Victorian Transformations

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

When I decided to write a new mystery series set in the Gilded Age, I had no idea I’d be led down so many paths of exploration. All I knew was that I wanted to write classic mysteries rather than current cozies with their reliance on pets, recipes, and quirky characters.

I’d discovered the first five seasons of the Perry Mason television show on Amazon Prime Video, and that most of the books were available from Kindle Unlimited. I think I was also missing Downton Abbey, which I watched faithfully (after finally giving in and binging the first couple of seasons to catch up with what everyone was talking about) and still rewatch episodes on DVD or via PBS’s portal for subscribers. And then, of course, there was the colorful history of Hull, Massachusetts, which ever since I lived there, I’ve thought would make a terrific milieu for a novel.

Of course, it’s one thing to be nostalgic about something and an entirely different thing to write about it. The simplest things turn into questions. For instance, I had a character who was going to walk into a dark room. Now, when I do that, I flip on the light switch without even thinking about it. But would my character light a kerosene lamp, a gas fixture on the wall, or an electric light? In digging into some books I’d bought and searching Google, I discovered it could be any one of the three, depending on their location and social class.

The latter Victorian Age was a time of great transformations. We went from kerosene lamps to electric ones, horse-drawn hansom cabs to automobiles, a wardrobe sewn by hand to mass-produced clothing bought at department stores. We went from sacks and barrels of foodstuffs to branded, pre-packaged groceries.

One of the things I realized this past weekend was how much the world I grew up in was shaped by the changes of the Victorian Age. I was reading the chapter on Consuming in “Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life” by Thomas J. Schlereth and was surprised at how much of what I remembered from the nineteen-fifties and sixties originated in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Magazines I’d seen in stores, like Ladies Home Journal, Harpar’s Bazar, and National Geographic, got their start during this era. I remember “itinerant peddlers,” as the book calls them, from Avon and Fuller Brush knocking on the door of our suburban home. My mother did her grocery shopping at the A & P, the updated name of grocery chain The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.

The rise of the five and ten cent store, exemplified by Woolworth’s, happened during this time. The book spoke of their lunch counter as a fast, cheap place where workers could buy their noon meal, and I was swept away on a wave of nostalgia of eating at those very same lunch counters in a much later time. And lunches at what my grandfather called “the engineer’s club,” A.K.A. the Horn and Hardart Automat with its wall of glass and steel compartments where you put your nickels in a slot and the door opened so you could take out a sandwich or a piece of cake.

And then there were the catalogs, Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck. The Amazon of their day, they started by placing catalogs in retail stores where consumers could browse through them and order things that weren’t available locally. The shopkeeper would get a portion of the sale to encourage him to have the catalogs there. Later on, catalogs were distributed to homes. When the book talked about the Sears’s “Big Book” and the “Wish Book,” their Christmas catalog, as history, I realized the world has undergone another transformation and that most of today’s population never saw those catalogs.

The internet has changed everything.

Web pages have replaced not only catalogues, but retail stores as well. People rarely buy print magazines from the magazine rack in a drugstore anymore, preferring to read this kind of material online. Grocery stores encourage you to order online and pick up your weekly shopping. Or they’ll deliver it for a fee.

I have some young neighbors, and by the times they come and go from their apartments, it’s obvious to me they’re not even buying groceries. They’re going out to eat an awful lot of meals. With Uber Eats, Grub Hub, and Door Dash, they don’t even have to go out. They can get restaurant meals delivered to them.

So now I’m starting to wonder if my desire to write mysteries that take place in the Gilded Age is also a kind of nostalgia for a time when life was more like what I’m familiar with. It’s odd to think of myself as closer to the Victorians than to the society of 2020, but that just might be true. Even though I’m excited about going back to the moon and putting people on Mars.

I wonder what life will be like in twenty years. With any luck, I’ll still be around to find out.

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