Sunday, December 2, 2018

Trying to imagine it's 1902

Before my family kills me for being so slow about this, I'm currently working on the finishing touches to a family history novel I wrote originally in 1911, based on the life of my great-grandmother Nellie. I've been promising it to my family for a while, and this holiday season, they will finally get it.

SPOILERS BELOW. If you want to read this book, don't read the blog post.

Nellie was born a bastard, as they said back when, of a 17-year-old girl and the farm worker 18-year-old boy, son of a merchant, who was working the farm kitty-cornered on the plat map to my great-great-grandfather's farm. This boy went on to be a merchant himself, owning a clothing store in Chicago until he died. His last name had come down through oral history, and only a bizarre bit of luck in my genealogical research let me know who his family was: he was recorded twice in a single census, in town and on the farm. (Anyone who does genealogical research will know what an incredible stroke of luck this was!)

not the orphanage...but built at a similar time.

Nellie's mom, Clara, went on to move to Indiana, where an older man married her despite the out-of-wedlock child, and she had two more girls by him, and he died. Her poverty grew dire, and quickly. It was a time of transition for America, when the good farming land was mostly claimed by oldest brothers, when steam engines were harvesting the crops and fewer farm workers were needed, when city factories were calling to displaced children of farms with their hard, filthy, and dangerous jobs, and when the working class was trying to find its place.

With women having no rights, really--not the right to own property in some states or to vote or to ask for equal pay or to divorce a man who beat them--Clara was in a deteriorating situation. While some of her brothers had money, none of them stepped up to help her or her other sisters with money problems. One of them, possibly ill with tuberculosis, visited with her daughter Florence and left her with Clara. I have no idea what their arrangement was--did Clara agree to take on this extra mouth to feed? Or did the sister sneak off in the night? No idea.

But it was the straw that broke Clara. She drove all four of the girls to the local orphanage and signed over her parental rights. It was their only shot at surviving.

Carrie Nation in Ann Arbor 1902. Wikimedia Commons

As always, I researched for this book extensively, and the story on orphanages of the turn of the 19th-20th century is fascinating. Fully half of the children there were like Nellie--not orphaned at all, but arriving on the edge of starvation. Their living parents, fighting for jobs in the shifting economy (from agrarian to industrial) felt they had no other choice. They were lucky there was any social service system, I suppose, for there was no food stamps or governmental assistance. All this fell on the private sector, on benefactors, on good orphanage administration finding ways to get merchant-class citizens to donate.

There were terrible orphanages, ruled by child gangs. There were terrible orphanages, where the children continued to starve and were beaten. And there was the one in Indianapolis (which still survives as a child-aid organization!) which was by all accounts, pretty well done.

Nellie was a pretty girl, with dark hair and strong eyebrows, and she was snatched up by a farm couple from a neighboring county and taken away, as an indentured servant. Again, the experience of orphan indentured servants varied around the turn of the century. Most of them were worked half to death.

Nellie was incredibly fortunate. The couple who picked her out was a lovely pair, with three teenage sons, a well-run farm, and only lacking a girl to help out Ma in keeping everyone fed and clothed. Nellie filled that roll. She was not raped or beaten or starved or forced to sleep in the barn, as many of the indentured orphans may have been. She did not have any need to run away from her indentured life, as many of them did.

an indoor bike track, 1902. Whoda thunk?

But she was under contract, not a slave but still very much controlled under the law. And that's all I tell you (except you can guess she survived, because here I am, writing about her!) The book takes us through her time in the orphanage only, right up to when the farm couple took her out the front door and into an unknown future.

In editing this, I'm appreciative of people who write historical fiction for a living. It's not easy! Just one example: I was editing the book and saw the word "toothbrush." Luckily, I thought to question it. Did people own toothbrushes in 1900, the year this is set?

As it ends up, no. Toothbrushes were not commercially available until the 1930s. People might have used a twig, or they might have used baking soda and a square of cloth to clean their teeth. And it would be said 'clean the teeth,' not 'brush the teeth.'

Heavens knows how many similar errors I've missed! I knew not to have a lot of cars driving around. I've been to historic museums of the Midwest to look at household items like kitchen items, pocketbooks, and clothing. I researched extensively Indianapolis's street car system, fares, and how people bought food. I've read dozens of newspapers from Nellie's childhood years at a historical archive in Indiana. Studying the ads helped put me in mind of what life had been like then. But even though I do all this careful work, it's the little details, like a toothbrush (or not) that are sure to trip me up.

I know a few of my regular readers will like this book, but mostly, it's for my family, my fictional account of what Nellie must have felt like and experienced after her mother dropped her off at the orphanage that spring day. She was 11, the eldest. Children were different then, with more responsibilities in a home or farm. What might she have felt? What comforts would she have clung to? Would she love or hate her mother, or both?

I can't know, but I guessed, as novelists do. The book should be out approximately the end of the year.

No comments:

Post a Comment

moderated twice a week, so please be patient!