Travel Guide for New York City-1885

Welcome! It’s New York 1885

Fast facts

  1. Population: approx. 1,360,800 (this is only Manhattan) Almost  25% of the population was ‘foreign-born’.
  2. Mayor: William R Grace, the first Irish Catholic Mayor.
  3. Governor: 1885 was an election year so Steven Grover Cleveland saw 1885 in, David Bennet Hill saw the year out. 
  4. President: Grover Cleveland (left New York for Washington DC)
  5. In 1885 Manhattan was New York City. Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island were separate cities.
  6. Main Newspapers: The New York…Times, Herald, Tribune, World and Sun. And there was stiff competition.
  7. The Statue of Liberty arrived June 17, 1885, but wasn’t dedicated until Oct 28, 1886
  8. The City was already being progressively electrified following the opening of  Edison’s Pearl St Station in 1882.

Though all the sources say it was 1885 this picture is dated November 25, 1884, was it anticipatory promotion?

When you go to visit a new city what do you want to know?

Where to stay, where to eat and what to do. Right? Right

Where to Stay

  •  Astor House Hotel, 200 Fifth Ave.–For the business traveller
  • Sinclair House the corner of Broadway and Fifth–Gentlemen only
  • Grand Central Hotel-acceptable for the whole family, though some may object to its proximity to the theatre district.
19th century New York hotels in 1880

Sinclair house was a decent place for a gentleman to stay. See the advertisement below.

New York City Manhattan 1880's Grand Central Hotel

Notice this hotel is on the European plan.

So what exactly is the European plan?

Well Hotels, lodging houses and vacation rentals would advertise as either American Plan hotels or European plan hotels.

On the American Plan, three meals a day were included in the cost of the room.

On the European plan, no meals were included. Notice in the flyer below that there is a restaurant on the premises for those who wish to dine in.

19th ce Hotel Advertisement, 1880's

This is the sort of flyer that would be printed at William Kerr’s Fine Printery in my Helen’s Season’s series.

There was no shortage of places to stay, there was something for everyone in every imaginable price bracket. If travelling as a family I would look for something on the American plan but if you decide to go out to eat….

where to eat

The inestimable Delmonico’s nicknamed “The Citadel”. Pictured above is the original Restaurant 2 South William Street but by 1885 the Delmonico family had three other restaurants to choose from; 22 Broad St; Corner of Fifth and Twenty-sixth and 112 Broadway.

Most hotels had restaurants. And there were plenty of bakeries and small shops in which to grab a cup of coffee or a quick dinner (lunch).

What to Do

In the 1880’s I would venture to say there was at least the same if not more variety to choose from than today’s offerings.

Take your pick: an educational lecture, light opera, farce, dancing (and dance lessons), there were rooftop garden orchestras, and places to promenade. There were public gardens and private collections open to the public. There was live music on terraces, in restaurants and in theatres.

Operettas were very popular, the best seats will set you back $1.50, 25c for family seating in the gallery.


Visit the National Academy Museum opened in 1825 to encourage art and architecture outside of aristocratic patronage. In the 1880’s it was housed in this building.

New York museum 1880

The National Acadamy Museum circa 1880. Image from The Museum of the City of New York.

Or maybe natural history is more your thing, take stroll down to the American Museum of Natural History

Hand Coloured slide of the American Museum of Natural History, 19th Century New York Museums from the 1880's

Hand Coloured Slide of the Original building built in 1883. From the AMNH archives

Or you could pop by the 15-year-old Metropolitan Museum at its new location in Central Park.

19th century New York Museums in 1880

The Metropolitan Museum of Art moved into this new building in 1880, by 1888 it was already in need of an extension.  Image from the Met

Enjoy your stay in New York City!

Feel free to send 1880’s girl a postcard.

If you love the 1880’s and New York and a satisfying love story check out my new book Helen’s Summer

Purchase it here for Kindle and here for Kobo and here in paperback.


5 Tools For the Victorian Gardner

Do you like the feel of a wooden handle? The weight of a well-crafted tool?

I know I do.

