Friday, October 24, 2014

Go West, Young . . . Woman, Part III

We left the lucky ladies of the Mercer expedition ready to set sail into what were soon to be troubled waters.  The good ship Continental left New York on January 16, 1866, with a complement of 100 passengers.  Approximately 50 were ladies under the escort of Asa Mercer, Seattle’s Emigration Agent Extraordinaire.  Most of the others were married couples, children of the couples or widowed mothers, or single men who had paid Mercer for the privilege of sailing to Seattle.  One was none other than a reporter associated with the New York Times.

Roger Conant had come from a well-to-do family.  He’d studied law and fought for the Union before becoming a reporter for the Times.  But the reports he sent back from the Continent are not the unbiased, analytical commentary one might expect.  Conant delighted in looking for the salacious, the remarkable.  He didn't have much use for Mercer and tended to poke fun of the ladies, calling them Fair Virgins and teasing them about their love life.  Thanks to Conant's journal, published as Mercer’s Belles, and the journals of several of the ladies (such as Flora Pearson Engle), we know quite a bit about what befell Mercer’s maidens on that fateful journey.

And what an amazing journey it must have been!  Remember that these were women who had rarely set foot outside their little villages.  Now they were making call at exotic ports like festive Rio de Janeiro, the forlorn Straits of Magellan, and the wild Galapagos Islands. To make matters even more exciting,
everywhere they went, men begged them to stay!  The ship’s officers set up a round of flirtations, so determined to win the hands of their fair passengers that Mercer had to set up rules against dallying aboard ship.  No one paid him the least mind.  The military officers of Chile tried to appropriate them to teach there instead.  And the good citizens of San Francisco offered them lucrative jobs and marriages to remain behind in the City by the Bay.

Mercer’s hands were full trying to keep his charges contained.  Unfortunately, he had other problems, as his financial troubles hadn't ended in New York. Some would-be passengers were left behind, and they claimed he had bilked them out of their savings to finance his bride ship.  One woman even sued him for selling her furniture to pay his bills.  At one point, he asked several of the women to sign promissory notes, according to Conant, saying that their husbands would pay the price for them once they reached Seattle.  And just when he must have thought he was nearly home free, Holladay pulled a fast one when they reached San Francisco, refusing to allow the Continental to continue on to Seattle. 

Faced with the need to ferry his dwindling set of ladies north, Mercer wired to the Governor of Washington for funds.  What came back was a telegram congratulating him on his accomplishments, but lamenting that the state coffers were empty.  Mercer had to pay his last pennies just to read the refusal.  The story goes that he sold some of the women’s goods to pay for their hotel bills before finding some lumber schooners whose captains were willing to carry the ladies to Seattle for the pleasure of their company.

Only when they reached Seattle did some of the women learn that Mercer had bartered for their lives.  Conant claims that such stellar characters as men named Humbolt Jack, Lame Duck Bill, Whiskey Jim, White Pine Joe, Bob Tailed, and Yeke showed up demanding someone’s hand in marriage.  When the ladies refused to so much as speak to them, they vowed vengeance on Mercer.  Other fellows were more practical about the matter.  Conant tells of a stranger who arrived in town, claiming to have a farm far outside the city.  He asked Mercer to provide him with two or three women to take back with him, so he could see which would be more suitable for his wife.  None of the women agreed to accompany him. Imagine that!

Mercer went so far as to hire the cookhouse at Henry Yesler’s Sawmill to address the citizens of Seattle.  The Reverend Daniel Bagley officiated.  While many a cry was raised against the young man, a sufficient number of the ladies under his escort attested to his character.  In fact, one of those ladies went and married him. 

Whether Mercer was a courageous fellow out to civilize the wilderness or a cunning charlatan out to gather his fortune, the legend of the Mercer belles has fascinated the people of the Northwest for generations.  Some of you may remember a television program back in the late 60s--Here Come the Brides.  That was loosely based on Mercer’s expeditions, although, as you can see, Asa Mercer was no Bolt brother. I fell in love with the story as a child, and I’ve been waiting all my life to tell it.  Look for the first book in my Frontier Bachelor series, The Bride Ship, to be out in November.  We’ll be sure to whoop it up here on Nineteenteen when it’s out.

