Category: Historical Nuggets (Page 1 of 6)

Remembrance Resource

Although we are now heading into the Christmas season, I want to share a resource I came across as part of our Remembrance Day activities.

Our local newspaper does an excellent job of connecting readers with the actual people who went to war. For one thing they run a “remembrance” page where families can commemorate their loved ones. One item clutches at my heart strings–a family of seven, four brothers to WWI and three more to WWII. On first glance I thought the family was lucky since only one brother was killed in action. On a closer reading I found that the surviving brothers of WWI were all invalided out. One suffered shell-shock (we call that PTSD now) for the rest of his life.

However, the newspaper cannot tell all the stories, there are too many. Into the breech has come Vancouver Island University with its “Letters Home” project. The university has collected letters written by soldiers away from home and sent to their families. In November, copies of those letters are delivered to the current occupant of the house at that address.

The recipients are surprized to to receive a letter written from the trenches a hundred or more years ago, but most are touched by the message, and reflect on the young man (only men were in combat at that time) who left home and family in the cause of justice and freedom.

What makes this project unique and wonderful is the fact the letters are not held in a museum. Rather they are digitized and then returned to the family that owns them. Thus Canadians can read the real life experiences of our soldiers without depriving the families of a precious artifact.

So far the university has digitized 30000 letters and thousands of photographs. The database is searchable and available to the public for free. It can be found at canadianletters.ca.

I took a quick look and was immediately drawn into a story. The first letter on the landing page was from a young man wondering why Marjorie hadn’t written. I wanted to jump back in time and give Marjorie a stern lecture. Then I wondered if Marjorie had become ill or maybe died herself and no one had the heart to tell her soldier-beau. Or maybe Marjorie had written but the letters were intercepted. Of perhaps . . .

Look at the story possibilities that jumped to mind after reading only a few paragraphs. For writers of fiction, this database is a treasury of ideas. For people living in a former soldier’s home, they are a window to the history of the house. For citizens who weep for the lives lost, the dreams unfulfilled, and the heartbreak of millions, the letters are a way to honour our brave men and women who sacrificed so much that we might live in peace.

On this day of American Thanksgiving celebrations let us give thanks to our veterans for their service.

 

 

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House and Home

As every reader of Victorian and Regency romance knows, the restrictions around women of that time were numerous and unyielding. As those same readers know, the heroine of a romance is expected to challenge those restrictions, to defy her circumstances and thus win the hero’s heart. It is a genre expectation and authors who want to sell their work would do well to meet it.

No one really expects historical fiction to be a true account of women’t lives in that era but in the age of equal rights, it is difficult for many to understand just how dangerous it was for young women, or older women for that matter, to defy the rules. We might think being snubbed in the street is merely rude behaviour. For the Victorian girl, such a snub could affect her well-being for the rest of her life. If she became unmarriageable her financial security, her physical health and her emotional  fitness would  be lost, most likely forever. Such a disgraced female would be entirely dependent upon her family or the parish to feed, house and cloth her. Even if she could work she would have trouble finding respectable employment. 

This precept was brought home to me this week as I was doing some background reading on Victorian mores. I came across several instructions to women from books of the time, both fiction like Charles Dickens works and manuals for household management like Mrs. Beeton’s.  Here is a sampling. 

  • Man is the head of the household. Women are no better than children in their understanding and must bow to the superior knowledge of men.
  • Housekeeping keeps women busy and out of mischief.
  • Women should be “ministering angel to domestic bliss.”
  • it is the biological destiny to of women to be wives and mothers and therefore housekeepers.
  • The most important person in the household is the heard of the family, the father .. Though he may spend less time at home than any other member of the family – though he has scarcely a voice in family affairs – though the whole household machinery seems to go without the assistance of his management – still it does depend entirely on that active brain and those busy hands.
  • “It is quite possible you many have more talent than your husband, with higher attainments, and you may also have been generally more admired; this  has nothing whatever to do with your position as a woman which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man. — Sarah Stickney Ellis.
  • “Women are born to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessarily wanton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughout their life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misled by childish misconceptions.” George Gissing in The Odd Women
  • Coventry Patmore “The Angel in the House”   Housework is ideal for women, as its unending, non-linear nature gave it a more virtuous air than something which was focused, and could be achieved and have a result. Women are very like children, it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed.

