October 28, 2013

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Courting Rituals in America, Part 3: A Uniquely American Dowry System

In the Gilded Age, fabulously wealthy Americans could have anything they wanted, except for one thing - a title. Thus developed a uniquely American dowry system.  Rich American industrialists married their daughters to poor British aristocrats who had a title but no money. This raised the status of both the bride and groom and their families. In 1895 alone, nine American heiresses married members of the British aristocracy.  They became known as the "dollar princesses".
Consuelo Vanderbilt (Duchess of Marlborough) at
the coronation of Edward VII
The quintessential example of this was Consuelo Vanderbilt, one of the great beauties of her time.  Daughter of the railroad millionaire, William Vanderbilt, she married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, on November 16,1895, becoming the Duchess of Marlborough.  The marriage settlement was 2.5 million dollars of railroad stock, an estimated 61 million to 2.6 billion in 2012 dollars. Pressured into the marriage by her ambitious mother, the loveless union ended in divorce in 1921.

October 21, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Deadly Diseases Part 2: The Croup

The Sick Child, 1886
Arturo Michelena, courtesy of Wiki Commons
Public domain

What does frizzy hair, runny mascara and a clammy damp uniform have to do with the croup? 

I was astonished to read that the croup was a deadly childhood disease in the nineteenth century. Today, the illness is not considered serious and is usually treated at home.  Known medically as laryngotracheobronchitis, the croup is an infection of the upper airway which obstructs breathing and causes a characteristic barking cough (sounds like a seal).  Caused by a virus, usually the parainfluenza virus, the illness most commonly strikes children 6 months to 5-6 years of age.  Treated with oral or inhaled steroids or a tracheotomy in severe cases, the disease is rarely fatal today.  But in the late nineteenth century, almost three per cent of childhood deaths were attributed to this illness.

As I was researching this topic, I discovered that the standard treatment for hospitalized children with the croup back in the 1960's was a steam tent (a plastic tent over the crib also known as a croupette) or a steam room.  Now here is where the frizzy hair comes in.  Back in the early seventies I was training to be a medical technologist.  One of my jobs during the year of internship was to draw blood from the children in the "steam rooms".  Aha! As I schlepped in and out of these rooms with the croupy kiddies, my carefully coiffed hair turned to a limp lump of frizz, my expertly applied dime store mascara drizzled down my cheeks and my pressed and starched uni turned to a damp, wrinkled clammy mess. And here's the kicker: The steam rooms and steam tents were subsequently proven to be ineffective!

For references and additional reading see the Extras section.

October 14, 2013

Author's Notes: Whooping Cough

Click on this link to hear the sound of whooping cough


In my book, Big Stone Heart, the heroine encounters whooping cough with tragic results. Today in the United States, pertussis (the medical term for whooping cough) is pretty much off our radar in terms of  infant mortality.  It shouldn't be. Cases of whooping cough still occur here largely due to the refusal of parents to have their children vaccinated.  For example, in 2010, ten infants died of pertussis in California and an epidemic was declared with over 9,000 cases.

October 7, 2013

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Courting Rituals in America, Part 2: Handfasting

F.T. Richards, Illustrator
The Idiot at Home by
John Kendrick Bangs
(public domain)
In Colonial America there was a way to get married without a priest, minister, magistrate or a license.  The ritual was called "handfasting" or "spousal".  This do-it-yourself marriage arrangement was an option for couples who could not obtain parental permission to marry or who could not marry for other reasons.

The couple joined hands and declared each other husband and wife, then lived together.  In Latin this was called verba de praesenti. The marriage vows would be exchanged either alone or before witnesses.  A blacksmith was often called upon to officiate, hence the anvil came to symbolize the of forging a long-lasting union. 

The ceremony could be performed anywhere, even in the bedroom.  This, as you can well imagine, posed a problem. It wasn't unusual for a dishonorable suitor to exchange vows with a young lady, only to renege on his promise the morning after.  Indeed, court records of the time are full of such skulduggery. To forestall backsliding, young girls found it prudent to hide a couple of friends in the closet to witness the pledges.

Handfasting has reemerged in recent times.  In the early 2000's a form of handfasting was practiced in Neopaganism, especially in Wicca, a modern pagan witchcraft religion.  A part of the ceremony involved joining the hands of the wedding couple by wrapping them in ribbons. By 2010, handfasting ceremonies were on offer by commercial wedding organizers and had mostly lost their Neopagan association.

For references and additional reading see the Extras section