December 26, 2012


New Year's Eve celebrations today are a little different than they were back in the nineteenth century. Hogmanay or New Year's Eve was a Scots custom that spread to the British Isles and then was brought to America by immigrants.  Celebrations by the English and the Welch included recitations of traditional rhymes. The Swedes and Finns celebrated by firing off their guns. On New Year's day the ladies stayed at home to exchange New Year's greetings with a string of gentlemen callers.

If you were a teen living back then, you may have seen fireworks just like we do today.  Fireworks were  introduced in the United States very early in our history.  The first fireworks display was on the 4th of July, 1777, just a year after our independence. A resident of Philadelphia would have seem mummers dressed in costume parade through the streets, although the first organized Mummer's Parade wasn't until 1901.

Several traditions that we have today were not in place yet at the turn of the twentiety century.  The song Auld Lang Syne (roughly translated to "for (the sake of) old times"), although written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788, wasn't widely known as a song in America until Guy Lombardo and his band introduced it on New Year's Eve in 1929. It soon became a classic played at midnight to ring in the New Year.  We've all seen the iconic image of the New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square as midnight chimes, but it wasn't until 1907 that the first ball was installed.

December 21, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Holiday Cheer

At this season of the year feasts and celebrations abound.  Here is an excerpt from "The Common School Question Book and Review" (around 1880 - 1904) which demonstrates what a teacher was expected to know and share with students:

Q.  Mention the evils arising from rapid eating.

A.  1rst.  The food is swallowed without suffucient saliva.  2nd.  The particles of food are so large as to hinder the action of the digestive juice, which is often weakened by the use of drinks poured down with the food.  3rd.  We do not realize the quantity eaten until the stomach is overloaded.  4th.  Failing to get the taste of our food we think it insipid, and resort to condiments which over stimulate the digestive organs.

Although we know much more about the physiology and biochemistry of digestion today, the basic principle applies:  Slow down and enjoy!

December 19, 2012

Cover Art Received for The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice


I just got the final cover art for my new book, The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice, due for release in March, 2013. The artist at Whiskey Creek Press, Harrie Channing, did a marvelous job of capturing the tension between the two main characters and the gritty nature of the cave deep beneath the orphanage.
                    Click here to read the back cover blurb

December 6, 2012

Author's Notes: A Book for Traveling

In Big Stone Heart, our heroine Carrie Smith, travels by train to meet her groom-to-be, a man she has never met.  To while away the hours, she opens a book, Gulliver's Travels:

        "She soon tired of watching the other passengers and opened her book, Gulliver’s Travels. Carrie became absorbed in the story.  With a start, she felt the train lurch forward, then stop.  It lurched again and she heard the porter yell “All aboard”.  Slowly the train moved down the tracks, clanking and puffing.  She watched the platforms and columns slide by the window as the train slowly left the depot.
        Carrie felt a thrill of pride and expectation – pride for making it to the station and onto the train on her own.  Expectation for the adventure to come.  The train let out a high shrill whistle, which matched her exhilaration at being on her own and on her way to her new future."

Gulliver's Travels, written by Jonathan Swift, was first published in 1726 and amended in 1735. It has proven so popular that it has never been out of print. The book was readily available at the time our story takes place (1886). It is listed for sale in the Bloomingdale's Catalog of 1886, The Montgomery Ward Catalog of 1895 and the 1897 Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Over time it has been made into several movies, TV and radio shows. The most recent movie in 2011 starred Jack Black (not very good in my opinion ,the movie, that is).

In the story, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck to find himself a prisoner of tiny six inch people, the inhabitants of the island of Lilliput. The introduction to the book notes that Gulliver's love of travel proves to be his downfall. And what of Carrie - does her journey prove to be her undoing?

December 4, 2012

A Real Treasure

Yesterday, my husband and I went antiquing in the small town of Wilmot, South Dakota.  We visited The Old Hospital Antiques on the main street.  The antique store occupies a building that was once a hospital in the early 1900's.  Upstairs, the small hospital rooms with transomes over the doors and floor to ceiling windows are still there as are the cabinets where supplies were kept.  What tales those walls could tell!

While browsing through the books, I uncovered a real find:  "The Common School Question Book and Review" by Isaac Hinton Brown published by A. Flanagan Co.  Although there is no publication date, Mr. Brown died in 1889 and most of  his other books were published from 1880 - 1898.  I did an extensive search on the net and could not find a referenece to this particular book so it may be rather rare. It appears to be a book for teachers who were reviewing for certification examinations  and includes helpful discussions on topics for use in the classroom.  There are handwritten notes, drawings and even pressed leaves between the pages.  What a wonderful resource! 

One section is called "Memory Gems" with the following instructions: "Pupils should memorize one of the following gems each day, which should be placed on the blackboard".  Can't you just see it - at the top of the blackboard, in the teachers neat, careful script:

"Of all the schoolrooms in east or west, the schoolroom of nature I love the best."

Expect to see more material from this wonderful book in future posts, especially Carol's Quaint Quotes.

December 2, 2012

Book Signing and Book Sale

I had a fun book signing at The Rendevous Point in Wilmot, South Dakota, on Friday and a successful book sale at the Community Center in Ortonville, Minnesota, yesterday! Thank you to everyone who bought my book, Big Stone Heart.

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November 28, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: What Did Teans Read? Part 1

I write fiction for girls ages twelve and up and all of my books are set during the Victorian Era in America.  Those of you who follow my blog know that I love all things nineteenth century.  I wondered – what did girls and young women read for magazines in the late 1800’s?  Did they have a Seventeen Magazine equivalent and if so, what was in there? I decided to find out.