There are more examples but because I’m now ready to spit nails I’ll spare you from reading them. Suffice it to say, the view of women as helpless, hopeless and heedless was so pervasive that all of society, rich and poor, male and female bought into the concept. Anyone, especially a woman, who threatened the established order was outside the pale.

When one considers the cruelties inflicted on suffragettes it becomes clear that women demanding the right to vote were seen as the enemy of the home. Since an “Englishman’s home was his castle” women of an independent mind were threatening the very fibre of the nation. Secure in this belief, imprisonment and force-feeding could be justified. 

I love reading historical romance and am quite willing to suspend disbelief while my high-born lady masquerades as her brother or kicks over the conventions by dining alone with a man. The stories are fun and entertaining and brighten a gloomy day. But it is worth remembering that these tales are “fiction” and in some cases just as far-fetched as fantasy.

My all time favourite historical romance writer is Georgette Heyer. What’s yours?

 

 

 

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Remembrance 2021

Tomorrow, Nov. 11, is Remembrance Day in Canada. For as long as I can remember I have stood at a cenotaph on this day, joined with fellow Canadians in remembrance and sorrow, pride and humility.

This year, like last, because of the pandemic, the Royal Canadian Legion has asked me to stay home and watch on a screen. What guns and bombs and hatred couldn’t do, a virus has accomplished. One of the nation’s most deeply held traditions is “cancelled.”

Whether as a result of the pandemic or the acknowledgement of important war anniversaries, over the past twenty months I have read a lot of war novels. They have focused on “the home front.”

In “The Last Bookshop in London,” I’ve read about a woman’s life during the Blitz in London.  “The Paris Library,” is an account of a woman’s life in occupied Paris. Kirsten Hannah’s “The Nightingale” took me through the terror of occupied France. I’ve read about music giving hope to the population in “La’s Orchestra Saves the World,” and “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.” I’ve read about the Ack-Ack girls in “Light Over London,” and fifth column threats in “The Spies of Shilling Lane.” I re-read “Barometer Rising,” and experienced again the magnitude of the Halifax explosion of 1917.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books and recommend them without reserve.

When I look at the above list of novels I note a shortage of  Canadian content. This year, since I cannot stand alongside our veterans, I’ve committed to reading more about Canada’s experience of war. On my to-be-read list is Marjorie, Her War Years,  Tim Cook’s The Fight for History, and his two volume work, The Necessary War.   A search of the internet yielded this title, War on the Home Front, the Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan. As my grandparents and great uncles continued to farm during WWI, I look forward to reading about Daniel MacMillan.

This year, my tribute to veterans will include an effort to better understand their lives and their sacrifice. Yet no amount of reading is going to fill me with the kind of fear men and nations and families lived during world conflicts.

You see, I know that our side won. So while I empathize with a shopkeeper losing her store to the Blitz I know that, in the end, everything will be all right. I have that reassurance, our veterans did not.

In our time the world is mobilizing to fight climate change. There is real fear in the streets as people, especially youth, contemplate rising sea levels, the disappearance of island nations, vanishing ice caps, food shortages, and dried up lakes. The battle for the planet lacks the immediacy of fighter squadrons and toiling troops, but the outcome could not be more dire. This time we don’t have the reassurance that “our” side will prevail. Perhaps that fact gives us a taste of life in a time of war.

 

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Rag and Bone Man

I’ve been reading this memoir about a boy’s life on the Canadian prairies circa 1920 – 1939. Many of his tales of overturning outhouses on Hallowe’en, cleaning coal oil lamps, learning in a one-room schoolhouse, and the frequency and severity of corporal punishment resonate as they are part of the collective memory of my family too.

Our “enlightened” culture preaches the gospel of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” but, as the author of this memoir reminds us, our forebears “made do” which is the same thing. Our world  is faced with too much stuff so we need to find ways to dispose of it. Previous generations didn’t have enough so they found ways to make every thread and every morsel count. 

Women made quilts from scraps of worn out fabric. Clothes, toys and shoes were handed down within a family and even circulated to cousins and neighbours. A trip to the store was difficult so the Watkins man and the Fuller Brush man came to call. Worn out woollens could be gathered up and sent off to a mill and returned to the homemaker as wool blankets. 