Because there really is nothing better than going West, young woman. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Bandalore by Any Other Name

It is a truth universally acknowledged that historical research is probably the most fun you can have with your corset on.

I was doing research on Eton in the early nineteenth century a week or so ago, and was on the website Open Library reading a book called “A History of Eton College 1440-1910” by Sir H. C. Maxwell Lyte, and happened to skim over this passage:

Among the minor games popular at Eton at this period and for some time afterwards was that of bandalores. A bandalore was a disc of box-wood, with a deep groove in its outer edge, round which a string was coiled, and the art was to send it flying through the air, unwinding the string as it went, and by giving a jerk at a particular moment to bring the disc back again to the hand, recoiling the string on its return journey. Michael Hicks Beach writing to his mother in his sixteenth year says:— “I have three excellent bandylores and did throw one of them out (which has a string about four feet and a half long), one hundred and fifty-nine times without missing.”

I thought about that for a moment, trying to picture just what this bandalore “game” was...and then it hit me.

It was a yo-yo. They were playing with yo-yos in the late 18th century!

So I did a little more digging...and found this image, from a French fashion plate from 1791, along with the following information: The most common French word for Yo-yo at the time was "Emigrette", but it is called the "Joujou de Normandie" in a caption to a version of this image which was included in Albert Charles Auguste Racinet's Le Costume Historique (1888), a monumental six-volume work on costume (alas, the cheapest set I could find on-line was in the $3000 range!) "Joujou", by the way, means "toy", and has nothing to do with the etymology of the word "yo-yo", which is from a Philippine language...but it's an interesting coincidence, isn't it?

So there you go. Who knew that one of the hot toys for both boys and girls in 1790s Europe was the yo-yo?

Historical research rocks!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Go West, Young . . . Woman? Part II

We left young Asa Mercer prepared to travel back East to bring home more brides for frontier Seattle.  But he had a few wrinkles to iron out first.  Traveling took money, and the young professor had little.  But dozens of bachelors in Seattle were willing to invest in his scheme so long as he brought them each back a bride of good repute.  Some stories have it that Mercer accepted as much as $300 per bride, a goodly price in those days.  Whatever the amount, he left Seattle with money in his pocket and the cheers of his comrades ringing in his ears.  But his good fortune quickly evaporated.

As a child, Mercer had supposedly met Abraham Lincoln, and he was counting on his connection with the president to win him a decommissioned troop carrier left over from the Civil War as an inexpensive way to transport his bevvy of belles.  He arrived in the capital to find it wreathed in black:  Lincoln had been assassinated.  The story goes that after being shunted from one government official to another, he ended up meeting with Ulysses S. Grant, who agreed that Mercer might have a ship, if he could purchase it.

The price requested was pennies on the dollar for the worth of the ship, but still far beyond Mercer’s means.  Enter transportation magnate Ben Holladay, whose stage coaches had helped fuel the California Gold Rush.  He offered to start a shipping company, buy the ship for Mercer and carry the party of 700 women back to Seattle for a pittance.  Overjoyed, Mercer signed the offered contract and went back to recruiting among the towns between Boston and New York, which had lost not only men but manufacturing jobs because of the war.

He must have sung a good song, for ladies lined up to join his expedition.  That is, until several prominent newspapers began questioning not only Mercer’s motives, but the motives of the women interested in going with him.  Mercer, they insisted, was only gathering bits of muslin that would end up in dens of ill repute or married to brutish husbands who would all but enslave them if they weren’t scalped first.  They called the women Sewing Machines, Petticoat Brigade, and a Cargo of Heifers. One editor firmly stated that any woman willing to go all the way across the country to find a husband didn’t deserve one.  The flood of recruits dwindled to a trickle.

Days turned into weeks and then months, and still the S.S. Continental wasn’t ready to sail. Then Holladay asked Mercer for more money.  It seemed the contract he’d signed stated that if the full complement of ladies was not ready to sail on time, the price for passage went up.  Desperate, Mercer turned to families and then bachelors to try to fill out his order of passengers.  While some women, it appears, had been promised free passage (paid for by Seattle’s bachelors), he demanded that others pay full fare and more. The money he’d been given in Seattle was spent to pay for hotel fees as everyone waited for the ship to set sail.