It turns out that before the late nineteenth century, magazines for children were not differentiated by gender.  Both boys and girls read the children's periodicals such as Harper's Young People, Pepper and Salt and Youth's Companion, to name a few. A look into some volumes of Youth’s Companion from 1877, showed games and puzzles, features about royalty, politicians, world events and exotic locations.  The serialized stories were almost always morality tales involving poor children, orphans or dead children.  And often the story revolved around a child teaching an adult a lesson.  Consider this passage from an 1877 volume of Youth’s Companion:  Marshall is a ten year old boy.  His family has been wronged by a Mr. Hogan. Marshall had this exchange with his parents:

“The more fault you!” said his father.  “After that man’s treatment of you and all of us!  I’m ashamed of you, Marshall!”
But now kind-hearted Mrs. Morrison seconded her son, and said, -

“For the sake of his poor wife and children, Philip!   Think how we should feel if you were hurt in that way.  And consider – what I have heard you say many times – that it isn’t Mr. Hogan himself, but the bad spirit which drink has put into him, that does these things.” When a girl reached puberty and became of marriageable age, she put her hair up and her hem down and presumably switched from reading children’s magazines to lady’s magazines. Two prominent women’s magazines in the 1800’s were Godey’s Lady’s Book and The Ladies’ Home Journal (which is still extant today).  Both journals were formulaic:  articles on politics, royalty, world events, a serialized story, a patriotic article, sheet music, advice columns for both men and women.  Almost all of the articles on world events were written by men.  Articles on women’s fashion, babies, children and homemaking were written by women.  There was always an article on cooking, home decorating, fashion, and a feature for children. There were no articles on dieting, dating, sex, make-up or exercise - beyond advising girls that outdoor pursuits were healthful. 

As for Seventeen Magazine, no such equivalent existed back then. 










November 27, 2012

The Baby Farm: Book Two of the Secret Society of Sugar and Spice Accepted for Publication!

I am thrilled to announce that my third teen/young adult book The Baby Farm: Book Two of The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice has been accepted for publication by Whiskey Creek Press.  I do not have the release date yet but will post it here as soon as I receive it.

The Baby Farm is a sequel to The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice which will be available in March, 2013.

November 25, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Dorset, Take off that Corset!

Tightlacing of corsets was widely believed to be injurious to the health. Here are two quotes from  1871 and 1873:

Lacing. – If all the women insane on this subject were in the asylums, the accommodations would have to be largely increased.  The habit is a general one, and very injurious.  A good authority says:  “It has been found that the liver, the lungs, and the powers of the stomach have been brought into a diseased state by this most pernicious habit.  Loss of bloom, fixed redness of the nose, and eruptions on the skin are among the sad effects."  If prolonged, there is no knowing to what malady tight lacing might lead. Its most apparent effect is an injured digestion, and consequent loss of appetite.  Of this, however, it is often difficult to convince the practiced tightlacer, for vanity is generally obstinate.  But, looking at tight lacing without consideration of its effect on health, and merely as its tendency to improve or to injure the appearance, nothing can be more absurd than to believe that it is advantageous to the figure.  A small waist is rather a deformity than a beauty.  To see the shoulders cramped and squeezed together is anything but agreeable.  The figure should be easy, well developed, supple.  If nature has not made the waist small, compression cannot mend her work.  Good Morals and Gentle Manners for Schools and Families. Alex M. Gow, A.M. American Book Company, 1873. pg. 183-184.

The disturbance of the functions of the diaphragm is by no means the only evil of tight lacing.  The circulation of the blood and the electrical radiations are impeded thereby, in addition to which there is a still greater and more alarming evil.  I allude to the pressure which is thrown on the bowels, and from the bowels upon the womb.  The peculiar organization of woman renders the practice tenfold more injurious to her than it would be to a male.  The shocking prevalence of prolapses uteri, commonly termed falling of the womb, is greatly owing to the pernicious practice of tight lacing.
The fact is, it is a mistaken notion that wasp waists are pretty.  They look perfectly horrible! I would rather see a woman’s waist as big round as a bushel basket than to see it contracted to a size a trifle larger than the neck.  Plain Home Talk and Medical Common Sense.  E.B. Foote, M.D., A.L. Bancroft & Co., New York [etc.] 1871. pg.15.

Upcoming Appearances

"Big Stone Heart" makes a great Christmas present!

For all of my Minnesota and South Dakota friends:   I am doing a book signing at The Rendezvous Point in Wilmot, South Dakota, on Friday, November 30 at 4 p.m. (402 2nd street) and will have books for sale at the "Crafts Divine" Arts and Crafts show in Ortonville, Minnesota, on Saturday, December 1, from 9 am to 3 pm (200 Monroe Avenue). See you there.

November 22, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

This quote was made after the November elections of 1896. Sound familiar?
"The political steak is broiled, the fire of excitement is cooling off under the searchlight of certainty, and the people at large are settling back into normal sanity, where it is hoped they many remain unhampered for at least two years." 
Western Womanhood. A Journal Devoted to the Interests of Women. Fargo, North Dakota, Nov. 1896. Vol.3, No. 5, pg. 6.

(Historical note:  William McKinley was elected president in 1896.  He was assassinated in 1901.)