One aspect of early twentieth century life that this book references is the “rag and bone man.” He was actually an early recycler, collecting worn out scraps of material, bare bones, old pots and pans, and bits of scrap metal. The rags were often sold to paper mills for rag paper. Bones could be used to make buttons and knife handles, or ground up for glue and fertilizer. Any left over grease was used in making soap.  The rag and bone man was the epitome of the old adage “waste not want not.” 

The term “rag and bone man” is familiar from English literature, but until I read this memoir I was unaware of the practice in Canada, perhaps because of the term “rag and bone.” In my world we were more apt to speak of the junk-man. As automobiles became more commonplace, scrap metal and used car parts soon displaced rags and bones as the most valuable discard from households.  I once spent a few enjoyable hours prowling around an auto junk yard looking for a side window to a VW Beetle. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt and I was gleeful when I found the prize.

Our blue boxes and recycle depots seemed like a new thing when they were introduced. At that time it was the Yuppies who jumped on the environmental bandwagon hoping to save the world by finding a use for waste. Turns out it wasn’t such a new idea at all. Donating worn out clothing to a thrift shop, organizing a bottle drive for a charity, keeping garbage out of the garbage dump are all part of life in the twenty-first century, but they aren’t new and they lack the thrill of hunting through the junk-man’s cart.

The author’s “good old days,” have the golden tinge of time and nostalgia. Life was hard and precarious but for many who lived it, it was fun and exciting and “normal.” Anyone here ever turned a blue box into a bobsled?

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Captain James Cook

July 1, 2021 was a strange kind of Canada Day. With many COVID restrictions just beginning to ease, there was a wariness about big gatherings. Added to that were the recent announcements of graveyards at Residential Schools, and many felt this was not a time to celebrate our country. The First Nations leadership asked Canadians to spend the day in reflection about the past and future of Canada. But crowds bent on destruction ignored that call. They set fire to churches, defaced public property and toppled statues. One of the targets was the statue of Capt. James Cook on the inner harbour in Victoria, B.C.

Mobs seldom do a thorough investigation of the facts. They are fired by emotion–anger, fear, vengeance–and are determined to carry out their own form of justice. History is littered with tales of innocent men lynched by a mob. In this case, Cook was targeted as revenge for the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Since the man lived and died before Canada was a nation, the link is tenuous.

Born in England in 1728, James Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 after serving an apprenticeship on board a number of trading vessels. With the navy he served in the Seven Years War along the east coast of what is now Canada.  He was a remarkable map-maker and undertook the first scientific large scale hydro graphic survey of present-day Newfoundland. So accurate were his maps that they were used for over 200 years, well into the twentieth century. 

His scientific accomplishments brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, founded in the 1660’s with the mandate to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

With the backing of the Admiralty and the Royal Society, Cook made three voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The first two voyages resulted in extensive mapping around New Zealand and Australia along with many South Sea islands, including Hawaii.

On his third voyage, Cook reached Nootka Sound in British Columbia. In an excerpt from his journals he writes: 

We no sooner drew near the inlet than we found the coast to be inhabited; and at the place where we were first becalmed, three canoes came off to the ship. . . a person in one of the two last stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as guessed, by his gestures. At the same time he kept throwing handfuls of feathers toward us; and some of his companions threw handfuls of red dust or powder in the same manner. . . one sung a very agreeable air with a degree of softness and melody which we could not have expected; the word haela being often repeated as the burden of the song.. . .  A great many canoes, filled with the natives, were about the ships all days; and a trade commenced betwixt us and them which was carried on with strictest honesty on both sides. . .

One of Cook’s notable accomplishments was the good health of his crew. No one died of scurvy, the illness that decimated crews on long voyages during the 18th Century. Cook maintained cleanliness and ventilation in the crew’s quarters, and insisted on a diet that included cress, sauerkraut, and a kind of orange extract.  (vitamin C) For work against scurvy, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the gold Copley Medal, one of its highest honours.

 Cook explored and mapped more territory than any navigator of his era. His achievements have been honoured by scientists and statesmen  for the past 240 years. Even NASA paid tribute. Cook’s HMS Discovery was one of several historical vessels that inspired the name of the third space shuttle, and NASA later named their final shuttle “Endeavour” after the ship he commanded on his first circumnavigation of the globe. When the shuttle Discovery made its final space flight in 2011, its crew carried a special medallion made by the Royal Society in honour of Cook.

