Tag Archive | history

An Illuminating History of Electric Christmas Lights

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

Here’s another quick, fascinating bit of Christmas history for you on a Monday morning. I’ll admit, I’m not actually the biggest fan of Christmas (it’s a long story), but I do love tastefully done lights. We all know that the tradition of lights on the Christmas tree began with candles, but did you know that that tradition comes from Germany in the 18th century? But what about electric Christmas lights?

I think a lot of people would assume that the tradition of electric Christmas lights on trees is a relatively new one. In fact, it’s over 100 years old. Well over 100 years old. You might have heard Christmas tree lights referred to as “fairy lights” before. Well, it’s because the concept of a string of tiny electric lightbulbs was first used not at Christmas, but in the first production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe on November 25th, 1882. (Yay G&S!) The women’s chorus in this operetta are fairies, and their costumes involved strings of electric lights. Well, the name stuck.

That same year (1882!) in America, the vice president of Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, was the first person to wire a Christmas tree with electric lights. A lot of papers reported the electrified tree as a publicity stunt, but—you guessed it—the idea caught on and electric Christmas lights began to steadily grow in popularity. By 1900, stores in big cities were decorating their shop windows with electric lights to draw customers.

Edward H. Johnson's electric Christmas tree lights

Edward H. Johnson’s electric Christmas tree lights

Mind you, the average household couldn’t even begin to afford Christmas lights for their trees. Not until the 1930s. The technology was there, though, and the wealthy and prominent businesses got in on the act from the beginning. That included the White House. The first president to have electric Christmas lights on his tree was Grover Cleveland in 1895. I bet that’s much earlier than you thought lights were around, huh?

As the price of electric lights came down from the 1930s on, they became more prominent in average households. Some of the more famous lights shows that we know today started fairly early too. Those Rockefeller Center lights in NYC? They were first lit in 1956.

Okay, but what about those ridiculous and outlandish displays of Christmas light overkill? You know. Everybody’s neighborhood seems to have someone who’s electric bill for December is double what it is for the rest of the year. You know when that tradition started? In the 1920s. That’s right, it started before indoor Christmas lights became the norm. That’s because in the 1920s General Electric would host contests for the best decorations, and everyone who could wanted to get in on that. (Sometimes I wish they hadn’t. ha!)

So there you go. A quick history of electric Christmas lights. They’re much, much older than most people would expect. So are you a big light decorator or do you like to keep it simple?

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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Santa's_ArrivalWell, I have just a small little history snippet for you today. It came about because I wanted to base a little Cold Springs Christmas short story around the classic poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But since this story takes place in 1904, I wanted to figure out if the poem would have been in common usage by that time.

Guess what? It’s a really old poem! There are a lot of interesting facts around it too. Starting with its origin. Did you know that the poem was first published anonymously in the New York Sentinel in 1823? It was actually written by Clement Clarke Moore, but Moore’s name didn’t appear in print as the author until 1837. The poem was originally sent to the Sentinel by a friend of Moore’s, and it was so well received that it was frequently reprinted after that.

Also, as the legend would have it, although the character of St. Nicholas had been in popular culture in many ways and in many countries for a long time, Moore was the first one to describe Santa with the physical features that we see in the poem. Better still, Moore modeled his St. Nick off of a local Dutch handyman. This all might seem insignificant and fun, but it was Moore’s poem that ended up codifying what Santa looked like from one tradition to another throughout America and later the world. Also, Moore made up the names of the reindeer.

There is also some controversy around who really wrote the poem. While Moore has been credited as the author, there is also a large contingent that claims it was really written by Henry Livingston, Jr.

Personally, I don’t care who actually wrote it, only that it’s such a wonderful part of Christmas and has so many evocative memories associated with it. I remember learning it to recite at a Christmas pageant one year in elementary school. I still remember about half of it verbatim today. I think most of us do, right?

So yes, it was perfectly historically correct to have Michael West read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas aloud to his children and all of the other children of the characters in my Montana Romance series. And if you’d like to read that short story (it’s really funny), pop on over to Facebook and join the Pioneer Hearts group today! If you comment on my post over there, you can also win a $25 Amazon gift card and a signed copy of the first book in my Hot on the Trail series, Trail of Kisses. So what are you waiting for?


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How Old Are Jigsaw Puzzles?

It’s Monday! And usually on Mondays I talk about history. Lately it’s been history that informs on whatever novel I’m working on (like the Oregon Trail, for example). But over this past long weekend, I fell headfirst into a small obsession, and it’s taken over my brain. I’m talking about jigsaw puzzles.

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle. Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle.
Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

So being the nerd I am, as I was puzzling away this past weekend, I caught myself asking myself, “Hmm, I wonder how old jigsaw puzzles are?” So of course I had to find out.