It’s time to rummage in the shed and dust off those tools whether you are looking forward to the spring thaw or are preparing your garden for winter. Here in Perth, I do all my gardening from autumn to spring as summer gardening is just too disheartening.

Here are  5 Handy Tools from the Victorian shed


1.The Cloche

The bell shaped glass cloche creates a protective environment for tender young shoots

The bell-shaped glass cloche creates a protective environment for tender young shoots

On first seeing this word I thought it was perhaps french for clock, maybe some sort of sundial?

It is French, French for bell, as in a bell shaped glass to ward off frost from tender young plants and extend the growing season in chilly climates.

Presumably, cloches used to all be bell shaped but by the Victorian age many looked like glass lanterns with wooden or metal frames and panes of glass. They range in size from small enough to be carried in one hand for the protection of a single young plant to large enough to pass for a portable greenhouse requiring two persons to move it.

Most of the tools we use in the garden today are variations on those that have been around since the middle ages.

2. The billhook


I had a vague idea this was a tool used in butchering animals, another erroneous conclusion.

The billhook is a cross between a machete and a butter knife, the fat rounded type of butterknife. It has a hook-shaped blade, with the sharp edge on the inside curve.

It is a tool of precision for pruning, shaping decorative hedges and grafting. However it can be a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of an enthusiastic novice gardener, both to the plants and the gardener,

It should always be kept sharp, dry and out of the reach of children and novices.

3. The Dibbler


I want one of these just so I can say, “Pass me the dibbler love.”

A perfectly formed wooden instrument worn smooth from years of frequent use or a metal handle and wooden spike, a dibbler looks like the top of a shovel sawn off, its tip whittled to a rounded point for the purpose of making holes for seed.

Essentially it is a large substitute finger to save strain on your own digits.

4. the Daisy Grubber

Daisy Grubber by Amber Seah

What I always called the snake-tongued-weeding-thing has a name!

Daisy grubber is so much more concise than my long-tail name for it. It is for getting the daisies out of your lawn by the roots with minimal damage to the lawn.

The metal loop at the back is for leverage. For obvious reasons, these are still immensely popular today and can be found at any gardening store.

5. the Mattock

Mattock by Amber Seah

Vital for trench digging or tree root removal

I have heard the word mattock but did not know what it was.

It has a pick on one end and a cutting tool on the other. In my family, we call it a pick-ax.

You need a mattock for preparing a new garden bed, digging out a square of lawn or making a trench for drainage and reticulation. The only time I’ve used one was for digging a trench to lay down new plumbing.

They come in a variety of sizes, some measure a meter long and weigh several kilos requiring the strength of a well-built man to even lift let alone swing. Others are of more modest, manageable proportions suitable to the rest of us.

Helen in the Garden

All of these would have been new but indispensable tools, to Helen Kerr when she first arrived at Hamilton Hill for her summer as an under gardener. Personally, I’d keep her away from the billhook and give her a wide berth if swinging a mattock.

To read about Helen’s adventure from print shop to garden shed click here for Kindle and here for Kobo

For more information on the history of gardens and gardening see The History of the Garden in Fifty Tools by Bill Laws

a Note on the artwork

The pictures of the cloche, the billhook and the dibbler I sketched on my Wacom tablet, trying to get the hang of computer drawing. Then we moved house and I put the Wacom somewhere very safe and cannot locate it so the daisy grubber and mattock were sketched on ordinary A5 paper with colour pencils and scanned.

I haven’t picked up a sketch pad in years so beg your patience as I flex my illustrating muscles and try to work them back into shape.

What is your favourite garden tool or word? 

leave a comment here or on twitter @SeahAmber.

The Quadrille


For a refresher on what dances you will need under your belt in the Victorian Ballroom please see:

The Quadrille is far more refined and elegant than the German. There are no ‘mysterious sheets’ or ‘magic hats’ here. It is a safe and satisfactory option for a public ball as there is no call to be overly familiar with your partner.

In A Full Description of Modern Dance by C. H. Rivers the quadrille is accompanied by ‘preparatory explanations’, wherein dancers are enjoined to form sets in a quiet manner and should not angle for a favoured position. Once a position is taken it should under no circumstances be relinquished.