Captain Cook died in 1779 in Hawaii during a dispute over wood and a cutter with the King of Hawaii. His statue was ripped down by a mob and thrown into the sea in Victoria, British Columbia in 2021.

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The Not Wild West

I have always subscribed to the theory that the American west was the stuff of gunslingers and range wars, while the Canadian west was orderly, hard-working and a bit dull. 

My latest reading has shaken that idea into the gumbo of Saskatchewan mud. Red Lights on the Prairies by James Grey is a study of the “social evil,” in Canada’s prairie provinces from the late 1880’s until the end of WWII.

James Grey, a son of the prairies, had a successful career as a newspaper man before retiring and turning his hand to writing books. His work is littered with references to various newspapers of the period, along with police reports and first hand accounts from old timers. The result is an entertaining and readable history of Canada’s west that never appeared in my social studies classes in school.

He begins his account in Winnipeg, the first of the prairies cities to achieve city status. The development of this city was mimicked in large part by other centres like Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The railway arrived first and the town grew around the station. The town-sites had virtually no infrastructure so hotels, shops, livery stables and houses were thrown up willy-nilly in close proximity to the station. Travellers getting off the trains were met with an abundance of bars and con men, and a dearth of lodgings. 

Since the vast majority of new arrivals were single men, prostitution was not only tolerated but regarded as necessary. The prevailing attitude was that with 200,000 men without female partners, brothels were just another business. Politicians and police tended to turn a blind eye to the madams and their girls provided they kept the noise and brawling to a respectable level. They were more inclined to take action against the houses-of-ill-repute on liquor offences than on moral grounds.

In all the cities of the prairie provinces, the argument around brothels centred on the question of segregation. Some notable police chiefs left the prostitutes alone so long as they stayed in their own area of town, Annabella Street in Winnipeg, River Street in Regina and Nose Creek in Calgary. When the “ladies” paraded around town in their finery, insulting the sensibilities of decent women and reforming clergy, the police were wont to “run them out of town.” The latter was a fruitless exercise as the women simply re-established their houses beyond the city borders but near enough for the cowhands, miners, railway workers, and farmers sons to find them on payday. 

When the reformers and Temperance workers were able to persuade a city to close down a red light district*, the police would reluctantly comply, knowing full well the prostitutes might set up shop in the downtown district or in a back room of a hotel and the “social evil” would continue unabated. Some time later, the protests over public morals would come full circle and the women would be moved into a segregated area where they were less apt to come into contact with respectable women.

In some cities the brothels were treated like community centres. They were usually larger and more luxurious than the hotels. Town council might meet in the living room of a friendly madam. Fraternal organizations would enjoy a good dinner and music in a bordello during their monthly meeting. 

It wasn’t unusual for one of the girls to grow tired of life in the brothel and marry one of her customers. The stigma attached to prostitution in our day was remarkably absent in the early 20th century. Mind you, the wife of a miner or other labourer could be a misery–a tiny shack, limited means, and hard physical labour. If the husband drank his wages the new wife might drift back to her former profession just to keep herself fed.

Back to my original perceptions — it is true that the Canadian west was less lawless than its American counterpart. The Mounties preceded the settlers in Canada. In the US settlement often came first and law and order came later. But the notion that the vast expanse of the Canadian prairie was peopled by, as Grey puts it “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” has been completely overturned. Booze, broads and brawls were as much a part of settlement in Canada’s west as sod shanties and one room schoolhouses.

*There were no actual red lights in the brothels on the Canadian prairies. The term is an Americanism, no doubt imported along with the thousands of American settlers who flowed north to Canada.

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5 Pitfalls in Research

As a writer of historical fiction I am beset with questions of historical accuracy and attitudes of the times vs the ultra-sensitive world of today. As I child, I read “The Plains of Abraham” and “The Loon Feather” with an open heart and an uncritical eye. Even though the books were fiction it never occurred to me that they were not “true.” But in the 21st century, history is fraught with cultural traps. Can we use the word “Indian?” That’s how Indigenous people were referenced in the nineteenth century. If my story is set in 1890 and I use the term First Nation, it is anachronistic. I think I need to be true to the facts of history, but it is difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion.

Here are a few warnings I’ve picked up along the way. 