Only when she did sail did Mercer, and the ladies, begin to realize what lay ahead.

Next week, a gentleman finds the need for a long sea voyage.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fashion Forecast: October 1917

This will, alas, be the last 1917 fashion report, as the research for my story didn’t really need to go much past early autumn of that year. I’ll miss watching the clothes evolve, though—fashion changed much more quickly in 1917 than it did in 1817.

So what was the well-dressed young woman wearing in October 1917, according to The Delineator?

“PARIS STRAIGHTENS OUT THE LINES IN ITS NEW FASHION OFFENSIVE" is the headline for a page of designs from French houses (including one from Chanel, at far right.) Though the barrel skirt still appears, more hints of the coming twenties are apparent, though busts are still visible.


Coats and suits in darker, quieter hues are the big thing in this issue, as is appropriate for fall wear. Details remain subdued as well, with groups of pleats on skirts seeming to be en vogue.


Dresses too are simply adorned. Large collars in both self and contrasting colors and lapels are the big thing, as are tiered skirts. Fabrics mentioned include charmeuse, satin, silk crepe, serge, chiffon, and gabardine--while the styles are simpler, most of the fabrics are still very feminine and luxurious.


Is it just me, or do those very high collars on coats look uncomfortable?


Skirts and shirt-waists remain popular...


And look! Nursing couture!


Clothes for teen girls...not very different from the "older fashions, are they?


More teen fashions...note the girl at far left, with her knitting!


Clothes for younger girls:


More clothes for girls...and check out the mother-daughter pajamas at lower right!


Clothes for small boys, with a few of them decidedly resembling "Campbell Soup Kids!":

What do you think of October 1917's fashions?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Go West, Young . . . Woman? Part I

I’m about to take a major departure, crossing continents and time periods.  Instead of my beloved Regency England, the setting for my November book, The Bride Ship, will ultimately be frontier Seattle, just after the Civil War.  I guess you could say I heeded the call to “Go West, young woman.”

Newspaper editor Horace Greeley has been credited with at least popularizing the phrase, “Go West, young man,” a mantra that led a generation of gentlemen to cross the mountains to the other side of the country. But it was an enterprising young man from Seattle who first conceived of the idea of bringing young women west in large numbers to marry bachelors and help settle the frontier.

Asa Shinn Mercer was a young college graduate Illinois.  He had traveled west to join his brother, Thomas, in the fledgling Seattle.  He helped build the territorial university (now the University of Washington), then stayed on at its first president and only instructor.  It would have been a fine, respectable position for a young man, but for two things:  he had only one student old enough to actually graduate any time soon, and too few prospects for more.

You see, following the Civil War, men outnumbered women in Washington Territory by nearly nine to one.  There are stories about men paying young fathers for the rights to marry a baby daughter, once she reached marriageable age.  And the concept of marriageable age was questionable in some people’s minds.  One story goes that a young couple appeared before the Reverend Daniel Bagley, one of Seattle’s first ministers, begging to be wed.  Suspecting the young lady to be too young, he demanded to know her age. 

“I’m over 18,” she proudly proclaimed. 

Unwilling to call her a liar, he married them.  A short while later, her parents came pounding at his door, looking for their runaway daughter.  It seems the couple had stopped first at the home of the irrepressible Doc Maynard, one of Seattle’s most colorful founding fathers.  Maynard had advised the girl to write the number 18 on two pieces of paper, then stick them inside her shoes.  The thirteen-year-old was indeed standing “over 18” when she was married.

With women at such a premium, Mercer could see his vision of a prosperous future dimming.  So, he conceived of another vision.  The Civil War had left widows and orphans back East, young ladies with good educations, superior morals, and plenty of backbone.  All they needed was the knowledge of the need to come West.  He could provide that knowledge.  He could serve as Seattle’s Emigration Agent and bring home the brides.