“Nor should their place be left in temporary charge of others in the set to retain for them while they hold flirtations in some other part of the room, or leisurely take seats, waiting for the dance to begin.”

Leaving a Quadrille set is a disrespectful act, should such rudeness actually occur another couple may take their position. This new couple is to be welcomed with honour by the master of ceremonies, host or hostess who are to uphold their right to the vacated position.

The expression ‘ballroom politics’ begins to make sense. Also, we see how an unsteady-devil-may-care younger brother could be a real disgrace.

Perhaps Sir William Lucas was right, dancing is after all the mark of refined society, if that dancing includes the quadrille of course.

Or better still we can surmise the degree of refinement in society by observing their manner of dancing.

Think modern day-Mosh Pit. I rest my case.

For those with a keen interest in how to quadrille

The quadrille as far as I can tell is the same as square dancing. (Quad=4, a square has four sides,  but it sounds so much more elegant in French, oui?) The dance is made up of five numbers containing two or more figures each in 4, 8 and 16 bars.

I’m sure it makes sense if you have studied Ballet or another form of dancing.

Which I haven’t.

The leader of the orchestra calls the figures. In the refined society to which Sir William Lucas referred the figures will be called in French. But in Little House in the Big Woods Pa calls the figures.

In English.

Which suits me just fine.

The fourth and Fifth figures of a quadrille can be replaced with a “Basket”,  a “star” or a “Social” and are designated “Promiscuous figures” which sounds very daring but I assure you there is nothing in them to shock the modern chaperone so…

Remember to make time for a little dancing


To Waltz or Not to Waltz

This is a short post to make a change from my previous wordy epistles.

The correct position for the waltz is to avoid eye contact

The correct position for the waltz is to avoid eye contact

The Waltz was a contentious dance objected to by many on moral grounds due to the intimacy of the position and it was anti-social. You only dance with the one person the whole time, unlike the Quadrille or the German.

This couple demonstrates the correct position for the waltz:

“Gentlemen should hold their partners in a position that will admit of a free execution of their steps, and both lady and gentlemen should look in contrary directions from their partners.”

–C. H. Rivers, A Full Description of Modern Dance



Perhaps avoiding eye contact prevented unseemly displays of affection or embarrassment.

If  you are concerned about your reputation it is best to avoid the Waltz all together, as Lord Lyttelton advised his daughters to do.

Or you may choose only to dance with your fiancee or husband. Who could object to a husband having his wife in his arms?

The Waltz was a round dance.

The Waltz was a Round dance, whether because it was danced in a circle or because his arm is around her waist I can’t say.

Interesting to note Regency and Victorian society were not the only ones to take issue with the Waltz. After the introduction of “couples dancing”, like the waltz, into China after the Cultural Revolution divorce rates among the mature and middle aged increased greatly.

The moral of the story is to waltz at your own risks


How Not to Disgrace Yourself at the Next Ball

Dangers of Long Skirts

This is a scene to be avoided at all costs.

” Gentlemen should control their own movements and those of their partners so as to avoid colliding with other couples.”

–C. H. Rivers, A full description of Modern Dances

This drawing illustrates what I believe was known as “a crush” or too many people in a ballroom. Obviously the leader of the guilty couple was not following Mr Rivers advice.

This was meant to be a single post but I have had so much fun with the topic that I have expanded it into several posts largely based on the advice of Mr. C. H. Rivers.

Mr. Rivers, dance instructor at  175 State St Brooklyn, shared Sir William Lucas’s view that dancing was a mark of civilized societies whether the dance be “the social German, harmonious Quadrille, the jolly Reel and the ever fascinating Round Dances” (I follow his capitalization and take special note of ‘the social German’ which features in 1880’s Girl’s next post)

I discovered this gem of a book  A Full Description of Modern Dances , which was added to the library of congress in 1885. It was available to all and sundry for the modest sum of 25 cents, much more affordable than dance lessons themselves which were available at $10 for five one-hour sessions. (See here to read the book yourself.)