November 20, 2012

Author's Notes: Carrie Wears a Corset

This week we are talking about corsets (see also "Teen Life Way Back When" from Nov. 18).  In Big Stone Heart, our heroine, seventeen-year-old Carrie Smith, dons a corset for the first time in her life.  Here is the text:

"Thelma had bought her a new pair of shoes, a corset and lent her an old, but refurbished hat. With the corset biting into her waist and breasts, she was uncomfortable. She had to admit, though, that her waist looked thinner and her back neater. Her breasts, though, were more evident than ever. Carrie winced and tried to slump her shoulders some to make them less conspicuous. It was to no avail. The corset held her ramrod straight. Thelma had also given her a soft, fringed white wool shawl to use. She draped this over her shoulders and across her chest. It did a satisfactory job of camouflage and she was grateful for this. The narrow new shoes pinched her feet after the broad boots she had been wearing. The hat with its new ribbons complimented her eyes and hair. Overall, she was satisfied. Still no beauty, she thought, as she stared in the mirror, but she’d do."

November 18, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Dorset! Cinch Up That Corset

Most of us know that Victorian women wore tightly laced corsets to maintain the fashionable hourglass figure so desirable at the time.  However, what I didn't know until I started reading about this subject was that children, boys and girls, also wore corsets!  Notice in the illustration to the left from 1897, a baby, small girl, teen and a grown woman all wearing a version of a corset.
As soon as children were mobile they were put into so-called "waists".  For boys, the wearing of a waist was dropped after a few years.  But girls progressed through a series of waists to end up with the full blown corset.  As the girl matured, the corset became firmer and more shaped.  The baby's corset consisted of a stiff band of red or gray cloth which was corded for firmness. Mass market corsets ranged in waist sizes from 21 - 28 inches for a four year old to 19 - 28 inches by age twelve. In one catalog, the upper waist size was never more than 28".
By the 1840's and 1850's tightlacing became popular. Corsets became longer to reach several inches below the waist.  As they were cinched tighter and tighter concerns were raised about the negative effects of corsets on a woman's health.  More on that later this week under Medicine in the Nineteenth Century.
For additional reading and references, click the Extras tab.

November 16, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires) Part 4

Some of the nastiest bloodsuckers of all were fellow human beings, not creepy critters.  Or should I say "bloodletters" for bloodletting was a mainstay of medical treatment for multiple ailments up until
the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in some parts of rural America, bloodletting persisted until well into the 1920's (Sir William Osler included the treatment in his 1923 edition of "The Principles and Practices of Medicine").

Bloodletting was the longest running tradition in medicine.  It was believed that the four "humors", blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, must be kept in balance to maintain health.  Balance was restored by purging, starving, vomiting or bloodletting. The practice of opening a vein or artery to restore balance dates back to the Egyptians and Greeks.  It was used for over 2500 years for everything from insanity to hemorrhage (yes, hemorrhage was treated by taking more blood - yikes! what were they thinking?)

A vein (or in some cases, an artery) usually in the arm, leg or neck was cut diagonally or lengthwise with a small knife called a lancet and the blood collected in a bowl. There were elaborate directions for determining how much and how often bloodletting should occur.  With the advent of the scientific method, bloodletting was determined to be ineffective, even harmful, and it fell out of favor.

However, lest you think bloodletting is no longer practiced in modern medicine, think again.  In certain rare diseases such as hemachromatosis, polycythemia vera and prophyria cutanea tarda, withdrawal of a unit or two of blood has proven to be a very effective treatment.

For additional reading and references, see the Extras section.

November 14, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From The Ladie's Home Journal July, 1897. "Now What":

"These are the thoughts that should be carefully weighed and considered by every young woman who stands to-day with her college life behind her and a greater and fuller life before her.  Let nothing lead her to forget – whatever else she may wish to be, whatever desire, ambition or longing may come to her – that, first of all, she was designed by God to be a woman; to live her life in true womanliness, so that she may be an inspiration, a strength, a blessing, not necessarily to the world, but, what is infinitely better, to those within her immediate reach whose lives are touched by hers."

November 12, 2012


These days in America there seems to be a fascination for all things Amish - on television, that is.  For instance, television shows on the Amish have included "Breaking Amish" on TLC, "Amish:Out of Order" on The National Geographic Channel, "The Amish:American Experience" beginning in December on Iowa Public Television and a new series debuting next month on Discovery Channel called "Amish Mafia."

So what does this have to do with our ongoing series here "Teen Life Way Back When"?  Well, it occurred to me that Amish teens today are probably living life the same way they did back in the nineteenth century.  Or, in other words, would living in an Amish community today be like stepping back in time? Yes and no. Yes with respect to social customs, dress, and family life.  No with respect to modern conveniences.

You see, despite the public perception of black buggies pulled by horses and old-fashioned haystacks in the fields, the Amish do use some modern conveniences. It is true that most Amish do not use electricity from the public grid.  But they do use electricity in the form of diesel generators, batteries and solar power. They remain off the public grid in order to prevent worldly influences from entering the home and as a symbolic means of remaining separate from the world.

Although our fascination with the Amish may stem from a desire for a simpler life, if you've watched any of these series you have discovered that Amish families, and teens in particular, still have problems not too dissimilar from our own.

November 9, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires) Part 3

Mosquitoes have had a profound effect on history.  One of the most significant examples in modern times is the role that mosquitoes played in the building of the Panama Canal, or rather, in stopping the building of the Panama Canal. Mosquitoes transmit malaria and yellow fever.  They suck the blood of an infected person then pass the disease along when they bite their next victim.