  1. Don’t trust Hollywood. I watched a classic movie the other day and, even without being a scholar of Indigenous culture, I could tell that the movie-makers had picked bits and pieces from various First Nations and thrown them all together into a pastiche of what would seem authentic to their audience. I’m not slamming the movies. They were producing a visual extravaganza to be projected on big screens in cinema-scope and Technicolor. Mountains and totem poles and natives in war paint served that purpose well. But, if we want historical accuracy, we need to look further.
  2. Eye witnesses are unreliable. That is a fact every police officer and every courtroom lawyer can verify. Ask five people to describe a car crash and you’ll get five very different versions, some even contradictory. Not the fault of the witnesses. They are describing what they saw, but they saw the event only from one physical perspective and through the lens of their own belief system. I’m reading a book about brothels on the Canadian prairies in the first third of the 20th century. It is well researched and written by a respected historian. He relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day. Yet, in those newspaper accounts the prevailing attitude of the times –live and let live–colours even the simplest facts, like the number of houses of ill repute on a given street.
  3. Fine Arts of the day are more likely to depict the artist’s impressions and the saleability of a piece than actual fact. Galleries throughout North America are hung with paintings depicting Indigenous peoples capering naked through the snow. There is no historical evidence of this style of “undress” in the Indigenous peoples of this land. Apparently artists and their customers couldn’t differentiate between native populations of warm south seas islands and those of snow covered northern climes.
  4. Photographs likely are more accurate than art works, although, Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) was able to create all kinds of effects in her pictures, like the one showing her at a tea party, pouring tea over her own head! She had no need of Photoshop. 
  5. Original Sources, the gold standard for historical research, still need to be tested. Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police is an example. By his own account he was an heroic stalwart of a storied police force. His father, the author Charles Dickens, considered him bumbling and incompetent. In histories of the Mounted Police, charges against Officer Dickens include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. Later histories conclude he was just an ordinary man, no better and no worse than his contemporaries.

So, where do we look for truth? I think historical research requires the same kind of diligence we use in analysing the news of today. What’s the source? Is it reliable? Do various reports reinforce the facts? Are we reading in our own echo chamber or are we truly exploring other points of view. 

Finally, remember that historical “fiction” is not a scholarly treatise. Tell a good story and use the time and setting to add colour and authenticity. Be true to indisputable facts, like dates and laws of the land. Visit museums and troll the archives to support your understanding of the age, then tell your story in the best way possible.

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Revenge In Rubies

REVENGE IN RUBIES

by A.M. Stuart

 

Thank you so much for the invitation to your blog, Alice.

For those who don’t know, Alice and I have been the writerly equivalent of pen pals (she lives in Canada and I live in Australia) for a long time and Alice, more than anyone, has been there chivvying me along through disappointments, frustrations and inertia and was the first to cheer when I finally ‘broke through’ and published my first Historical Mystery, SINGAPORE SAPPHIRE, through Penguin USA in 2019.

REVENGE IN RUBIES is the second in the Harriet Gordon Mysteries and is released on 15 September. For those new to the world of Harriet Gordon, the stories are set in Singapore in 1910 and feature two protagonists, Harriet Gordon and Inspector Robert Curran of the Straits Settlement Police.

I was fortunate to spend three years living in Singapore and it was during that time that I first met Harriet Gordon in the microfiche room of the Singapore National Library.

Of course, she wasn’t known as Harriet Gordon, her name was Mrs Howell and in March 1905 she placed an advertisement in the Straits Times, offering her services as a Stenographer and Typist. She guaranteed “RAPID & CAREFUL work together with ABSOLUTE SECRECY” (the capitals are hers). The now long forgotten Mrs. Howell’s advertisement jumped off the microfiche at me. I loved her commitment to ABSOLUTE SECRECY, and slowly the character of Harriet Gordon, widow, typist, stenographer and failed suffragette began to form.

 

Over the next few years, I started to rebuild her world – a colonial Singapore you can barely glimpse in the modern, go ahead city of Singapore but there are maps, images, contemporary travel guides and those all important newspapers from the period to guide me.

Of course, Harriet does not exist in isolation. She has friends and family and most importantly (for Harriet) her partner in crime, the enigmatic Inspector Robert Curran, head of the Detective Branch of the Straits Settlements Police Force.