In this 70 page booklet, Mr. Rivers does not omit, “the fundamental principles which underlie ad regulate the Dance, and give it preeminence in the estimation of refined Society” (So there Mr. Darcy–If these references to Mr. Darcy and Sir William mystify you please see here: The Efficacy of Dancing)

Full descriptions of Modern Dance

It is from Mr. Rivers pages that I draw the following guidelines to ensure you do not disgrace yourself at your next ball.

Ball Room Etiquette

  1. Gentlemen you should dance first with the ladies in your own party (this goes without saying even in this modern age)
  2. If you have not previously met your dance partner then the acquaintance ends with the dance. In other words dancing together is not enough of an introduction to for you to presume an acquaintance. You should not accost a lady in the park just because you danced with her the previous evening. Nor can a lady extend an invitation or acknowledge the said gentleman on so slight an excuse as having danced together.
  3. Unless it is at a private party–at a private party one presentation is sufficient to claim further acquaintance if one wishes.
  4. A lady should not engage herself to dance with another man without the permission of her escort (this applies to public balls not private)
  5. Likewise a gentleman does not invite a lady to dance without first asking permission of her escort.
  6. At private parties or Germans (I told you to watch out for the German) ladies my make their own engagements after first  dancing with her own escort.
  7. You should  not leave one set to join another unless you make an apology to those in your set and explain your reason for leaving. ( Such as your partner being over come with faintness)
  8. If you do choose to leave a set you cannot return for  in so doing you “forfeit your right to be there.
  9. “It is bad taste to dispute the occupancy of a place in a set” (such as being the head couple)
  10. “Do not correct the mistakes of those who are in the same set.” (Does this mean it is okay to criticize the dance skills of the neighboring set?)

And last but not least:

11. If not in the set at the time the music begins, explanations and apologies are always in order, and no ill feeling should be expressed.

 Dances to Know

What a beautiful sight, a well appointed room and a company of skilled dancers.

What a beautiful sight, a well appointed room and a company of skilled dancers.

Ballet--Okay so Mr. Rivers does not list ballet, nor was ballet as we know it performed at Victorian balls however all the modern dances featured require knowledge of the five ballet positions, so it is best to brush up on these before continuing

The Polka–the polka was popular and had many variation including: Redowa, Mazourka, Bohemian and Russe, it has a quick time and involves hopping.

The Quadrille— and its variations–Caledonians, Diagonal, Prince Imperial and Waltz or the sports inspired variations Quadrille Lawn Tennis and Quadrille Polo. Or you may choose to honor a branch of the armed services with a Quadrille National Guard (more on the Quadrille next week)

Lancers–The Kemble Lancers was especially arranged by Mr. Rivers and dedicated to the Kemble Dramatic Society of Brooklyn.

Schottische-a dance with hops and turns to a count of 8 beats

The Rustic Reels-Either the Great Western or the Virginia or Sir Roger de Coverly.

The Cottilon-a complicated dance taking up half or all of an evening made up of any combination of 37 possible figures or games. Like the Quadrille it will have it’s own post.

Happy Dancing!

The Efficacy of Dancing

"You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you."

“You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you.” –Pride & Prejudice

“What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy!-There is nothing like dancing, after all. -I consider it one of the first refinements of polished societies.”

“Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance!”

Thus goes the exchange between Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy.  As these esteemed gentlemen of literature point out dancing is for the refined and polished  societies as well as the lowly and poor.

Benefits of Dancing:


  • Improves mood and energy
  • Encourages grace and ease of manner
  • Keeps you young
  • Fosters attachment and good will

In Victorian times dancing was essential to society. it was a way for young people to meet, mingle and pursue a courtship. I argue it was more than a mere matrimonial tool. I put forth a claim that dancing was popular because it makes people happy, it makes you feel young and joyous.

I have entered on a dance experiment. I  will try to dance for a half-hour a day to some of my favorite songs, then keep track of my mood, energy and weight.  By dancing I don’t mean ceiling pushing, that thing common among young people since the 1980’s  where you jump up and down with a gesture that looks like you are trying to prevent the ceiling falling down.

Ceiling pushing is little better than jogging on the treadmill to music; there is some benefit to mind and body but it isn’t the same as coordinated dance moves.



