Researching the Minutia of Edwardian Daily Life for “The Beauty Doctor”

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In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.

Last fall, I was approached by historical fiction author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard to review the manuscript of her historical suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor. She had already done a tremendous amount of research but needed someone to help her fill in a few gaps as well as to ensure that she had accurately captured some of the nuances of the Edwardian era. In particular, she was concerned about subtle differences between the Victorian period, about which there has been so much written, and the Edwardian period, which was relatively short but did represent a huge shift in certain aspects of American life and culture. I soon fell into a rabbit hole of research, exploring the fascinating world of early plastic surgery and gender politics in 1907.

Conducting research for a novel, as opposed to many academic articles, had me seek out interesting details of daily life that aren’t often recorded. (Do you make note of which streets in your town are paved or unpaved? What about if there are electric street lights on the corner of your street? Did you change your clothes before you went out for a walk this afternoon, or not?) Luckily for me, the action of the novel largely takes places in New York City, one of the most documented cities in the world! Still, some details remained elusive. The Edwardian era was a time of flux when it came to technology as well as social values: an excellent backdrop for a historical drama!

A lot of research starts with a concrete question, and the author had noted in her manuscript quite a few specific ones about what she wanted me to either weigh in on or help answer with further research. Here are some of the useful resources and fascinating details I uncovered while researching The Beauty Doctor

  1. How do you start a car at this time? 1907 was very early in the history of automobiles, and they were largely considered playthings for the rich – and they were dangerous. One of my favourite sources for perceptions of cars in the early days was this podcast episode from 99% Invisible. But how do you operate a car from this time period? It was far from standardized like it is today. My best source was to simply go on youtube and watch people start vintage cars like this one. A picture – or video – is worth a thousand words!
  2. What kinds of clothing would a character wear on particular kinds of occasions? What a character wears says a lot about them as a person, and it will change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Reading historical etiquette manuals helped me get into the mindset of what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear – and remember, not all characters act according to society’s wishes. This was something that the author and I discussed frequently, as she had very definite ideas about what some of her characters should and should not do or wear. I found that her instincts about such things were quite good. For example, her character Alexandra Gagarin, the Russian countess, often wore a kimono; the Asian influence actually was quite in vogue at the time. I found collections of  historical fashion plates invaluable, particularly for characters from higher classes. Mail order catalogues are also very handy to see what an everyday person could buy, ready-made, and that’s not just limited to clothing! Of course, photographs of women and what they really wore, as opposed to illustrated fashion plates, are also incredibly useful, and fascinating to boot.
  3. Would they have said it like that? How do you check and see if a word was in use over 100 years ago? The author had actually been very careful about her selection of words and researched the origins of most all of them that were questionable. However, a second pair of eyes is always a good idea! I’d often reach for two different resources to confirm or deny my gut feeling of a word or phrase sounding too modern. Google Ngram is a nifty tool that allows you to search Google Books for the prevalence of words or phrases over time, and displays them in chart form. Here, for example, is a graph depicting the published use of the phrase “makes them tick” in published material. (It seemed to come into popular use after the Second World War.) This online etymology dictionary was incredibly handy to see when a word first joined the English language and how it has evolved over the centuries. I learned, for example, that the word “concussion” has a long history: “c. 1400, from Latin concussionem (nominative concussio) “a shaking,” noun of action from past participle stem of concutere “shake violently,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + quatere “to shake” (see quash). Modern brain injury sense is from 1540s.” A lot of words that I checked because they felt too modern to me turned out to have older origins than I anticipated! The word “boss” dates from the 1640s. The word “handy” dates back to the 1300s! And sometimes it’s just the way a word sounds, rather than its date of origin.  For example, the author liked my suggestion to use the word “position” instead of “job.” Either would have been perfectly correct, but the former has a more old-fashioned “ring” to it.
As for the medical aspects of the book, especially plastic surgery, the author was quite an expert in that herself. She did, however, ask for my help in finding some photos of operating rooms from the first decade of the 20th century, including how the doctors and nurses dressed.  Of course, most of the medical scenes in The Beauty Doctor don’t take place in a hospital but instead in a private doctor’s office set up as an operating room. There was definitely some improvisation required!
     I really enjoyed the story of The Beauty Doctor and think you will, too.  The book is available now through these fine retailers!