There are so many stories brewing in the tropical heat of the Malay Peninsula- where truth and corpses tend to decompose quickly- and I am delighted that Penguin has agreed to publish a 3rd book in the series (my current work in progress) so I am hoping Harriet will be around for a little while yet!

If you like puzzles, here’s a link to a jigsaw of the cover for Revenge in Rubies.

https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=05c50e12a3d0  I

 

Instead of a head shot, Alison sent this photo of the two of us having coffee in Vancouver a few years ago. She’s the one on the right. How often do two friends from the opposite corners of the world get to have a coffee date?

Thanks Alison, for sharing Harriet Gordon with my readers. I hope she as successful at solving mysteries in Revenge in Rubies as she was in Singapore Sapphire.

The book is available for sale here :https://books2read.com/RevRub

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The Mighty Pen

Browsing through one of my favourite blog sites, Writer Unboxed, I came across a title, “Pens, Ranked.”  

As someone who prefers to write my first draft in longhand, I was very excited to see what the experts had to say about pens. Turns out, the post was a humour piece and not a serious study of writing instruments. Although, in this day and age, a little humour is never misplaced.

But, now I was on a mission. I have my own favourite pens. My penmanship is awful, so a fine point is my preference. For some reason it makes my scrawl look better. The grip is also important. Many of the commentators on the WU site liked a fat pen, but I prefer a slim one with a non-slip grip.  I’ll take a ballpoint over a fountain pen, even though I like the elegant look of the latter.  This elegant number was a gift from dh when I sold my first manuscript. I imagined myself using it for autographs at book signings. NOT! This expensive beauty leaked just as badly as the cheapies that blotted my grade three exercise books.

On further searching the internet I found a site that had actually rated the top 100 pens, including ballpoints, gel pens, fountain pens, and felt-tips. Their choices sometimes surprised–and to judge by the comments a lot of people disagreed with the editors decisions–but I did like their judging criteria.

Smoothness: How easily does the pen glide across the page? 

Smudging:  Especially important for left-handers.

Bleed-through:  A major failing for lots of felt-tips and fountain pens.

Feel: The shape of the pen must fit the shape of the user’s hand.

Looks:  A totally subjective call.

For myself, smoothness and feel are primary details. I hate a pen that catches and scratches on the page, or one where the ink skips. I like those little rubber grips the manufacturers have added to the straight, stick pen. I can write for hours with that nifty little detail and no cramping in my fingers. This little give-away pen used as a promotional tool is one of my all-time favourites. It is also purple and sparkly. 🙂

Having discovered that there are people who spend their days ranking writing instruments I kept scrolling and came upon some amazing facts, like a fountain pen that retails for over $2000.00. Really, that’s a 2 with a dollar sign in front and four zeros afterwards.  Could you imagine carrying that in your purse?

I also discovered that there are whole shops devoted to pens — and ink and luxury stationary. How many dollar apiece stick pens does a retailer have to sell to pay the rent on that storefront?

Pens are so common we take them for granted, toss a handful into a desk drawer, add a few to a bag and maybe leave one or two in the car for emergencies. But a pen is a magnificent tool, underappreciated because it is commonplace. 

Since the days of antiquity humans have devised various writing instruments to record our stories. Apparently our desire to leave our mark on the cave wall, is as old as mankind. 

The pen is one of the primary tools of civilization. It allowed communication over long distances. It preserved the works of Shakespeare. It transferred the ideas of Galileo and Newton to paper, and thus making them available to the world.  The innocuous, unappreciated little writing stick littering your desk is indeed mighty.

The Egyptians used a reed pen for thousands of years but the invention of the quill pen in the seventh century revolutionised the art of writing. Using a bird feather, like goose or swan, one could use the hollowed stem to draw ink out of a well and transfer it to paper in a smooth line — writing.  At first people wrote in large, block letters to accommodate the shortcomings of the pen, but over time improvements to the writing tool led to changes in style with cursive becoming common. Those beautiful copperplate letters one sees on old documents were only possible because of the quill pen.

By 1822 the steel pen was invented. It was an improvement on the quill pen because it had a more durable tip, but it still required the writer to sit at a desk with an inkwell and dip his pen frequently to maintain a supply of ink. Then, in 1827 the fountain pen was developed by a Romanian, Petrache Poenaru. This pen was never totally satisfactory, but Lewis Waterman refined the design to create a three channel feed fountain pen that maintained a steady flow of ink and was portable. The act of writing was set free from the constraints of the desk and the inkwell. A portable pen, with its own supply of ink, changed everything– commerce, law, the arts and everyday lives.