Victorian Ball

    These ladies would certainly never demean themselves by ceiling pushing.             Too Early (1873), by James Tissot. Oil on canvas, 27.95 by 40.16 in. (71 by 102 cm). Guildhall Art Gallery, London. (Photo:

There is something about moving your body in time to the music, about coordinating steps that makes you smile, it gives you a feeling of well-being and cheerfulness that aerobic exercise alone doesn’t give.

The efficacious effects on health

Miss Caddy Jellyby explains it nicely in Bleak House:

“I felt I was so awkward,” she replied, “that I made up my mind to be improved in that respect, at all events, and to learn to dance. I told Ma I was ashamed of myself, and I must be taught to dance…I was quite determined to be taught to dance, and so I went to Mr. Turveydrop’s Academy in Newman Street.”

Miss Jellyby attended lessons at a dance academy, other young people were taught at school or had dance instructors come to their home but many I believe learned simply from watching and imitation. Dancing was something people did.

Recent research as well as personal experience shows that dancing does indeed improve balance and coordination as well as muscle tone and flexibility.  According to the BBC program How to Stay Young dancing is more efficacious than treadmills and stationary bikes even when such are undertaken in a group with music. Why? They don’t really know but they think it is because multiple muscle groups are activated, it requires balance, coordination and has variety.

Maybe we were simply designed for dancing.

I love that in Jane Austen’s day when a group of young people gather of an evening there is very likely to be a spot of dancing. In Wives and Daughters Cynthia and Molly dance together around the house. In Anne of Green Gables even they at the young age of 14, and against Marilla’s better judgement, Anne and Diana attend a community dance.

In Little House in the Big Woods there is of course the dance at Grandma’s  to celebrate the sugar snow where the dancing is interrupted by grandma’s call for the sugaring off. Then it picks up again, continuing late into the night.

From the British Aristocracy to the American Frontier, dancing used to be an integral part of our culture. Now it is relegated to professionals and competitions, something we pay money to go and watch not something that happens in our living room on a Friday evening.

I say we return to the days of dancing, whether you choose line dancing, square dancing or tap dancing, a waltz or an Irish jig, the Virginia Reel or the Cotillion. Do it alone, do it with your children, your spouse or your friends.

If you wish to dust off a dusty tome and replicate authentic figures from past  I would love to know how you go. I however prefer the modern home instructor known as YouTube.

I challenge you to have ago and experience the efficacy of Dancing!

Next time: What dances will you need to know to cut a fine figure at your next ball? and which ones might endanger your reputation?


Pulitzer- 5 things You Didn’t Know About the Man Behind the Prize

Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian; A fascinating biography.

Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian; A fascinating biography.

Before reading this book pretty much all I knew about Joseph Pulitzer I learned from Newseis. He was very short sighted with over sensitive hearing. His arch nemesis was William Randolph Hearst. He was tyrannical and given to manipulation and intimidation to get what he wanted.

That is all true but is only a fraction of the whole man.

It took me some time to realize the “baddy” from my favorite movie was THE Pulitzer as in the Pulitzer prize.  It was hard to reconcile the two, how could the originator of one of the most famous literary prizes possibly be this tyrannical, persecutor of newsboys?

Needless to say this book was full of surprises for an innocent 1880’s girl.

In short Joseph Pulitzer was a remarkable person, difficult to live or work with, explosive, obsessive, a workaholic driven by idealism. He possessed an intellectual capacity that we mere mortals can only dream of. Nearly every aspect of this man was a surprise and warrants further investigation.

To get you started here are 5 things I bet you didn’t know.

#1 He came to America to fight in the civil war

At 17 Pulitzer left home, sights set on a brilliant military career.

However due to his poor eyesight he was rejected by the Austrian army, in which his Uncles had distinguished themselves. Undeterred he volunteered to fight for the British in India and the French Foreign Legion in Mexico. Both rejected him. Finally the Americans  accepted him despite his poor eyesight because he could ride a horse and shoot.

He fought for the last six months of the Civil war.

The only person he harmed was a superior officer. He punched the officer for pulling his nose.

#2 He finished his law degree at age 21

From the time he landed in Maryland in 1864, speaking no English to when he was admitted to the bar was only 4 year.  FOUR years!! To learn a language, study law and pass his examinations.

