Posted in About the Book, History

Researching the South during the Gilded Age

In this post, I want to do two things: I want to share with you some of the research that went into my novel, If Only It Were Yesterday, and I also want to review and recommend one of my key research books.

Whether you’re a historical fiction fan or history buff, you’re likely to notice that our focus shifts from region to region based on what’s going on during that time. It’s not hard to find books (fiction or non-fiction) based on life in the South during the Civil War or even the years leading up to or shortly after the war. However, the last three decades of the nineteenth century shifts our focus either to the west during the western expansion or to the north during the Industrial Revolution. But what was life like in the South during those years?

I’m not saying you won’t find ANY information, but it is a lot harder to come by. Because the focus in our nation shifts, there’s a gaping hole in our common knowledge of the period where the South is concerned. As a historical fiction fan, when I think of books during the Gilded Era, I think of stories in the North featuring either wealthy families or poor immigrant families. Because of what we commonly see, when  I sat down to write If Only It Were Yesterday, I had some questions: The last time we looked at the South, wealthy families had slaves or paid black freedmen. But the average snapshot of America during the Gilded Age shows me that most servants are immigrants. The last time we looked at the South, they were destitute. For the first time, both the rich and the poor, the black and the white, had a great deal in common: they had a great deal of nothing. But the average snapshot of America during the Gilded Age shows that electricity was becoming common, among other advances. So it begged the question: How many of these common understandings of the North were true of the South?

I don’t doubt one of you will take up the challenge and do a quick Google search and find all that it took me months to find. But for me, it was like pulling teeth to find documented proof of what the South looked like during a time that was so focused on the North or the West. Which makes From Morning to Night by Elizabeth L. O’Leary an answer to prayer.

Right there on the cover, it says “Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South.” FINALLY! This was the sort of book that promised to answer my questions. And, boy, did it! It’s one of those books that I highlighted but found myself wanting to highlight nearly the entire page. There was so much information packed in here.

The book features an extremely wealthy family in Richmond. The Dooleys were the exception here in the South, but O’Leary graciously explained what was commonplace for the Dooley’s and how it compared with others around them. It offered insight into the progression of technology within the home during those inventive years. It also weaves in terminology and common practices between servants and the families they served. It offers insight into the lifestyles of the servants and their employers, helping others like myself who wish to know more about the day to day life of those in the South. Since the Dooley’s were among the wealthiest in the South, you are given a look at the best that money could buy as well as how it compared to those who wouldn’t have afforded quite so much.
And in case you were wondering the answers to my questions: servants in the South during that time were primarily black people and very few were immigrants or poorer white Americans. And while electricity was becoming commonplace in the North, it was behind in the South. Wealthy families in larger cities had a better chance of having access to it, but smaller cities or rural areas couldn’t afford to supply it.

I highly recommend From Morning to Night to anyone who wishes to look deeper into the relationship between servant and employer, even if your primary concern isn’t focused on the South. But the book does bring the unique situation of the Gilded Age in the South to light. O’Leary balances what the historical documents reveal about the Dooleys with common experiences throughout the South as well as using quotes from various sources to further prove or explain the information.
I gladly give it 5 stars and a permanent place on my research shelf.

 

337Step off the lush carpet and push through the swinging door of the butler’s pantry to enter the bustling realm of domestic workers at Maymont House from 1893 to 1925. In From Morning to Night, Elizabeth O’Leary takes the reader behind the scenes in the opulent mansion of the Richmond multimillionaire James H. Dooley and his wife, Sallie. Drawing upon personal letters, business and government documents, and numerous oral histories of older Richmonders―both black and white―O’Leary examines the parallel and divergent viewpoints of server and served in this Virginia version of “Upstairs/Downstairs.”

Raised in slave-owning households before the Civil War, the Dooleys experienced the transformation of the master/mistress-slave relationship to that of employer-employee. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they relied on a full complement of domestic servants to maintain their lavish residences and lifestyle. In turn, numerous men and women―predominantly African American―labored to meet the day-to-day challenges of running an elaborate household. At the same time, they negotiated the era’s increasing Jim Crow restrictions and, during precious hours off-duty, helped support families, churches, and the larger black community.

