I’m halfway through my second novel, a work of historical fiction that covers two generations of a group of families that lived in rural
between 1820 and, roughly, 1920. Maine
One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction is shifting perspectives, moving back to an earlier time and looking at things the way people did back then—you can’t write convincingly about the early 1900s when you’re busy with a 2014 mindset.
It just doesn’t work.
So I comb flea markets for things that will help me make that trip back in time; one of the greatest sources for me is books—not old, dry history books about dates and battles and land acquisitions, etc.; they’re pretty useless to me.
I look instead for books written during the time period, books my characters might read themselves. I take them home and read them, cover to cover: agricultural census books, town reports and old school textbooks; novels, newspapers; books about farm buildings, breeding and veterinary practices; cookbooks.
This one, Household Discoveries, is a gem. It was published in 1908 in New York by the Success Company, publishers of “Success Magazine,” and has more than five hundred pages of household tips, suggestions, recipes and common sense.
Here’s how to use brick dust and/or kerosene to scour knives; clean black goods (mourning clothes) with alcohol and water; how to get dirt (“matter which is out of place”) from clothes, barrels, harness and tools; how to fasten a bag for waste thread to your sewing table.
You can decorate your home—all rooms. There’s a section on lighting (only one electric lamp in the bunch); beds and mattresses and pillows; how to set up the furniture in your parlor.
Have a problem with rats? Ahh! Simply mix a dough of phosphorous paste (lard, phosphorus and alcohol) with corn meal, oatmeal of flour and sugar, add a few drops of aniseed. Place pieces of this dough in rat runways.
It’s got sections devoted to soap, washing, ironing, sewing; paints and varnishes, garden pests, metal work, cleaning of tools and harness; weights and measures, preservation of fruits and vegetables; a couple of chapters on manners, health and hygiene.
And so much more.
It sends me back to the early 1900s, all right; oftentimes, I confess, I’m glad I’m not staying. Consider this piece of advice in the chapter about hairdressing: Professional hairdressers do not advocate shampooing the hair oftener than once a month...
Honestly, it says that, right on page 484.
It’s enough to keep me here in 2014.