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Category Archives: history

Digging a Hole to Heaven

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S. D. Nelson’s children’s book Digging a Hole to Heaven: Coal Miner Boys will teach readers about the hardships of the children who had to work deep in the mines during the 19th century. The illustrations are well done and show a sharp contrast between the dark mines and the sunny lives lived above ground. Throughout the story of 12 year old Conall, his brother and miners, Nelson has inserted sidebars with facts about child labor, and mining in particular.

I enjoyed the book, but wish the characters had more depth and personality. Each one was standard cookie cutter. Yet I still recommend the book as an introduction to this aspect of history, that’s usually forgotten.

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Posted by on November 12, 2017 in 19th Century, book review, Children's Lit, historical fiction, history

 

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A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate

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Engrossing and authentic, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate by Susanna Calkins is set in 17th century England. It’s historical fiction mixed with mystery.

Lucy Campion begins as a chambermaid for the Hargrave family. The head of the family is a magistrate who takes his duties seriously and treats one and all justly (so he’s a far cry from Poldark’s George Warleggan).

When the lady’s maid, Lucy’s friend the teasing, lively Bessie disappears she’s soon found murdered. She had run off with the family silver in the middle of the night. Rumor had it that she went to meet a lover. She was sweet on Lucy’s brother Will and he’s accused of her murder, but it seems he’s been the victim of rumors and gossip in an era before the press had to fact check. In fact, most people got their news from sensationalized broadsheets sold for a penny. Lies could easily gain credence and be given ad testimony.

Will was Bessie’s beau, but she also was spending time with a libertine portrait artist who makes Lucy’s skin crawl. Lucy isn’t the typical rebel but she will defy social conventions to visit her brother at Newgate prison or to gather some evidence on the murder that took place at the same spot.

At an event at my public library, author and historian Susanna Calkins spoke of being intrigued by murder ballads that people in this era would sing, or buy and paste on their homes as decorations. These ballads inspired this fascinating story, that weaves historical detail throughout in a natural way.

In addition to murder the story features a touch of romance, which added a nice contrast to gruesome murder.

I learned a lot about life and history circa 1665. I didn’t know there was a plague that year, or that at a trial the accused, not the lawyer did all the interrogation. They took “face your accuser” very seriously. I didn’t know that warm potatoes were put in someone’s bed to keep it warm. There’s a whole lot more, but I suppose you should read the book to learn for yourself.

This story would be great on Masterpiece Theater. It’s a lively read and I found the characters well developed and engaging. I want to read more of Calkins’ work.My one quibble is the ending. Towards the end, when we discover who murdered all these servant girls, the murderer gives a long-winded monologue (well a couple questions were sprinkled in). I just didn’t buy that he’d elaborate in such detail.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2017 in book review, fiction, historical fiction, history

 

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To Marry an English Lord

marrylordIf you like Downton Abbey, you really should read Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace’s  To Marry an English Lord. I got the audio book from the library. The narrator had the perfect voice, elegant and slightly aristocratic.

To Marry an English Lord presents all sorts of facts and vignettes about the American heiresses, and there were dozens if not hundreds, who crossed the ocean to marry well. The focus is on New York socialites, whose fathers had fortunes, but couldn’t break into the elite circle of the Kickerbockers. Kickerbockers were the descendants of the first New York settlers from Holland, these people wore knickerbockers, i.e. pants that stopped at the knees. No amount of money could get you into their social circle so those with new money headed for England where they were welcomed not just for their money (though that was key) but also because American girls were so open, confident and free. British girls were sheltered and shy. They were chaperoned everywhere, but the American parents gave their girls a lot more freedom. And they had much larger clothing allowances. A British girl would make do with 3 new gowns a season, but the American would get 18 or so spending about $500.000 in todays money (plus a 50% tariff). The British men noticed, in droves apparently.

 

The book covers every aspect of the women’s lives from dress, parents, education, hobbies and such to marriage, infidelity and socializing. I found it quite interesting that these girls had the best of all worlds because as was typical in the U.S. at the time they were encouraged to be spirited and confident as debutantes and unlike the women who married in America after they wed they could follow the custom of getting involved in politics or writing, which was normal in England.

The book is a solid and entertaining social history that makes me think a real life Cora had more meaningful work to do, more extravagant parties to give, more friendships and probably more infidelity than we see on Downton Abbey. (Mind you I’m happy Cora did not hop into bed with Bricker, the bounder.) The authors’ style is full of wit and energy.

While I enjoyed being able to listen as I drove, I think I’ll get the actual book, because I can envision wanting to fact check the history and that’s hard to do with a CD.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in history, non-fiction

 

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Now Reading

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I’m now reading and very wrapped up in Emile Zola’s A Ladies’ Paradise, which the Masterpiece The Paradise is based on. Wow!

The story’s quite different as it’s set in Paris and Denise’s parents died leaving her with two brothers to look after and very little money. Thus she heads to her uncle in Paris, who’s a draper as in the television series. This uncle has more i.e. some customers and yet is more furious at Mouret (Moray on TV). Zola’s Mouret starts out as such a philanderer, with lots of contempt for women. I can see why the TV show lessened that aspect of his character. It’s just amazing to read about how huge the store is and how it’s run.

sin second cityI’m also reading another Horatio Alger book. Again, I’ve just started the story, Joe’s Luck. Joe’s an orphan and a servant in small town New Jersey. He’s had it with the ill treatment of a miserly employer and heads to New York hoping to get on a ship to California while the Gold Rush is in full swing. Just now poor Joe was swindled out of the money for the ship’s ticket.

