’t hurting a thing.

But a few weeks later, I involuntarily cleaned out my own inbox. I accidentally deleted everything in it.

I have three email addresses that I use regularly. I probably have been assigned half a dozen other addresses through various alumni organizations and other sources. Those I never look at. But these three I open daily.

One is my “real” email. Only personal friends and professional contacts get that one.

Another is my “writing” email. I use this one to publicize my writing, and I give it out publicly so readers can contact me.

The third is my “junk” email—the one that I use for shopping online and when I want to sign up for free stuff and sales advertised by retailers. This is the address I use to follow newsletters and blogs and just about everything else that doesn’t require my immediate attention when I get the email. I’m interested in lots of things—legal topics, human resources, writing, book marketing and publishing. I’m on a lot of distribution lists.

Thank goodness the “junk” email inbox was the one I deleted, because hardly any of the messages in it are mission-critical.

But a few of the deleted emails might be important. Maybe it wasn’t so good that this was the one I deleted. It would take hours to undo.

This inbox was by far my largest—over 6000 emails in it at the time. (Which is why I chuckled at my friend’s problem with his few hundred messages.) I tend to keep messages I haven’t read yet, or which have some interesting information I might want to pass along in Facebook groups or through Twitter feeds, or which offer a sale of clothes I might want to buy (though I don’t need a thing). The hoarding must be my Input strength coming through.

Like my friend, I’ve periodically made attempts to winnow down my inbox. I’ve trashed everything more than six months old, for example. Or deleted all messages from particular senders whose newsletters I’ve decided aren’t that interesting, or from retailers from which I never buy.

Sometimes I’ll go through an “unsubscribe” mode, in which I unsubscribe from everything I don’t want to read that day. I stop following blogs, delete persistent marketers, and cancel retail sales pushes.

But despite these efforts, as of Involuntary Trash Day, it had been a long time since my “junk” inbox had had fewer than 2000 messages in it.

I’m still not sure what I did that morning, but all of a sudden all 6000 messages were gone. The inbox was empty.

Upon investigation, I discovered that they had all gone into the Trash folder.

Well, heck, I thought, why not leave them there? Then I wouldn’t have to deal with them.

But what if there’s something in there I really should read? my Input gene asked.

So I went through the 200 or so unread messages in the Trash and some of the most current messages to decide what I really should keep. It wasn’t much. I only resurrected about 30 emails. (One was from the library telling me to call or my card would expire next month. Maybe I should let the library have my “real” email address.) The rest of the 6000 I left in the Trash folder, and let the system delete them permanently a day or two later.

I breathed a sigh of relief at the clean slate I’d involuntarily been given. And I vowed to act or delete on every message I received each day.

But I’m back up to 300 messages in that inbox already.

What do you do to control your email? Or do you bother?

Cloisters: Transplanting History Across the Seas and Through the Centuries


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Approaching the Cloisters

My son says that when he lived in New York several years ago I told him I wanted to see the Cloisters when I visited him. I don’t remember that conversation, though he has a better memory than I do. In any event, we did not make it to the Cloisters when he lived there before, so he arranged to take us when we visited him earlier this month.

The Cloisters is a a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It sits on a bluff above the Hudson River at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. On the day we went, it was cold and windy—not the most auspicious day for a visit. But once we reached the top of the hill and entered the museum, it was lovely.

The Cloisters contains many artifacts from MOMA’s medieval collection. The building was constructed in the 1930s, but it incorporates many pieces of European monasteries and abbeys into its walls and doorways. It looks like a medieval church perched on the top of the hill.

The museum impressed me because the original medieval arches and columns fit so well within the modern building. I felt like I was in a 13th century monastery, and I wanted to whisper as I passed through the hallways and in front of altars and chapels that pre-dated the Reformation. Piece after piece was displayed with a notice indicating it was created in the 12th century, and almost everything was older than the 16th century.

I sat in an indoor hall (a cloister, in fact) and looked outside at a garden displaying early signs of spring. I imagined French nuns or monks doing the same thing beside these same stones 700 years before me.

Much of the collection of medieval art in the museum came from John Rockefeller’s collection. Rockefeller also acquired the land for Fort Tyron Park in which the museum sits. I am not usually a fan of medieval religious art, but I felt awed by the altar carvings, gold chalices and reliquaries, paintings, statues, and other objects of devotion. Sculptors and metalworkers, painters and woodworkers all expressed their devotion to the divine in pieces that have survived for centuries.