Now, I will tell you, there are two schools of thought on Asa Mercer.  There is no doubt the citizens of Seattle applauded his initiative.  And after his first foray netted him about a dozen women, he was voted into the Washington State senate.  But other contemporary sources are less kind, particularly when Mercer decided to take his adventure to a grand scale.  He vowed to return to the East Coast and request a troop carrier from none other than President Lincoln, planning to bringing as many as 700 women to Seattle’s shores.  And what happened then, is beyond legend.

Next week:  Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Retreating to the 19th Century

I had the pleasure of attending a Historical Fiction Writers retreat this past weekend given by Moments in Time, a vintage dance group, at the amazing Senexet House in Woodstock, CT. While the high Victorian era is not a period I’ve written within at this time, I certainly had a wonderful, productive weekend. And ate a lot of delicious Victorian food!

Senexet House was built around 1886. It was interesting archi-tecturally in that while it was rather oblong and plain-looking from the outside (aside from the charming carving at the front door you can see in the photo above), inside it’s exactly what one thinks of as a Victorian dwelling: fun architectural details, fireplaces, oddly shaped rooms, and a sense of spaciousness and repose.

Not that the house saw a lot of repose, once everyone descended on it!

Dinner Friday night was lively as we got to know each other, which continued at breakfast the following morning. I fled to my room after breakfast to, you know, write...but others gathered in the living room to try on Victorian clothes and under-garments brought by the retreat’s organizers. Check out the bustle along with the corsets in the second photo at right!

After lunch, I felt virtuous enough after writing all morning to go on an expedition to an antiques mall with two other retreat-goers, and found an awesome designer purse...but otherwise showed admirable restraint. Four o’clock had us in tea gowns and some splendid hats for a delightful tea featuring gargantuan amounts of cakes, cookies, tiny scones with clotted cream, and other goodies, all from 19th century recipes (my favorites: the seed cake and the rout biscuits) Dancing followed (a good thing, after all that food!) and we learned the steps of a quadrille danced in the old resort town of Nahant, MA in the 1830s.

Dinner that evening was an elegant affair (our table at left, pre-dinner), served by candlelight and also featuring 19th century recipes...and then a talk on Victorian spiritualism, followed by some curious unexplained incidents (not joking!) while a few retreaters played with a Ouija board.

On Sunday I again holed up in my room to write all morning, and after lunch took a walk around Senexet House’s grounds in beautiful sunny October weather. The party broke up in mid-afternoon as we all said good-bye to each other... and to the manager Kit’s adorable Pomeranian, appropriately named Bear, who had kept us company all weekend.

I’ve been to a few writing retreats over the years, but this one probably tops the list for fun. If there’s another one in the spring as organizer Nicole Carlson has threatened, I will totally be there!




Friday, October 3, 2014

Costuming the Author, and the Reader

Fall is in the air, and Halloween is coming!  Already I'm seeing advertisements for masquerades and costume contests.  Marissa has posted in the past about the types of costumes our nineteenth century lads and lasses might have worn.  They enjoyed playing dress up.  Today’s author of nineteenth century romance is not immune, and, I'm betting, neither is her readers.  So, to get you thinking about how you might design your own outfit, here are some examples from my sister romance authors.

You can, of course, pay a seamstress to design you a costume.  I am so envious of these amazing gowns worn by the talented Collette Cameron and the wonderful Ella Quinn.  Looking good, ladies!


Or, you might be handy with a sewing machine yourself.  Several patterns are available these days.  Immediately below is acclaimed Regency author April Kihlstrom in a fetching red gown. And farther down is Golden Heart Award winner Kristi Ann Hunter in one she and her mother made together.

Then again, you might find a costume awaiting you in your favorite thrift store.  Doesn’t the delightful Georgie Lee look festive in her frugal find? 


Finally, some fashions from earlier years can be readily adapted to “faux Regency.”  When I wear this one with the flocked orange roses next to Marissa in her seamstress’s creation, I always say I must be the poor relation.  J


But then again, I have another costume I much prefer.  That's Sir Reginald with the regal Marjorie Allen.  


What do you think?  Any of these approaches appeal to you?

Many thanks to my models, most of whom are members of my beloved Beau Monde Chapter of Romance Writers of America.TM