The French were the first to attempt a canal across the Panama isthmus. They began in 1880 but were forced to give it up by 1889.  There were lots of reasons why the French failed, but one of the major contributing factors was the horrendous death toll due to malaria and yellow fever.  You see, in those days the role that mosquitoes played in transmitting theses diseases was unknown.  It was believed that these diseases were caused by poor hygiene, exposure to a victim or noxious air. During the French era, 12,000 workers died of malaria and yellow fever during construction of the Panama Railway and 22,000 during the effort to build the canal. The French tried to stop the diseases, but because the cause was uncertain, their efforts were unsuccessful.

In 1897, Britain's Ronald Ross proved that mosquitoes transmitted malaria and yellow fever.  The United States bought the rights to build the canal in 1889.  By 1904 sanitation methods were in place that dramatically reduced the deaths due to these diseases.  These methods included:  drainage of standing water where mosquitoes bred, brush and grass cutting, oiling water that could not be drained, larvicides, fumigation, prophylactic quinine, installation of screens and the trapping and killing of adult insects.  By 1906 yellow fever was all but eliminated and malaria was markedly reduced thus allowing one of the construction miracles of the twentieth century to come to completion.

References and additional reading:

November 7, 2012

Author's Notes: Famous Blizzards

In Big Stone Heart, our heroine, Carrie Smith, is trapped in a railway car during a raging blizzard in the spring of 1886.  Last week, Hurricane Sandy hit West Virginia with a two day blizzard and three feet of snow. The photo shows our lake home as it appeared after a heavy snowstorm in the winter of 1996.  Note that the roof has been scraped to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of the snow.
Blizzards have been around since the beginning of time.  But there were some particularly horrific ones in the nineteenth century. Known as the Children’s Blizzard, The Schoolhouse Blizzard, or The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard, the storm that hit the Midwest on January 12, 1888 was particularly brutal.  The day dawned unexpectedly warm and folks went outdoors to do chores.  They sent their children to school.  When the blizzard struck, many were caught unawares.  Most children were kept at school, but some were not and this almost always ended in tragedy.  The death toll was 235.  Read the book The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin for a harrowing account of this storm.

Another cruel winter was immortalized by Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter. She wrote about the Snow Winter of 1880-1881 in which her family nearly starved to death.  In simple prose, she evokes the spirit of those early settlers who battled the elements in a desperate attempt just to survive.

November 4, 2012

New reading recommendations

For new Carol's Reading Recs, click here


The lovely lady in this photograph from 1887 is wearing a cuirass bodice suit, a shelf bustle and a flower pot hat.  Bustles were all the rage back in the Victorian era. They were worn under the skirt in the back, just below the waist. 
Ostensibly, the purpose of a bustle was to support the drapery of a woman’s dress.  I always thought the purpose was to enhance a lady’s backside as a sexual attraction, rather like high heels do today.  This quote from Wikipedia seems to confirm that impression: “Although most bustle gowns covered nearly all of a woman, the shape created by the combination of a bustle and corset (accentuating the rump, waist, and bosom) resulted in highly idealized representations of female sexual identity, at once exaggerated and concealed by the structures of adornment (reference under Extras)”

Bustles were popular in the mid to late nineteenth century.  They evolved over time.  At first, the bustle covered the sides and back and ended at the bottom of the hips.  They were composed of a variety of materials including pads, springs, ruffles, wires and curved boning. Later, the fishtail bustle gained popularity.  This model was narrow, knee length and adjustable.  One description of a fishtail bustle noted twelve steel springs encased in muslin and kept in place by elastic bands.  The Bloomingdale’s Catalog from 1886 showed a wide variety of bustles for sale ranging in price from 39 cents to $1.10 for a long fishtail made with steel.
The lengths that women will go to be fashionable never fail to amaze me.  Imagine trying to sit comfortably when you’re wearing a steel cage down to your knees!


November 1, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires) Part 2

Delousing plant. 1918 U.S. Army Hospital, France, WW I
Are lice ever nice? No.  But some lice are nicer than others.  For instance, head lice, the scourge of school children, though disgusting ,doesn't seem to transmit any diseases.  Body lice, on the other hand, causes the disease typhus (not to be confused with typhoid fever - an entirely different disease). Lice suck human blood and often poop at the same time (I know, ick!).  When the person who has the lice scratches the place where he was just bitten, the poop (or feces for you medical types) is carried into the wound.  The bacteria that causes typhus, Rickettsia prowazekii, is in the poop. 

Body lice occur wherever people live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with no or few opportunities to wash themselves or their clothing.  Epidemics have occurred throughout history, especially in times of war, extreme poverty and cold weather where people huddle together indoors.

The nineteenth century saw devastating epidemics of typhus.  More soldiers died of typhus during Napolean's wars than did of injuries sustained in battle (300,000 from typhus versus 100,000 from battle wounds).  Typhus decimated the Irish population in waves in 1816, 1821, 1836 and 1846.  The year 1846 was particularly bad.  The Irish were starving as a result of the potato famine.  Forced into workhouses, an estimated 190,000 people died of the disease.  The twentiety century saw typhus in the Civil War and both World Wars.

It wasn't until 1910 that the transmission of typhus by body lice was proven.  A vaccine was developed during World War II.  Today, typhus still occurs, not so much in America, but in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

 For additional reading and references:

October 31, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From the Ladies Home Journal, July 1897.  “What Now?”
If the instinct of daughter, sister, wife or mother dies out of a college-bred woman, even in the course of a most brilliant career, the world will forget to love her; it will scorn her, and justly.