I was not exaggerating his mental capacity.

#3 He was elected to congress

Pulitzer was a crusader for the poor, vigilante extraordinaire in attacking the ‘fat cats’ of New York, uncovering corruption and abuses of power.

He took his crusade all the way to Washington as an elected member of Congress but decided he could effect more change through The New York World than by wrestling with bureaucratic red tape.

He left after 3 months

#4 the St Louis Dispatch was his first Newspaper

If you are from St Louis or Missouri you might know this already but my Dad is from Missouri and it was news to me.

The World was the second paper he pulled from the ruins, the first was The St Louis Dispatch. .After purchasing the crumbling building and machinery of the Dispatch in December 1879,  he joined forces with the Evening Post and became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

3 1/2 years later, in May 1883, he bought The New York World which was making a $40,000 a year loss. Not only did he successfully resurrect both newspapers but he maintained a tight reign on both papers writing editorials for both and successfully driving the staff in both cities to distraction.

#5 He payed men and Women the same salary

By Historical and Public Figures Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Bly dressed for her trip around the world .               By Historical and Public Figures Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pulitzer believed women doing the work of a man deserved equal pay, a standard many publishers today still struggle to implement. There were many women on his New York World staff including  journalists Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) and Elizabeth Jordan.

Pulitzer was a man of extremes and contradictions in his personality and in his work. Even his enemies and rivals acknowledged and begrudgingly respected his abilities.

If you you want to know more about the man behind the prize I recommend you read Denis Bryan’s book Pulitzer: A Life, from which I have gleaned this information.

My favorite line from the book is:

“The phoenix had nothing on Pulitzer”

This could be said both about him personally, his struggle with chronic debilitating illness, and professionally, as seen in the fortune he amassed from the purchase of two ruined papers.

To read about Pulitzer and the advent of yellow journalism see: The Fathers of Yellow Journalism.


The Fathers of Yellow Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst











I just love a good biased news article dont’ you?

It gives you something to disagree with and get indignant over.  Bias stimulates controversy and thus conversation and don’t forget it increases circulation.

Circulation figures for The World and The Journal shows that 19th century New Yorkers  definitely preferred a strong bias with plenty of salacious details. Pulitzer viewed biased reporting to be a duty.

“A newspaper should [do] more than . . . printing every day first-rate news and first-rate editorials. It should have hobbies, undertake reforms, lead crusades, and thereby establish a name for individuality and active public service.”

Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911)

But when does bias become fiction?

Yellow Journalism-What is it?

The general consensus is that it is bad.

To accuse a paper or news source  of yellow journalism is to imply they are playing fast and loose with the facts, to doubt the integrity of their news or to accuse them of being unprofessional and generally disreputable.

Yellow journalism’s rise to stardom happened in New York city in the 1890’s, when William Randolph Hearst bought over The Journal with the express intention of out selling Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, unlike Pulitzer he made no claims to public service, had no agenda to better society, champion the down trodden or bring the corrupt to justice. He wanted circulation and would do anything to get it.

The most important components to 19th century yellow journalism were eye catching head lines, the more shocking the better, and pictures usually artists renderings of supposed events.

Such as this example from the front page of The New York Journal, 1898, under the banner:

does our flag shield women?

By Remington (Image:~SPAIN3.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Remington (Image:~SPAIN3.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In response to this picture and headline The World countered with this headline:

the unclothed women searched by men

was an invention of a new york newspaper

Hearsts report was shown to be manifestly untrue, in reality Senorita Clemencia Arango, a young Cuban, had been searched by female officers in a private cabin, never by men and certainly not in the open as implied by this artists representation.

But you see in yellow journalism they don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.  And they barred no punches in accusing each other, latching on to and publicizing each others mistakes or intentional fabrications.

It certainly made for exciting reading!

Why Yellow?

By Richard Felton Outcault [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Felton Outcault [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow Journalism got its name from the Yellow Kid named for his yellow nightshirt. The yellow kid first appeared in  The World’s  immensely popular “Hogan Alley” cartoons in 1895.   In 1896 Richard Felton Outcault went over to Hearst taking the yellow kid with him now  starring in The Journal’s  cartoon “Mc Fadden’s Row of Flats”.