 

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A Few Lesser-Known Online Libraries and Archives You Should Know

The internet is a fascinating place. Many imagine historians to look rather like that historian who gets slain after the fourth wall breaks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more at home in the dusty archive wearing a tweed shirt than cruising around online. But honestly, there are amazing resources in the depths of the internet that are making it easier and easier for historians to save on travel costs – and wear and tear on delicate documents. Here are a few that I feel you should know. All on this list can be accessed for free, which makes them ideal for those who don’t yet (or no longer) have access to subscription-based online databases through university tuition fees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may contain a few of the slightly less well-known free archives and collections available online.

  • Peel’s Prairie Provinces via the University of Alberta library and archive. A huge collection of digitized Western Canadiana. If it was published in or about Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta prior to, say, the 1950s, they probably have a copy in their full text keyword searchable database. I’ve talked about a few of their documents before – see this post on a Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book from 1912 – but the element of their collection that I have made the most use of is their postcards. Some, like the postcards of bison/cow hybrids, have been digitized: over 15,000 historical postcard entries. However, as of last year they doubled their collection, though most have not yet been described or made available online. Nevertheless, they are a hugely rich resource that is only just started to be tapped by researchers (including me for my MA research project).  Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a large collection of digitized photographs apart from their postcards and a huge set of Western Canadian newspapers – even those that only ran for a few years, or were from small towns or in unusual languages. Once again, they are entirely keyword searchable!

    Group of children in costume showing the allies of the British during the First World War. PC002348, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Autumn outfits, 1915, courtesy of the University of Washington collection.
Autumn outfits, 1915, courtesy of the University of Washington collection.

Please post further online archive recommendations below!

Edwardian Street Life

Happy New Year everyone! I can never escape from historical research. I have attempted to relax over the holidays (though scholarly pursuits are never far from my mind), and through the joys of the internet I have run across a few gems I’d like to share with you.

I’ve run across historical videos of “everyday scenes” before. Here, for example, is a link to a video taken from a tram in San Francisco in 1906, just prior to the famous earthquake and fire. I’m fascinated by historical videos and pictures of everyday life. One can learn a lot about portraits taken in studios, but of course most people would dress up for that, and until exposure times were shortened in the late 19th century poses were often very stiff and formal. (See here for an interesting article with photographs of Edwardian “street style” from London and Paris.)

Videos of everyday life can tell us so many things. They generally aren’t as posed. One can see how real people dressed (and moved in those dresses), how people interacted with their environment and the people around them, etc. You can see things like garbage and horse dung in the streets, cyclists taking risks, children running and laughing, and so on. It’s amazing.

Below is a video taken from a tram on various streets in Barcelona in 1908. I find it absolutely fascinating. I am intrigued by how people interacted with the tramway. The trams moved at about the same pace as the motorcars, the horses, and the cyclists. There is a wonderful flow to traffic in the video that I feel is absent today. When everything moves at about the same pace, there’s less of a chance of accidents, not as many sudden stops and starts, and everyone seems to interact more and be more aware of their surroundings. You can see children running ahead of the tram, men shaking hands and parting from the tracks at the last instant before the tram runs them over, cyclists constantly weaving in and out of traffic…

I also find the history of fashion to be quite fascinating. One person that caught my attention appears at about 4:15: a young girl with an enormous feathered hat. One tends to see the Merry Widow Hat on young women instead, so this is an intriguing example of children’s fashion to me. It’s interesting to see how the feathers of the hat actually move, too.

Some of the people seem to be aware of the camera and wave their hats at the cameraman, or at least the tram. If you pay close attention to one of the male figures near the front of the screen at about 5:05, I think he tries to “moon” the camera. At the very least he cheekily turns and presents his rear end to the camera and then grins.

On a slightly more adorable note, at about 5:20 a cart starts trundling along in front of the tram. During that time, many men lining the road wave their hats at the camera, and one of the men on the cart looks back several times. At about 5:45 they seem to have been told about the camera and the man on the left waves. I don’t suppose that these men were filmed very often! There’s something endearing to me about their reaction. (A subjective view, yes, I know.) Still, due to the power of moving pictures, people from over a hundred years ago seem to wave at me, out of history.

These films of everyday life are well worth a view.