October 27, 2012

Teen Life Way Back When: Halloween

Believe it or not, there was a time in America when there was no Halloween.  While the concept of Halloween is largely due to the ancient Celts and has been around for a long, long time, the early colonial Protestants in America were strongly opposed to the tradition.

It wasn't until the second half of the nineteenth century, as this country became flooded with immigrants from Ireland and England, that Halloween as we know it today took root.  It was then that Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money.  Young women of the day thought they could divine the name of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings and mirrors.

By the late 1800's and early twentieth century there was a movement to take anything frightening or grotesque out of Halloween.  Instead, neighborly parties or community get-togethers were encouraged.

Sound familiar? It seems that, although the ghosts and ghouls had reappeared by the 1940's and 1950's, today they are on the wane once again and Halloween is swinging back out of favor.  Will Halloween survive in the twenty-first century?  Only time will tell.

 For additional reading and references:

October 25, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires)

I hope you have a strong stomach because today we are starting a series on creepy bloodsucking critters and the role they played in nineteenth century medicine. I saw some pretty disgusting things during my career as a physician, yet even I get a tad squeamish on this topic.

Let's start with leeches.  Leeches have been used for medicinal purposes since the stone age .  They reached their heyday, though, in the nineteenth century when bloodletting was very popular. Back then, it was believed that all diseases were due to an excess of blood. Therefore, to cure the disease, excess blood had to be removed.  Leeches were efficient bloodsuckers, sucking their weight in blood within 15 minutes (about a half teaspoon).   Leeches were raised on commercial farms and it is estimated that 30 million leeches were used in the year 1846 alone.  Not only were they used for bloodletting, but they were touted as a cure-all for all kinds of ailments.

Now here's the interesting part:  leeches are still used in medicine today.  They are used in microsurgery, in wounds to drain congested blood, by plastic surgeons during difficult grafts and reconstructive surgery and for the relief of  arthritis pain.

Still, if my doctor wanted to use leeches on me, I don't think I could do it.  The very idea makes me, well, baaaaarf.

For some stomach turning images, additional reading and references, see:

October 23, 2012

Author's Notes: Big Dreams and High Hopes

In Big Stone Heart, our heroine Carrie Smith, is traveling by train from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Dakota Territory.  She is watching the countryside go by from her seat in the train:

The train picked up speed as it climbed out of the river valley and up onto the plains.  Carrie watched from her window as the buildings of St. Paul and then the huge mansions on the bluffs receded into the distance.  The plain was flat and monotonous with very few trees.  The sky was a dull gray and a few thick wet snowflakes drifted down and splotched on the windows.  Small clapboard farmhouses stood stark against the darkening sky.  Great patches of rich dark earth alternated with patches of unplowed prairie.  Everything looked frozen in place. 

The houses Carrie saw were built by the hard working, resilient pioneers who settled the Great Plains.  Most had big dreams of a prosperous future made possible by rich harvests of grain and corn.  Some made it.  Many did not.  Today, the plains of Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska are dotted with abandoned farmsteads.  Sometimes all that remains is a shelter belt of trees planted to comply with the law and secure the land.  More often, though, old abandoned houses, barns and outbuildings remain.

The picture above shows just such a farmstead.  The land on which it sits is owned by my sister-in-law, Sharon, and my brother, Bob.  The surrounding land is no longer farmed by the family, but rented out to others.  Yet, the old buildings still have stories to tell: the window on the upper left that was Sharon’s bedroom growing up; the old cistern that collected rainwater for the family’s use; the decaying barn with hay fifty years old still in the loft and horse tackle on the wall. 

Like so many others, Sharon’s family moved off the farm to seek greater opportunity in the small towns nearby.  Still, next to this abandoned house is a brand spanking new house built by hand by the Bob and Sharon.  It’s the pioneer spirit reborn:  the lure of the wide open prairie; the need to make a home on the land; the desire to preserve a way of life.


October 22, 2012


Last time we talked about breeching, the rite of passage in which little boys in the nineteenth century changed from wearing dresses or smocks to wearing shorts and long pants. In this photograph, it is difficult to tell if this child is a boy or a girl.  There is lace on a military type jacket and the child has long curled hair.  This is a portrait of the artist Thomas Eakins in 1850. 

Boys wore their hair long and curled just like girls in the Victorian age.  The hair was usually cut short much earlier than breeching occurred, usually around age 2 or 3.  There was no rigid timeframe. The mother made the decision when to make the transition. Sometimes, the mothers kept their son's hair long even after breeching occurred at age seven or so. As the boys grew and matured, hair, for the most part, stayed short.

Pictures of men from this era showed short hair slicked back with oil.  Facial hair might take the form of a mustache, goatee, full beard or any combination of the above.  They may also have been clean shaven.  Long flowing hair was not the norm for men back then, even though romantic heroes from this era are characterized that way today.

October 19, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Zits

Zits, pimples, blemishes, acne, whatever you want to call it, can be devastating both emotionally and physically, sometimes causing disfigurement and emotional scars that can last for a lifetime. Zits are as old as history itself.  The ancient Egyptians and Greeks described acne. Cures were sought throughout history. 

By the nineteenth century, it was recognized that zits were a disease of the sebaceous glands.  But what caused the disease was the subject of wide speculation.  Theories ranged from constitutional factors, mode of life, use of cosmetics, affections of the alimentary tract and, supposedly, abnormal sexual behavior. Sulfur containing concoctions were the standard treatment back then.  Sulfur has a drying and exfoliative effect on the skin.