So many subscribers followed their favorite spunky cartoon character over to The Journal that Pulitzer commissioned artist George Luks to create the Yellow Kid’s equally spunky twin to be continued in “Hogan Alley”.

To make sure deserting customers didn’t over look this fact billboards advertised the return of the Yellow Kid. And thus was the birth of Yellow Journalism.

In the spirit of biased reporting I will say the 1890’s were a particularly exciting and debased decade for journalism, where Pulitzer anxious to maintain his circulation allowed Hearst to pull him down into the mud with the result they both came out dirty.

The difference between Pulitzer and Hearst was that Pulitzer regretted his decent into the purely sensational while Hearst was completely unapologetic. Truth and betterment of society was never Hearst intentions, his mission was pure and simple: get the most subscribers, increase circulation, make money, beat Pulitzer, no matter how much it cost.

To finish off here is a gem of a cartoon with both Pulitzer and Hearst featured as the yellow kid:

By William Barrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By William Barrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Does Condescension Belong in Historical Non-Fiction?

To Condescend

To behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity, .to stoop or deign to do something

Soap Box 1cropped

Yes it is a return to my soap box and time for a rant.

When we take up a historical subject whether the plight of governesses, the institution of slavery or the narrative of an individual, is it an inherent condescension?

Are we the superior, educated wiser more knowing people who stoop down to explain a past culture? Do we deign to expose their shocking ignorance, cruelty or inhumanity? Is that the way it’s supposed to be?

Maybe condescension in non-fiction is the reason it has taken me so long to come around to reading it. I don’t like high handed dealing with a subject as if our current knowledge somehow  makes us inherently superior.

No group of people past, present or future can rightly condescend to another group of people on the grounds of inherent superiority.

People are not stupid just because they thought differently or believed things we now know to be untrue, because guess what in their day they were advanced and enlightened.

100 years from now some historian will scoff at what naive things we believed way back in 2016. 

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

I did overall enjoy this book and will be buying my own copy as a reference.

Last Monday in my Review of Other Peoples Daughters I said the book equally interested and annoyed me. The interesting bit was the content and the extensive quoting from the governesses and contemporaries themselves. I believe the book was as factual and accurate as as any historical non-fiction can expect to be.

The bit that ruffled my feathers and got my dander up was the condescension.

Now I am going to go very  un-scholarly because I could not locate a single infuriating quote or blatantly condescending paragraph, it wasn’t so overt, and maybe it was all in my reading of the text. 

However it felt like Brandon came to the material with the view point that women of the 1800’s were downtrodden, oppressed, ignorant, without hope, without prospects. The reason for this was men and religion and the governess was the tool by which women were kept in subjection.  This is the lens through which we are shown the governess.

by contrast…

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

There is mystification, there is wonderment but no condescension

Eve LaPlante in Marmee and Louisa tackles many of the same issues, women’s education,  women’s health, their rights or lack of rights in the areas of marriage, children and property but she never once sounds condescending.

Her account is written with great compassion, with understanding of the overwhelming odds women faced. She also wrote with compassion for the men who tried and failed, in what society saw as, their role as bread winner and provider.  Maybe her compassion arises from the fact that the Alcotts are part of her family history. (For more discussion of Marmee and Louisa see here )

Cane River, Lalita Tademy, Historical Non-fiction, slavery

A fantastic compassionate read!

In Cane River author Lalita Tademy tackles the equally contentious subject of slavery. (Abigail Alcott viewed women’s suffrage as the next great hurdle to leap after the abolition of slavery)

In my late teens early 20’s I had to stop reading about slavery and civil rights because I got so boiling angry at the cruelty and injustice one race of people could inflict on another. (No really my blood pressure would go up, I’d turn red, get dizzy and turn that tension on whoever was at hand)

I did not think it possible to tell a story with sympathy for both sides of the equation and yet that is what Tademy  accomplishes in Cane River.  Again she is writing from her family history so maybe there in lies the source of her compassion. (I will be reviewing Cane River in future)

LaPlante and Tademy put us in the shoes of historical people, make their world live for us, their narrative fills us with compassion, understanding and we feel the injustice without being told it was an injustice, without being repeatedly told we are lucky to live today “when life is so much better.”