Turns out, they’re pretty old. The first jigsaw puzzle is credited as being a creation of London-based engraver and mapmaker John Spilsbury in 1760. Yep, puzzles are an 18th century invention! What I found particularly interesting is that the first puzzles were Spilsbury’s maps, mounted on wood and cut into pieces. His aim was to have people learn geography by putting the maps together. So those wooden map puzzles where each state was a piece that I loved so much when I was a kid were actually staying true to the original purpose of the puzzle.

Puzzles continued to grow in popularity through the 19th century. During that era, they were usually pictures pasted onto plywood with the design of the pieces traced on the back in pencil. The puzzle-maker would use those pencil lines to cut out the pieces with a fretsaw (not actually a jigsaw). I think it would be reasonable to assume that some of my characters, both in the Montana Romance series and in my Hot on the Trail series, would have passed the time putting together puzzles.

But the height of puzzle popularity came with the Great Depression. It makes perfect sense too. By that time, most puzzles were made of cardboard. They were no longer cut out by hand, but rather die-cut. That basically means they were cut by a giant puzzle-shaped cookie cutter. They were the perfect form of cheap entertainment in an era where money was tight. They were time-consuming, recyclable, and they could bring people together.

My current obsession

My current obsession

I always remember having puzzles around in our house growing up. They were the kind of thing that we did on summer vacation or on a rainy day. This was before video games were invented. Yes, for all you young people out there, now you know what we did to entertain ourselves before we were glued to an electronic device. We enjoyed puzzles at our house, but I’ll never forget going to visit my cousins when they were in the middle of doing a puzzle.

My cousins’ dad, Tom, had a rule for doing puzzles in his house. First you would lay out all of the pieces, face up. Then, no matter how big the puzzle was, you weren’t allowed to touch a piece unless you knew exactly where it fit. If you were wrong, you were done. If he was being generous, he would let you put together the border pieces first and then the rule would only apply to the middle. Oh, and you weren’t allowed to look at the picture on the front of the box either. This was some serious puzzling!

So did your family have any rules about doing puzzles? Do you still do them? Leave a comment and let me know!


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Frontier Politics – Part One

Political Map of the US, 1856 courtesy of Wikicommons

Political Map of the US, 1856
courtesy of Wikicommons

This may or may not surprise you, but a huge factor in the settling of the American West was all about politics. Yep. I’m not a big fan of politics myself, but you can’t deny that it sure does have shaping power. And as romantic as it is to think about the West being settled for dreams of building a better life or civilizing the wilderness or even getting rich quick, a lot of it had to do with one political party trying to out-maneuver the other.

And that’s not even taking into account the whole reason why the Oregon Trail was established in the first place. You see, in the 1830s, there were already a few trading towns in the Pacific Northwest. The purpose of these towns was to provide ports for traders to export their goods to the rest of the world. But whether those key ports would be controlled by Americans or the British in Canada was still up for grabs. Borders and boundaries were a little fuzzy that far west, and since the home office of both governments, so to speak, was so far away in the East, it was easy for both sides to proclaim their country’s borders to be wherever it was most convenient for their interests to say they were, even if they overlapped.

So who is going to win a political argument about borders in a far, far distant—and yet economically key—area? Why, the country who has the most settlers in place to lay claim to the land. One of the reasons so many Americans were encouraged to pick up everything and dash west, carving out the Oregon Trail as they went, was because the government needed as many card-carrying Americans in place on the ground as possible so that they could claim the ports. It was a unique version of “squatters rights” played out on an international political playing field.

So to make a very long and not particularly interesting story short, President James Polk brought the political and foreign policy aspect of the Oregon border dispute to a head by first threatening to go to war with Britain over it, then compromising and agreeing to mark the border at the 49th parallel in 1846. Just keep in mind that it could have gone very differently and Oregon could have ended up as part of Canada if settlers weren’t encouraged to take the Oregon Trail and make their fortunes in the new land of opportunity.

This wasn’t the only compromise with a political slant that shaped the West, though. In fact, one of the most potent forces in the rush to expand settled land in the West was a result of the good old Missouri Compromise.

James K. Polk - I had to do a project about him in 6th grade and I've never forgotten him since. Courtesy of Wikkicommons

James K. Polk – I had to do a project about him in 6th grade and I’ve never forgotten him since.
Courtesy of Wikkicommons

The Missouri Compromise was an act of epic political scale that is one of the first things we all learn about in high school as we study the lead-up to the Civil War. I know I never really paid much attention to it beyond what I needed to know in order to pass those history tests, but actually, it was amazingly important to the way the West was shaped in the mid-19th century. In a nutshell, the Missouri Compromise was a law passed in 1820 that prohibited any state north of Louisiana, with the exception of Missouri, to be a slave state. South of that line, you were good to own slaves. North of it? No slavery allowed.