Throughout the years, as we gained more and more knowledge about the disease, treatments were developed in response to the latest scientific discoveries.  According to, here is a timeline of zit therapy:

1920's:  benzoyl peroxide
1930's:  radiation and laxatives
1950's:  antibiotics
1970's:  Retin A (tretinoin)
1980's:  Accutane (found to cause birth defects in pregnant women)
1990's:  laser therapy
2000's:  blue/red light therapy


October 17, 2012

School Visit at Big Stone School

Had a blast yesterday talking to the students at the Big Stone School in Big Stone City, South Dakota.  The sixth through eighth graders had a host of insightful comments on writing, art and medicine, even teaching me a thing or too!  Everyone was so warm and welcoming.  Thank you Big Stone School.

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From The Ladie's Home Journal, July 1897. “What Now?”

An intellectual ambition draws many a girl away from her true place in life, and makes her a cold, unloved, and unhelpful woman, instead of a joyous, affectionate and unselfish blessing to home and friends…..

October 14, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: How Did Pant Legs Send a Message?

Look carefully at this picture. What is difference between the little boy at the top and his father and brother?  Give up?  The two older males are in long trousers; the little boy is in shorts.  Why?

Prior to about 1900, a rite of passage for boys was called “breeching”. As babies, both boys and girls wore dresses or smocks primarily for practical reasons such as toilet training.  The point at which a boy began to wear pants or breeches was an important milestone in his life.  It signaled that babyhood was over.  By the mid-nineteenth century, dresses gave way to shorts first, then to full length trousers. Indeed, in England and some other countries, many school uniforms mandated shorts for boys until ages 9 or 10.
At what age did breeching occur?  This was somewhat arbitrary, varied by era and was mostly determined by the mother.  Usually breeching occurred by age seven. It was often marked by an elaborate ceremony with gifts of money for the newly breeched boy who looked forward to it with excitement.  It also marked the point at which fathers became more involved in the raising of their sons.  In working class families, it marked the beginning of working life.
Today, when a boy puts on a pair of shorts he is sending a different message: it’s hot outside!

For references or additional reading, click the Extras tab.


October 12, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Frostbite


Ice Mask, C.T. Madigan, Australasian Expedition 1911-1914 Photo by Frank Hurley
Every winter here in the Midwest, some unfortunate person is trapped in their car during a blizzard, leaves the car and tries to walk to safety.  When I was in medical school, I saw just such a patient who sustained severe frostbite on his hands and feet.  Not a pretty sight.

In the nineteenth century, frostbite treatment consisted of rubbing the affected area with snow. This is largely the result of Baron Larrey, surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon’s army during the invasion of Russia in the winter of 1812-1813.  He advocated friction massage with ice or snow and the avoidance of heat in thawing.  This was the treatment of frostbite until well into the 1950’s.
Turns out the Baron got it all wrong.  In 1956, Merryman, a public service medical officer in Alaska disproved this treatment. Today we know that the treatment of frostbite starts with gradually thawing frostbitten extremities in warm water and other areas in a warm blanket.  Rubbing snow or anything else on the affected area only causes further damage.

Today, there is still the entrenched belief that if you think you have frostbite, rub it with snow.  Don’t do it.  And, if you are trapped in your car during a blizzard, stay put.  Not only will you be better protected from the cold, but you will be easier to find once help arrives.

References and further reading:


October 10, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From The Ladies Home Journal, January,1897:
I cannot recommend any bleach for the hair.  Artificial coloring of the hair is not only an extremely vulgar habit, but which is also of importance, an obsolete one.

October 8, 2012


This lovely Victorian lady from around 1860 probably got many compliments on her hair. But did you know that elaborate hair styles like this were created with hair pieces? 

Today, hair extensions are all the rage.  Back in the nineteenth century they were called switches and were sold by the length. In the Montogomery Ward Catalogue from 1895, hair switches were sold in lengths from 20-26 inches and ranged in price from 0.65 cents to $3.25.  Doesn't sound like much does it?  If you compare the price with today's dollar, though, a $3.25 switch would cost about $90.90! A 24 inch woman's wig sold for $18.00, that's $504.00 in today's dollars.  That doesn't sound too bad either, you might say.  Consider this:  the average income in 1895 was about $438 a year - yes, a year. So you can see, the lady had to quite wealthy to afford a hairstyle enhanced with multiple hair pieces.

A great variety of hair goods were available: bangs, poofs, pompadours, knots,waves and showy coiffures.  They could be ordered from catalogs by sending in a swatch of hair or custom made. We can only wonder how well some of these hair pieces actually matched the color of the lady's hair, especially those that were ordered through the mail.  Wouldn't you just love to see a color photograph from back then?

October 5, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Did You Wash Your Hands After Going to the...Autopsy?


Picture this:  it’s the first day of pathology residency and I, newly minted medical doctor, am about to do my first autopsy. Cloaked head to toe in scrubs, surgical mask, gown, shoe covers, waterproof (or should I say blood proof) sleeve covers and a cap to cover my hair, I hovered queasily over the deceased.  About to pull on thick gloves, I was stopped by the teaching pathologist at the highly prestigious medical institution (which shall remain unnamed) and informed: “We don’t wear gloves. It’s not macho.”

A tense pause, cringe, gasp. He had to be kidding.  Muck around in a dead body without gloves, barehanded, unprotected?  Well, being a true blue double X chromosome female (we jokingly pronounced it like “tamale”), I didn’t care if I was considered macho or not.  I pulled on the gloves.  True story, I swear.