Why condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat

And here perhaps is the crux of the matter.

Condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat because while ,yes we have laws that guarantee equal education, equal rights, equal freedoms it doesn’t mean everyone gets them.

Much of what happened to women, children and minority groups in the 1800’s, is still happening today!

For Example…

In Australia this year,  2016, on average one woman a week dies as a result of family violence, in the US more than 3 women a day are murdered by a current or former partner. Despite the laws, despite education hundreds of thousands of  women around the world are still in the same position as the former governess Nelly Weeton and they find it just as hard to leave as she did.

Is there really room for condescension?

Yes it is terrible that children were considered the legal property of their fathers, in  the same way slaves were the legal property of their owners, no matter how violent or neglectful the father/owner was. But here is a frightening statistic: In the US in 2015 at least 70% of abusers who fought for sole custody of their children won.

Can we rightly condescend to the Victorian’s?

In the course of historical research we come across infuriating view points, inflammatory beliefs and ludicrous reasons to support those beliefs.

But people haven’t changed.

With the advent of the internet, social media and (gasp!) blogs,there are even more infuriating, inflammatory and ludicrous beliefs at large in society today than in the Victorian age.

Life then and now is complicated made up of many layered narratives. That is why I love Historical Fiction, it humanizes history, helps us put ourselves in their shoes because in the end we are all hopelessly flawed.

In summary:

No,  condescension does not belong in historical non-fiction.


How do you feel about Condescension in historical non-fiction?

Does it get your goat and ruffle your feathers?

A Review: Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

This book both interested and annoyed me.

For today we will focus on the interesting bit.  You see my knowledge of governessing was pretty much limited to literary references, the same references which Ruth Brandon quotes from in this book, namely Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, a few comments in Jane Austen and even Little Women gets a mention, though the book is about the English governess not her American counter part.

The Women whose lives Brandon captures are:

  • Agnes Porter
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Eliza and Everina Wollstonecraft
  • Claire Clairmont (Byron’s Mistress and mother of his daughter Allegra)
  • Nelly Weeton (the only subject with no great connections)
  • Anna Leonowens (of the King and I fame)
  • Emmeline Lott (briefly mentioned)
  • Anna Jameson
  • Bessie Rayner Parkes
  • Barbara Bodichon

With every non-fiction book I read I am amazed by my own ignorance. For instance I had heard of Mary Wollstonecraft but had no idea who she actually was.

I loved getting acquainted with these remarkable women of the past, having a little window into the world they inhabited, feeling their pain and frustration with a system that at once saved and condemned them.

The best part of this book was Brandon’s extensive quoting of the governesses themselves, their letters, journals and published works. She admits in the first chapter that the women discussed in this book are not “average” which is why we still have a record of them. Most governesses lived and died in obscurity which was the great tragedy of the whole system.

Brandon also uses fantastic words like obstreperous, you have to admire a writer who throws around words like that.

From her I learnt new words like bathetic. At first I thought it a typo, as pathetic would have worked equally well in context. But after the 3rd or 4th use I looked up.

For your edification:

Bathetic–displaying or characterized by bathos.

Bathos-a ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace; anticlimax. In sincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness (mawkishness is another great word)

Claire Clairmont’s life was most bathetic, from her youth spent in merry independence mistress of Byron, companion to the Shelley’s to a governess exiled to Russia.

–Amber Seah

(I couldn’t find the quote I wanted so made one up)

Obstreperous–Resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly. Noisy clamorous, or boisterous.

“Edward Trelawny, drawn as ever to obstreperous women, welcomed her (Anna Jameson) to the progressive fold, which he alone of the Lerici survivors still stoutly inhabited.”

–Ruth Brandon

This book is as Frances Wilson proclaims, “Beautifully told” but I like to think Brandon put a great deal of effort into her “thoughtful study” of the life and times of the English governess

Not withstanding the value of the information and the engaging way it is told there was much in the commentary that annoyed me, but that is a topic for another day…