That sounds simple enough, but in 1854, as the rumblings of war were really beginning to heat up under the surface of this country, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in an attempt to negate the dictates of the Missouri Compromise. Meaning that the new states of Kansas and Nebraska could determine for themselves whether they would be slave states or free states based on a vote of the men living in those states. In other words, the population of the states could self-determine which side of the issue they would come out on.

So what did people do? They rushed as many settlers out into Kansas and Nebraska as they possibly could. Both sides did it. The population of these states skyrocketed, not because they were seen as the land of opportunity or a means of getting rich quick, but because each side of a political debate back East needed as many voting men on the ground as possible to win their way.

Of course, as we all know, fighting broke out, “Bleeding Kansas” became a nightmare of a place to live, the Civil War burst out in 1860…and the population of the west rose as settlers who came for one reason stayed for another. The same is true of California and several of the other western states, by the way. Funny how populating territories can become a tool of politicians hoping to win an argument.

But in case you were worried that it was all cynical Sally, once the Civil War did break out, the population of the west began to expand again as war-weary, disillusioned segments of the populace looked for ways to escape the bitterness back east. But I’ll talk about that next time.

Sold My Soul to the Company Store

Marquette Lumber company store, circa 1891 courtesy of Wikicommons

Marquette Lumber company store, circa 1891
courtesy of Wikicommons

Yesterday I got to do a very fun character interview from Phineas Bell, protagonist of Somebody to Love’s point of view for the Kimi-chan Experience. I was surprised by the last question she asked Phin, which was about how a company town in the late 19th, early 20th century worked. I had actually done a lot of research into the whole company system and learned a lot of fascinating and terrible things. So why not share that with you here?

If you’re at all interested in the 21st century debate about minimum wage, if you paid even a little attention to the Occupy movement or the 1% versus 99% discussion, then you will likely flip your lid when you learn about what the company system was back in the day and how it affected the lives of working men and women just over a hundred years ago. Because in a time before labor laws, back when the Gilded Age was also known as the Robber Baron Age, the 1% could get away with a lot more than they get away with now. (And I know, they get away with a LOT now)

“Company towns” generally grew up around mines or other sorts of remote, labor-intensive operations. In the simplest terms, the mine employed the men, paid them, owned their houses, and owned the store where everyone bought everything. These were the days before everyone owned a car, and a trip to the next town over or anyplace where an average person could shop at the competition’s establishment was a major, expensive undertaking. In essence, you were stuck where you were.

The disadvantage of being committed to one place was that whatever the owner of the mine where you worked and the town that you lived in wanted to charge for rent or groceries or just about anything, they could charge. You had no choice but to pay their price or hit the road, homeless and unemployed. It’s easy to think from our 21st century perspective that hitting the road would be the obvious choice, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time before unemployment compensation or easy transportation, a job could literally be the difference between life and death.

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

Unfortunately, it was the most vulnerable strata of the population that was at the mercy of these company systems. We’re talking uneducated laborers without a lot of support. They had families that depended on them and very little recourse to lodge complaints when times were tough and bosses were unfair. It wasn’t until much later that the government began to step in and pass laws to fix the blatant abuses of company towns.

One of the most shocking problems that these company systems had was that when times got tough for the bosses, they would start paying their workers in scrip instead of cash. Scrip was more or less Monopoly money that could only be used at the company store. It was worthless, especially for anyone hoping to save enough to get out of the horrible situation they were in.

Now, it wasn’t all super horrible, and the company town system did begin to change near the turn of the century, particularly after the Pullman Strike of 1894. Pullman, Chicago was one of the earliest company towns, planned and paid for by the Pullman railroad car manufacturer. When the company hit hard times in 1894, it tightened its belt by reducing workers’ wages without reducing the rents on their company-owned housing. The workers went on strike, demanding fairer conditions. The government stepped in, and after an investigation found that the workers’ lives were better off under the company system than they would have been otherwise. However, public opinion condemned the “paternalistic” style of the company town as “un-American.” Compromises and new ways of creating a balance between industry and humanity were hammered out.

It didn’t all happen overnight, and the reason why I’m a little vague in that last sentence is because there wasn’t one big push or law or incident that changed things, but rather a slow, steady progression through the first two decades of the 20th century. Wage laws were passed, health care laws came into being, but most importantly, automobiles became much, much more affordable. Honestly, the company system declined when workers no longer needed to live in the company town immediately surrounding their mine, and instead had the mobility to live miles away in a friendlier environment.

Don’t you just love how the dots connect in History?


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