Perhaps the teaching pathologist at the prestigious medical institution never got the memo that dead bodies have germs and germs cause disease. Ignaz Semmelweis proved conclusively in 1847 that unwashed hands spread germs.  At an obstetrical clinic in Vienna, Semmelweis noted that women who gave birth attended by medical students were dying of childbed fever (puerperal fever in medical speak) much more often than those whose deliveries were attended by midwives.  Why?  He investigated and found that the medical students came straight from performing autopsies on patients who had died of sepsis (bacterial infection) and attended the births without washing their hands. When he instituted a strict policy of hand washing with a chlorinated antiseptic solution, the death rate from childbed fever dropped 10-20 fold in three months. The use of gloves didn’t come along until much later, but hand washing was a major medical breakthrough in preventing the spread of disease.




October 3, 2012

Author's Notes: Snow - Already?

     We just heard that North Dakota is under a winter storm watch this evening (Oct. 3). Already?  I just put away my summer things!  Still, even though this is a little early even by midwest standards, it's time to start thinking about hot chocolate, warm sweaters and a crackling blaze in the fireplace.

      In Big Stone Heart, our heroine, Carrie Smith, encounters a typical midwestern blizzard: huge snowdrifts, blowing snow and subzero temperatures - a lethal combination.  Carrie survives in the book, but every winter here in the midwest, others do not. With every storm comes news of frostbite, exposure and even death.

One of the most tragic blizzards in our part of the world occurred in 1888, the so-called "Children's Blizzard" or the "Schoolhouse Blizzard".  There were 235 deaths, many of them children.  The day started warm and balmy.  Children went to school or took advantage of the fine weather to be out-of-doors.  Without warning, for there was no radio or television, a storm hit fast and furious. Some children were sent home from school, a tragic mistake, for they were trapped in the storm without shelter or winter clothing.  Others stayed in the schoolhouse with their teacher and survived. Even today, it's a heartbreaking story.

October 1, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Wash That Stink Right Out of Your Hair

Source:  Flickr Commons
            On the subject of how stinky the world was back in the nineteenth century, let’s talk a little bit about hair. If you’ve ever gone for weeks without shampooing, especially if you have long hair, you know that unwashed hair smells. Modern shampoo wasn’t invented until the 1920’s.  So what did a girl do to keep her hair fresh looking and sweet smelling?

First of all, they didn’t wash their hair all that often.  One etiquette book recommended every 2-3 weeks, another source said seasonal, still another said every couple of months.  You get the idea – it certainly wasn’t every day in the shower like we do today.  Back then, washing hair was a big production.  Everybody wore their hair long; there was no running water, hot or cold and no hair dryers.  

What did they use to wash their hair?  There were commercially available shampoos.  A check of the Montgomery Ward Catalogue from 1895 shows two products:  Graham’s Shampoo Paste at 18 cents a box and Shampoo Powder or “Seafoam” selling for 25 cents a box. However, most of the time, homemade concoctions were the shampoos of choice.  A recipe from 1893 noted by Baroness Staffe in “The Ladies Dressing Room” shows the following mixture:  quart of hot or cold water, 1 oz. carbonate of soda, ½ oz. Pear’s soap cut into small pieces, a few drops of perfume essence and 1 oz. spirit of wine.  Other mixtures included bicarbonate of soda or salted rainwater.  Lemon juice, herbal mixtures and even beer were used as rinses.

The Victorian ladies had other maneuvers between washings.  Daily brushing, the proverbial 100 strokes, with a clean brush removed oils and dirt.  Brushing a powder like soda through the hair had a similar effect.  Still, you have to wonder how effective these were.  And if it really mattered.  After all, no respectable unmarried young woman would let a man get close enough to get a whiff of her hair, would she?
For additional reading and references:  See Extras

September 28, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Take a Crap

Let's talk toilets.  The invention of the flush toilet was a major advance in public health. We recently took a look at outhouses (see Teen Life Way Back When) and, as one can imagine, they were a hotbed of germs spread by hand-to-mouth.  Or, in other words, you crapped, then you ate something without washing your hands.  True, this is still practiced today by some people (yuk!) but, by and large, with the invention of the flush toilet and handwashing afterwards, most of those germs were  washed away (more on handwashing next time).

But who really invented the flush toilet and when?  Thomas Crapper is largely credited with the invention (I am not making this up - that really was his name).  According to the article "Thomas Crapper: Myth and Reality" (see link below), he was born in 1836 in England.  He may have been involved in the evolution of the flush toilet, but, as it turns out, he probably didn't invent it.

So where did the term "take a crap" come from?  It seems that is still open to debate.  The story I like best dervies from World War I.  Soldiers using the facilities in England saw  "T. Crapper - Chelsea" imprinted on the toilet tank thus forever linking Mr. Crapper's name with the toilet. Soon, "the crapper" became slang for toilet.  We still use this term today.

September 25, 2012

Third Book Finished!

Hello everyone!  I took a brief hiatus from blogging to finish my third book.  Yeah - finally done and submitted to my publisher, Whiskey Creek Press.  Fingers crossed that they will accept it.

It's entitled The Baby Farm: Book Two of the Secret Society of Sugar and Spice. It's a sequel to my second book, The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice, which is scheduled for release in March, 2013. Here is a blurb:

     Claire Sargent and the Secret Society of Sugar and Spice, a group of girls who are inmates of the Home for Abandoned and Orphaned Children, face their most daunting mission yet, for not only must they find a baby girl, they must steal her away.
     Hannah Winter is seventeen-years-old, seven months pregnant and married to the wrong man.  With her true love gone, she is forced to marry a brutal man, for it’s 1885, and her only choice is to marry someone, anyone, or give up her baby.  But once her daughter is born, her cruel husband sells the child to a baby farm. Outraged, Hannah attacks.  He savagely beats her and imprisons her in an attic. She must submit or die. Now it is up to the Secret Society to plan a daring escape and spirit Hannah away to safety.  But once rescued, Hannah won’t leave… without her daughter.  