By 1888 the first ballpoint was introduced and later refined by Lazio Biro in the 1930’s. The name Biro became synonymous with a simple, ballpoint pen. It was especially important to the RAF during WW2 because, unlike a fountain pen,  it could write at high altitudes.

Felt-tips, gel-pens and other variations have followed, but they are refinements on the original principles developed by Waterman and Biro.

So, next time you scribble your name on a receipt, or jot notes for your next masterpiece, or doodle a cover design, say thank you to the humble pen. You hold in your hand one of the greatest inventions of the world.

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Who do you think you are?

Remember that old schoolyard taunt? It was usually aimed at the unfortunate pupil who did not conform to the standards of the “in” crowd on that day.  i.e boys don’t wear pink, girls don’t wear pants, and “blue and green should never be seen unless they’re in the washing machine.”

I remember, during high school,  raising and lowering my hems every September, because the fashion dictates for the day decreed that an inch more or less of knee dictated whether my school year was fun or miserable.

By some coincidence, I’ve been watching a number of TV shows on women’s rights. Needless to say, they make my blood boil, but they have also disturbed my sense of security. When not conforming to the dictates of society resulted in jail time for a woman in the twentieth century, I’m reminded that freedom is a fragile treasure.

 

In 1938, Los Angeles kindergarten teacher Helen Hulick witnessed a burglary, and was called into court to testify against the suspects. But, when she arrived, the conversation quickly turned from the crime at hand to what she was wearing: a pair of slacks. The judge ordered her to return at a later date wearing a dress. When she returned in pants, he cited her for contempt of court and sent her to jail.

A brief history.  

Follow the link above for a brief history of women in pants. We might think the controversy over what women wear is absurd, but it points to the larger issue of conformity. Who decides what a woman should wear? Who decides on a school dress code?  Who decides when the “traditional” should  change? Who decides social mores? Who decides that women must wear hats indoors and men must remove them? Who wields power over others?

Ignaz Semmelwies

–a Hungarian doctor discovered that women in maternity wards overseen by men died more often than in maternity wards overseen by female midwives. His observations led him to the theory of germs carried on the men’s hands from the autopsy room. The midwives did not perform autopsies. He ordered the doctors on the maternity ward to wash their hands after leaving the autopsy room. The deaths on the maternity ward dropped. For his trouble Semmelwies was vilified by his fellow physicians and eventually committed to an insane asylum, where he died of sepsis from a beating. The physicians stopped washing their hands and the death rate on the maternity ward they staffed, soared.

Every discovery in history has come about because someone has refused to accept the conventional explanation and thought outside the box. The Wright brothers and others imagined that flight was possible. Galileo postulated that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. He was condemned for heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Emmeline Pankhurst thought women should vote, and went to jail and suffered force-feeding for her beliefs.

There are countless examples of those who defied convention, suffered for their beliefs, and were eventually vindicated by later discoveries.

Lest you think the suppression of freedom is a relic from history, consider our present practice of “online shaming.”

That schoolyard cry of “who do you think you are?” amplified by social media, has tremendous power to repress freedom of thought and action. In some cases the “shamer” has misidentified a person or action. In others, they are bent on imposing their own beliefs on dissenters.  George Orwell wrote 1984, in 1949.  When I studied it in school, along with The Chrysalids, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, I thought such absurd worlds could never really exist. We’d “won the war” freedom was guaranteed. Now I’m not so sure.

When I wrote The Man for Her, I thought having the heroine wear men’s clothing showed her practicality and strength. Having considered the history of women in pants, I’m even more proud of my unconventional heroine. 

Most romance heroines are feisty, plucky, free-thinking women who defy the conventions of their day. They marry for love rather than position. They work in traditional male jobs. They are entrepreneurs and astronauts. They chose their own path despite the odds. We admire these heroines. We love to read their stories. But consider the woman who went to jail for wearing trousers, and understand that our fictional heroines are risking their reputations, their livelihoods and maybe even their lives when they go against the traditions of their world.

As I said, freedom is precious. We must never take our rights for granted. They were won for us by brave and committed women.  Don’t let the bullies frighten us into submission.

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