These artifacts have seen the schismatic split of the Christian church into many sects. They have outlasted their creators by generations. They have endured burial, hiding, and relocation from one continent to another. Now, those of us who visit the Cloisters can meditate on the faith that both inspired their original creation and motivated their keepers to keep them safe throughout the centuries. Even if one does not believe in the faith that led to the manufacture of these pieces, the art awes us, because so many have believed and have preserved these works.


Detail from one of the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries

The museum also features Flemish tapestries from about 1500 called “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” This series of wall coverings depicts the poor mythical creature as it is hunted, captured, and slaughtered. Needlework of this magnitude always impresses me, because I know how much effort goes into creating even a small piece.

There was also a special exhibit of 15th century playing cards. I enjoyed imagining people playing with these decks in a time before the four suits were standardized. (“I bid you two falcons.” “I raise you three bears.”)

Tired after our visit, we stopped at the New Leaf Restaurant for drinks and appetizers. We warmed our insides as the museum had warmed our spirits. Then we traipsed down the hill to the subway and rode back to Brooklyn and the 21st century.

The tagline on this blog is “One writer’s journey through life and time.” I have journeyed through time quite a bit this month as I have focused on the historical significance of places I’ve been and items I’ve read. My life proceeds from day to day, year to year, but as it does, I encounter objects from the past that cause me to reflect on my place in history. I also think about how those who have gone before me have left a legacy as they passed through time. The Cloisters was one of those times of reflection.

When has the legacy of the past struck home with you?

Party Like It’s 1850


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The main plot and some of the sub-plots of my work-in-progress revolve around relationships between the sexes. I try to be faithful to the attitudes of people of the mid-19th century in my book, even though modern readers are often put off by how formal people were compared to our own times. My characters come from many classes—from educated to illiterate, urban to rural. It’s difficult to know for certain how different people were from today.

92_cotillion 19th century

Dancing a cotillion in the 19th century

So I was delighted to come across a description of a party in Sacramento in March 1850. The March 23, 1850, issue of the Placer Times—published exactly 166 years ago today—contained a lengthy account of a cotillion at the Gordon House a week or so prior to the paper’s publication. I won’t quote the whole thing, because it’s quite lengthy. But here’s an excerpt:

The Gordon House Cotillion Party. . . .

“On Tuesday evening last the votaries of Terpsichore assembled at the Gordon House and tripped it on the light fantastic toe till the wee short hours of Wednesday morn had marked the figure three on old time’s hour glass.
“. . .
“As we entered the ball room, the music was in full blast, bearing its gay and lively sounds to the hearts of the therein assembled beauty and fashion, and moving their happy possessors nimbly to and fro, obedient to the welcome call of the manager. The room, though small was well lighted and tastefully arranged, for which the host and company too may, I presume, thank the ladies of the house.
“A feeling of sympathetic joy thrilling through you, could not be restrained on witnessing the happy, smiling countenances of the dancers. The gay laugh, the gentle whisper, the amiable smile, the bashful courting glance, the bright; flashing of pretty eyes, the tripping of nimble feet, the rustling of silks and satins, the magnetic influence in touching a soft, tiny hand—all lent their aid to make the scene a happy one. — Indeed, it was a happy time, and although not so much so as at the previous ball of Thursday evening at the Fort, still all appeared gay and cheerful. There is no telling, however, how far off some one’s thoughts were, even if smiles did play around the mouth and light up the countenance.
“We had the felicity of dancing with several of the ladies. Where all were so handsome, it would appear invidious to particularize, but I cannot withhold my perfect acquiescence in the prevailing opinion that Mrs. H. was decidedly the queen of the night. Her fine figure, well set off in a rich black silk dress, and her amiable disposition fully entitled her to this distinction.

[and then our chivalrous author describes many other women attendees, and then some of the men]

“Several Colonels and Captains were also present, but those titles arc now-a-days more common than “mister.” So those who are no farther advanced than Colonel, can’t shine among the big ’uns. They must get up a hop among their own kidney, and then they can bud.
“. . .
“Bye the bye, I must not forget the supper, which was served up in Gordon best style.—Turkeys, ducks, oysters, preserves, jellies, plain and fruit cake, confectionary, nuts, raisins, with coffee and cream, all of which, including the ice cream, was “not to be beat.” San Francisco stands entirely in the shade. Our “doings” are “did” by perfect connoisseurs who are “some” in their lines.
“The company did ample justice to the repast, and parted with the hope of soon meeting again. Till then au revoir.