More to follow.  Stay tuned...

August 6, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Just Hold Your Nose and Go

A new seat about to be installed
While we're on the subject of "stink, stank, stunk", let's talk about toilets in Victorian times.  For the most part, unless you were very rich or staying in a high class hotel, there were'nt any toilets in the 1800's.  Folks used an outhouse to do their business.  And, boy, did outhouses stink!  I know this from personal experience. I remember using the outhouse at my Aunt's farm in rural Minnesota in the 1950's.  They didn't have indoor plumbing - no toilet and just a pump and a well for water inside the house.

Outhouses came as one-holers, two holers, three-holers, sometimes more.  They were usually situated well away from the house or public building, hidden behind bushes or trees if possible. Most consisted or a small wooden structure with a door and a wooden bench inside with a hole in it.  That was it.  You could look down the hole and see (and smell - whew!) the excrement of those who came before you. There were always, it seems, flies and spiders lurking about. Under the outhouse was a deep hole and the waste was left to decompose on its own.  How did women manage with those long skirts?

Toilet paper was was not common but was available in rolls in the late 1800's.  A quick check in the Sears & Roebuck catalog from 1897 showed rolls of toilet paper for sale from $2.25 to $6.15 for 100 rolls. Until toilet paper became widely used around 1907, folks wiped with discarded paper, newspapers,pages from catalogs hung on strings in the outhouse, leaves, corn husks.  Some references stated that corncobs or mussel shells were used - can you imagine wiping your bottom with a corncob? Yikes!

For additional reading and references:  see the Extras section

August 3, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Old Names for Old Diseases Part 2

Last time we talked about consumption and La Grippe.  Here are some more old names for old diseases:
Catarrh:  Usually meant the common cold.  The term was also used for any inflammation of the mucous membranes, nose or air passages which resulted in a thick discharge such as tonsillitis or inflammation of the adenoids.  Of course, today the common cold continues to wreak havoc on us all.  Viruses called rhinoviruses, among others, are the culprits so taking antibiotics is of no use in treating a cold (antibiotics are aimed at bacteria, a different kind of critter altogether). There are over-the-counter drugs that can be taken to lessen the symptoms and duration of a cold, but basically we must endure a cold just as others have done before us.

Ague: Malaria or a disease marked by chills, fever and sweating at regular intervals.  Malaria remains a killer even today with hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, particularly in children.  Malaria is caused by a type of parasite of the genus Plasmodium that is injected into the bloodstream by the bite of a mosquito. Before the discovery of quinine back in the 1800’s, there was no effective treatment for malaria. Today we have multiple drugs that are effective in treating the disease and prevention is aimed at avoiding mosquito bites, eradicating mosquitos and taking medications before and during exposure.

Blood Poisoning:  Refers to disease causing organisms in the blood (bacteria) or to use the medical term – septicemia.  Before the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940’s, there was no treatment for blood poisoning so any type of would or infection could prove fatal.  Today, with modern culture techniques to identify the bacteria and determine which antibiotic works best for that particular bug, and the use of intravenous administration of antibiotics, blood poisoning, in most cases, can be cured.
“The Pox”:  Before we knew what it was, syphilis was referred to as “the Pox”.  A venereal disease caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum; it has devastating physical signs and symptoms.  “Google” the term syphilis and click on Images to see the horrible effects of this disease (warning – only for those with a strong stomach). First described in the literature of the 1400’s, syphilis is still around today. Testing for syphilis is well established and penicillin-type antibiotics (discovered in the 1940’s) is an effective treatment in most cases.

August 1, 2012

Author's Notes: Caution - Hot! Part 2

Wow, did I have a great experience on Saturday! My husband and I visited "The Landing" an 1897 restored village on the banks of the Minnesota River.  It was living history day and every home and business had costumed actors living as folks did back then.  The recreated town of Eagle Creek was authentic in every detail - no reproductions here ( I might add that Eagle Creek is the setting of my next book "The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice"out in March 2013!).

You will recall that last time we talked about how cooking was anything but simple in the nineteenth century.  Well, I had the pleasure of watching the women of Eagle Creek in action at their cookstoves.  It was eighty-five degrees outside and humid. Inside those kitchens it had to have been approaching ninety-five. All of the cookstoves had wood fires blazing away.  One lady was making a yellow cake in the oven.  A cream filling was cooling on the counter covered with cheesecloth to keep out the flies (no screens).  A heavy cast iron skillet simmered on another ladie's stove.  When she lifted the lid, the delicious aroma of hot German potato salad filled the air:  links of ring bologna, potatoes, onions, saurkraut.  Mouthwatering!

In this picture I took you will see two bricks on the floor.  These were used to create a shelf in the oven so two pans could be in there at once.  Notice also on the floor opposite the bricks is an iron for ironing clothes.  These were heated on the stove before being hefted onto the ironing board.  Those suckers were heavy!  Behind the stove you will see the cast iron skillets - also very heavy.  Housewives in the nineteenth century had muscles - no need to go to the gym (as if there was such a thing for ladies back then).  The whole experience was so real, I almost felt I could see the heroine of "Big Stone Heart", Carrie Smith at work in the orphanage kitchen.  Truly - I had goosebumps!