By examining the formalities and practices of the Dooleys at home and by giving a presence and voice to their “help,” From Morning to Night offers insights into domestic and social systems at work within and beyond the upper-class household in the Gilded Age South.

Buying Options: At the time that I was writing this post, I checked Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Half.com and found both used and new options cheaper at Amazon.

 

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16 thoughts on “Researching the South during the Gilded Age

  1. This sounds very interesting! I like learning about obscure eras/locations anywhere, because even historical fiction is often concentrated, like you mentioned. I think it also applies to different countries, as well; there is so much historical fiction set in the U.S., (and rightly so, in my opinion) but wouldn’t it be a lovely change of pace to read a WWII novel set in Indonesia, for example? (I’m writing reports on every country in the world this school year, so maybe this is why it’s on my mind :D) Researching enough of an unknown era in a particular time to write a novel in that setting is definitely a job; but it makes for additional interesting books!

    CutePolarBear

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, that would be interesting!! I occasionally run across novels set in WWII from another country besides England, U.S., France, and Germany. But they are rare and so interesting.
      It sounds like you’re involved in a really neat project! I love researching various topics. Lol Geeky, I know. 😉 But I have a feeling you’d understand.
      And YES. Researching any lesser known topic is tough. You tend to run across the same general points without finding anything deeper. Growing up in the South, reading about the South in various decades/eras, I never realized that there was vital information lacking until I was forced to dig deeper.

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      1. Yes, it is a ‘fun’ project, although it’s required. 😉 (All my siblings did it for their senior year in high school) Yes, I understand. I love doing the same thing!

        I especially like knowing about real events in regular citizens’ daily lives. There may be general information about the ‘average’ Southern family, say, but what about the unique family? That’s usually more interesting, anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree! My favorite research tools are actual journals or letter collections. I’ve found plenty during the Civil War but finding them from other eras are more rare. But they’re great sources into everyday life, especially lingo and names. The only downfall is that they don’t explain common things because the writer doesn’t need to, so in those cases history books are more helpful. But I’ll reach for a personal account any day of the week!

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      3. Yes, same here! I’m reading the journals of L.M. Montgomery, and they’re just amazing, not because there’s this deep plot, but because it’s a reflection of real life. They’re also remarkably similar to my great-grandmother’s diaries, even though my great-grandmother and L.M. Montgomery were about 40 years apart, and living in two different countries. (Plus, Montgomery actually detailed her daily experiences, unlike my great-grandmother … so the fact that I can see that similarities in their lives is just fun. Montgomery is helping me to see what might have happened in my great-grandmother’s life, filling in the things she left out) But yes, everything relating to journals/diaries and real-life records are so much preferable to history books. History books come in when the author references something that you want to know more about. 😉

        CutePolarBear

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      4. I love everything you just said!! Lol Can you share the title of the Montgomery book you’re reading? I’d love to get my hands on a copy. I read her biography when I was in school but I don’t think she wrote it. And it certainly wasn’t a journal.

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      5. The complete title is “The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. 1: 1889-1910”. (I assume there’s a Vol. 2, but we don’t have it :D) I have it on my my currently reading shelf on Goodreads. (I’m Hanna Kraft on Goodreads, if you didn’t know)

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      6. No, I don’t have a Kindle, and therefore can’t read ebooks from Amazon. I may want to buy the second volume sometime, but I have the first big book to get through. 😉 I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s so cool! I’m writing a series set in 1880s Philadelphia, but it also has scenes in Virginia, so I need to look into this …

    Just a note: Tamera Alexander writes novels set in the 1870s South which are EXCELLENT (Belmont Mansion, Belle Meade!), Gone with the Wind is set in post-Civil War South after the first half, etc. The information is there, but it’s hard to find. 😛 1880s, 1890s, that was harder to find, but I was able to do a lot of research reading Betsy-Tacy books (they’re set in the early 1900s but occasionally there was a Southern character or talk about Southern characters especially ones that moved from the south in the 1890s or whatever), looking up various political figures who lived during that time in that region, etc.

    That’s how I’m doing it, anyway.

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