Doping up Baby

It’s often distressing to read 19th century advertisements.  Our great-great grandparents  were just as desperate (and gullible) when it comes to certain aspects of the human condition. Hair loss, for example.  

Weight-loss was just as big a topic back then as it is now, though body image was not quite so awful. 

Nobody likes a crying baby. Parents don’t like their kids to be in pain or distress, and strangers are often pretty intolerant. Do a google search and you’ll see that this is a perennial problem with no easy solution. Sometimes babies just cry. Sometimes babies get really sick, and they scream.  Sometimes overwrought caregivers are driven to extremes. There is no excuse for that, but it happens. It happened then, too.

What’s most disturbing about the 19th century is how unaware they were of the dangers of doping their children. Have a look at this handy dandy cure for the crying baby available at every drugstore.

Stickney & Poor-Paregoric
Stickney & Poor’s Paregoric

It’s a challenge to stay in the mindset of your characters when you’re writing historical fiction.  An intelligent, sensible person who truly believes that there’s nothing dangerous about smoking, or a little laudanum is just what the baby needs, that is sometimes hard to pull off.  I consider it a kind of anachronism to pretend a character understood something that was just not knowable at the time, but I struggle with it.

Of course there were quacks who knew very well that what they were selling would do nobody any good. For instance this cure for male weakness. Note the positioning.

 

 

soup, maples and other points of confusion

asdfg raises a good point:

Red corn soup. Does it taste different from yellow, white, or blue corn soup? I wouldn’t expect anyone except Elizabeth to distinguish between corn colors, since she’s travelled more widely than the rest and so might have encountered more corn varieties.

Although it might be possible that at high elevations in New York there might have been more than one variety of corn that grew there then, I would expect only one variety because I don’t think corn hybridization hadn’t started yet. If that assumption is so, then they wouldn’t really have known there was any other type of corn. Just corn soup. Just like in engineering the first widget is called a widget, then later variations lead to widget1, widget2, etc.

Ah well. You asked. And I could be wrong. ((asdfg asks good questions — sometimes hard, sometimes challenging, but always good))

Now, the truth is in this case that she might be right. It’s a good ten years ago since I did the research on the daily foods of the Iroquois, and I’m not sure I could reconstruct it without going back and reading dozens of articles and books. ((And the end result may well be that I got this wrong, anyway.)) Every once in a while a reader points out something like this, some point that I can’t disagree with. It makes sense, really, if you look at it the way she presents it. I am curious about where I got the term and why I thought it was solid, but I don’t have time at this point to go searching. Someday I will, though. And if you’re still there and I’m still here, I’ll let you know.

Every once in a while I get an email or comment from a reader who is disappointed in my research. Very rarely does it happen that I have to disagree completely, but it does happen. For example, the reader who wrote a few weeks ago to say how disappointed she was that I hadn’t done better research on the trees of the Adirondack forest, because if I had I would have found out that maples were not native to the area, were in fact invasive, and could not have been present in the time period I write about.

She was very sure of her facts, but I was also very sure she was mistaken. I went to consult my sources and also various university botanical websites and indeed, there are about fifteen varieties of maples native to the Adirondacks, including the sugar maple. There’s a lot of evidence that the various Native American tribes who lived in the northeast woodlands knew of, and took advantage of, the sap of the sugar maple.

After some thought I wrote a short paragraph in reply and included some links to reliable websites in making my case. I haven’t heard back from her, but I don’t know why that is. Maybe she has more evidence I don’t know about, or maybe she just didn’t think it worth her time.

In any case, I am always interested to hear from readers who have noticed something that slipped past me, or who have expertise in an area where I did not do sufficient research. Live and learn.

 

anachronisms

If you write historical fiction, you learn to question every spontaneous bit of dialog you put on the page. Or at least, you should.

A Piece of Cake

It’s very easy to put a turn of phrase into a character’s mouth that couldn’t have possibly been there in the character’s place and time. I run into this kind of error all the time when I’m reading historical fiction. My all time favorite (and I use that term sarcastically) was the story set in 17th century Scotland and the big burly hero who assures the woman he’s with that she needn’t worry about getting home safely. He can manage it, he tells her. It’s a piece of cake. Continue reading “anachronisms”

lexical choice

We were watching a western on dvd last night (I cannot resist Robert Duvall in a western. I can’t see anybody but Gus McCrae when he’s on the screen, and Gus is one of my all time favorite fictional men.

/cue quote/: I met a wonderful new man yesterday. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything/end quote.

Where was I. Oh yes, lexical choice. If you write historical fiction you’re always on the alert about getting simple vocabulary right. They didn’t use the term ‘strep throat’ in the early 1800s, because the strep bacillus hadn’t been isolated or identified. So your character does have strep (and thank dog, because back then strep killed a lot of people); your character has a putrid sore throat.

Some lexical anachronisms are bound to slip through, no matter how hard you (or your editor) look for them. Most of the time you won’t even realize it’s an anachronism until a reader who happens to be an expert in sleigh bells or trapping or kitchen implements of 1820 gets in touch and let’s you know where you messed up.

Maybe five people who read the book will catch that kind of error, but most of us who write historical fiction would prefer not to make the mistake in the first place.

So when a historical term comes to my attention that is new to me, I always look it up and think about it for a while.

Yesterday evening Robert Duvall requested that his nephew bring him some convenience paper from town. The Mathematician and I looked at each other and shrugged. A few scenes later it turned out that convenience paper was an early term for commercially made toilet paper. I haven’t had time yet, but I’ve got this on my list of words to check and sooner or later I’ll go on a quest. There may even be a website about the history of toilet paper, or a Wikipedia article. There are millions of people out there with all kinds of interests, and they are happy to share their knowledge with you. Usually.

Are there any historical lexical items which you learned about through a novel or a movie?