I’m also in the midst of a book on the Everleigh sisters who ran a high class, super high class brothel in turn of the 20th century Chicago. The Everleigh Club’s opulence is unmatched and the tales! Whoo. The girls. The men. The antics! Often beyond imagination.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2014 in American Lit, classic, fiction, French Lit, history, Masterpiece Theater

 

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Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast

When I picked this up at the library I didn’t catch the smaller type: Images of America. So I thought there would be more text about Chicago’s Gold Coast. Once I figured out the subject of this book I appreciated the wide selection of old photos of grand houses in this Chicago district. Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast upped my understanding of how the city looked in the late 19th century and beyond.

Here’s a few of the homes featured.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in history, non-fiction

 

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Marshall Field’s: The Store that Helped Build Chicago

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I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Marshall Field’s the still beloved department store that started in Chicago, but I learned a lot more about how the business started, who Field’s partners were, how big their whole sale business was and how subsequent CEO’s like John G. Shedd, of aquarium fame, behaved at the helm. Seems every descendant of a Chicagoan knows that “the customer is always right” and “give the lady what she wants’ were first said by Marshall Field and we know the various explanations for the naming of Frango mints, but there’s still a lot we don’t know and  Gayle Soucek enlightens readers on all aspects of Fields in a pleasant breezy style. It’s a quick read and pleasant till we come to the end when evil Macy’s takes over the store and changes the name.

Field was a good man, and something of a straight arrow. He held true to his credit terms — even after the Chicago Fire in 1871 when creditors wrote him offering to change the terms. He came from Puritan roots and stayed true to them. (His son did not and I for one believe Junior was shot at the Everleigh Club, another interesting Chicago establishment.)  The man was a genius with incredible foresight and respect for people. I wish I could have been in the store when it had a library, offered information (to provide tourist information, ship times, railway routes, etc.)  and accommodation bureaus (which booked theater tickets,made sleeping car arrangements,  checked bags, offered stenographer services, and more). Services didn’t stop there. One anecdote tells how a man told a clerk he was “mourning the accidental estrangement of his brother, who had traveled to Europe and lost contact. The word went out to Field’s foreign buying offices, and in a short amount of time the wayward sibling was located.”

The book mentions Harry Selfridge, the brash man, who worked his way up to partner, a position Field’s was surprise Selfridge had the audacity to ask for (Field’s planned to offer it and was just a more reserved man). It mentions Selfridge as originating the bargain basement and later buying his own store, where he always kept a portrait of Marshall Field in his office. So much of Selfridge’s store is an homage to Field, which is why the book connects with the PBS program.

The book ends with an appendix of famous Field’s recipes.

I still can’t stomach that and haven’t made a purchase in Macy’s since they took over. Marshall Field’s, State Street, was a store you could love in a way current stores just aren’t. We’ve got smart phones so we can make our own travel arrangements or notes on the fly and we can shop online or in person in countless stores, but this personal touch is largely gone or on the way out.

 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in history, non-fiction

 

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Review: American Eras Primary Sources

American Eras Primary Sources fills a niche that encyclopedias, almanacs, books, and articles can’t. This multi-volume set “reproduces full text or excerpts of primary sources that illuminate a particular trend, event, or personality important to [the] understanding of the time period. Each volume includes about one hundred entries organized into topical chapters” (Parks, 2013). By examining one volume in the electronic version covering the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877, I will describe and evaluate the series.

The volume begins with section called “Using Primary Sources” which includes an explanation of what a primary source is and advises readers on how to approach the use of such sources to avoid faulty reasoning. Next there’s an eclectic chronology of world events, which provides an interesting perspective that a history book may not. For example, this chronology lists major natural disasters, military battles, treaties (e.g. the First Geneva Convention protecting the rights of war prisoners), fashion trends and firsts such as the first indoor ice hockey game, which was played in 1875 in Canada.

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The heart of American Eras Primary Sources is the primary sources organized in categories such as the arts, business, government and politics, communications, law, fashion, science, medicine, social trends, and education. Each category begins with an overview and chronology to provide context. Each entry lists basic information on the creator of the primary source, introduces the item. This volume includes and describes Currier and Ives prints, recipes, patents, illustrations, poetry, photos of Grand Central Station, text from the children’s book The Anti-Slave Alphabet, sheet music, military orders and more. After each entry there is a short passage describing its significance and a list of further resources including websites with click-able links.

The end of the volume contains a general index and primary source type index. Entries may be viewed as text or PDF. Users may easily email or download entries for further examination.

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American Eras Primary Sources contains a wide variety of sources that illuminate disparate aspects of American society thereby expanding users’ understanding of the era. Given that an electronic version doesn’t take up shelf space, I would have liked more entries particularly sources from lower level Civil War officers and representatives of minorities other than women and African Americans who are included, but mainly in the conventional ways, i.e. as housewives, suffragettes or slaves. Including sources written in languages other than English with translations would make this important resource even more comprehensive. Still history buffs, students and researchers will find this book highly valuable.

Verdict: American Eras Primary Sources offers a unique perspective on history and should be a part of any public, secondary school or university library collection.

Check this out at your public library if you like history at all!

Works Cited

American Eras Primary Sources. Ed. Rebecca Parks. Vol. 2: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877. Detroit: Gale, 2013. [0]. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in history, Library and Information Science

 

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