(I also discovered that just a few weeks after this cotillion, the April 18, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript, advertised an auction of the furniture, fixtures, and goodwill of the Gordon House. Apparently, the “Gordon best style” did not last very long.)

Not everyone in the mid-19th century society was enamored of dancing. The August 30, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript reported:

Some of the eastern papers are out against dancing, declaring that the chief votaries of the Terpsichorean art are brainless young men and giddy young ladies. But the worst of it is that the modest cotillion is almost banished from dancing parties, and supplanted by the voluptuous polka. One editor confesses to being old fashioned enough to dislike seeing a wife or sister, whirling round a room in the arms of a comparative stranger who is probably a puppy. There are many persons in every society who conscientiously object to dancing—believing that it leads to dissipation of another character. Others believe that dancing is an innocent amusement, and instead of being hurtful and leading to dissipation, that it is merely a pleasant pastime and beneficial to health. For our part we are not disposed to set up as an umpire in the matter, being willing that those disposed may “trip the light fantastic toe” so long as they have a toe to trip; and equally willing that the antidancing society may preach away until they bring about the millenium they desire, when the “head shall triumph over the heels.

So, in 1850, as in 2016, it appears to take all kinds. My characters can dance or not dance, as their morals move them. But you can see that formal descriptions of relationships between men and women prevailed—at least in the social classes that read the newspapers.

I love these little glimpses of the past that my research finds for me.

When have you chuckled at something you’ve learned about the past?

Telling History Through Family Stories: The Tenement Museum


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My husband and I recently spent time with our son and his girlfriend in New York. They took us to see the Tenement Museum in Manhattan, which explains what life was like at various points in time in a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on the lower East Side.

This tenement was built in 1863 and initially was owned by Lukas Glockner, a German immigrant who lived there with his family. There were 28 apartments in the building, none of which had running water or indoor plumbing in 1863. Later in the 19th century, New York City ordinances required that tenement owners supply water and toilets in their buildings. Water lines were added to every apartment, and each floor had a toilet. Over time, gas and electricity were also added. 97 Orchard Street remained open until 1935, and 7000 tenants lived there in its 72 years of occupancy.

We took the “Hard Times” tour which showed two apartments—one set up to depict a German family in the 1870s and the other to display how Italian family lived in the 1930s. As a writer of historical fiction, I was impressed by the research done by the curators of the Tenement Museum to make the settings accurate. They had found government documents such as census records and court filings to tell the stories of the families who lived there.

gumpslide1 natalie gumpertz

Nathalie Gumpertz

The German Gumpertz family suffered a tragic loss when the husband Julius disappeared, leaving his wife Nathalie and four small children alone during the economic downturn of the 1870s. After her infant son died, Mrs. Gumpertz kept her three daughters alive by taking in sewing. Ultimately, she had her husband declared dead and was able to benefit from a small inheritance he received from a German relative, which enabled her to leave 97 Orchard Street. (The Tenement Museum curators later discovered that Julius Gumpertz had survived in Cleveland. But surely he had forfeited any moral right to his inheritance when abandoned his family.)

baldslide1 Adolfo Baldizzi

Adolpho Baldizzi

The Sicilian Baldizzi family lived at 97 Orchard Street during the Great Depression. Adopho Baldizzi immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1923. His wife Rosaria arrived later. He had papers; she did not. When the Depression hit, Mr. Baldizzi was unable to find work as a carpenter, and could only find odd repair jobs. His wife went to work in a factory making coats. She later quit when her income threatened the family’s receipt of benefits.

The Museum has an oral history from the Baldizzis’ daughter Josephine, who described her childhood in this tenement. The family sat around the kitchen table, playing cards or listening to the radio. Above the table is a wood cabinet her father made. The cabinet is still in the apartment as restored.

Both Nathalie Gumpertz and Rosaria Baldizzi played large roles in helping their families survive through economic downturns. During this Women’s History Month, let’s remember them, and all the women who have held their families together through hard times.

When has your family gone through hard times and how did you survive? Write about it.


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