Category Archives: GQ research

writing resource / money in 1900

In the event that it might be useful to another writer or curious person, the site Measuring Worth is a great resource for helping understand the historical value of commodities–such as slaves–and more. There’s an interesting article about the economics of historical slavery here at the site. It was, of course, curiosity about the costs of slaves in modern dollars that led me to Measuring Worth in the first place.

While I say in the GQ books that Martin cost more than any other slave sold that day, and that his sale set a record, I didn’t offer a number. I did go through a process of determining what I felt would be a reasonable (for lack of a better term) amount for a slave with Martin’s attributes and training, but then I thought better of putting a price on a person, even a fictional person. Still, I found the Measuring Worth site really helpful to provide context for the 1900 dollar amounts for all manner of goods and services that I ran across in my research.

The site has data for the US going back to Revolutionary times, for the UK going back to the 13th century, and for Australia from 1828 to the present. They also have limited data on China and Japan.

buckskin and blue roan

blue buckskin

There are two types of horses in the GQ books: working horses that pull the Blackwells’ carriages, and recreational horses, most of which see little use. The horses that get the most exercise are Henry’s Marigold and Martin’s Partita.

The Blackwells keep their horses in a stable several blocks from their home, which was the custom at the time–there were whole neighborhoods of stables smelling of horseshit, which rich people understandably wanted at some distance from their grand residences. Henry and Martin walk the few blocks to the stables whenever they want to ride.

Just to give you an idea of how RL rich people housed their horses, this is Cornelius Vanderbilt’s stable, built in 1880. This photo was apparently taken in 1916, after the family had converted the stable to a nightclub (!!!), the era of horse-drawn anything being well past for the likes of the Vanderbilts.

vanderbilt stables

I don’t see Mr. Blackwell wanting anything quite so decorated, actually, but I do imagine the Blackwell stables being fairly grand nonetheless.

But on to the horse visuals :)

Continue reading buckskin and blue roan

Penny arcade

automatic vaudeville
automatic vaudeville circa 1904 (mcny)

Throughout the GQ books, Henry and Martin make frequent trips downtown to the arcade in Union Square to look at “peep shows” and play games. The arcade in the books is based on the Automatic Vaudeville penny arcade on Union Square which probably opened in 1903.

Continue reading Penny arcade

Food and restaurants in 1900


If you are reading the GQ series, you will no doubt have noticed that there are a lot of mentions of food Henry is eating. He eats huge breakfasts, is presented with lavish smorgasbords at lunch, is served haute Victorian cuisine for dinner, and sneaks downstairs at night for extra cake. He eats large quantities of a great many things, and Martin is just as voracious. I grew up with a skinny brother who did nothing but eat, so it seems entirely realistic to me that teenagers would put away such epic quantities of food without noticeable effect.

FOOD TIMELINE: If you’re a writer, or if you’re just interested in food history, you need to know about the Food Timeline. It was extremely helpful to me whenever I was smart enough to use it. You can find out when people started eating different foods, how they prepared them, and when they became commercially available, among other things.  Continue reading Food and restaurants in 1900

New Year’s Eve in 1900

Trinity Church
Trinity Church, early 20th century

Before there was such a thing as Times Square–which came about in 1904–the people of New York did their New Year’s Eve celebrating at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. There was a religious service, but there were also crowds, fireworks, tin horns, and mayhem.

As you may recall, there was some discussion as to whether our new century began on January 1, 2000 versus January 1, 2001, and a hundred years ago there was similar debate. In modern times, most people chose to celebrate the beginning of the year 2000, but our Gilded Age counterparts put off their festivities until December 31, 1900, heralding the dawning of a new century on January 1, 1901.

Here’s the New York Tribune’s New Year reporting for January 1, 1901:

The welcome which New-Yorkers gave to the Twentieth Century last night was essentially similar to that which it extends to each New Year, only it was one hundred times more enthusiastic. Choirs have often sung on New Year’s Eve before, but last night the choir which led the singing on City Hall steps was 1000 strong. Crowds assemble annually in Broadway to hear Trinity Church chimes “ring in the new, ring out the old.” but last night the crowds were phenomenal in size, and they gathered around churches with chimes in many parts of the city, from the Battery to the Bronx, not omitting Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond.

Fireworks there were also, and fine electrical displays from several buildings, notably from the City Hall. Flags and bunting decorated the same public structure in profusion, and were repeated in lesser degree on hotels, office buildings, theatres and private houses by the thousand all over the city. Even the liquor shops were festooned with evergreen streamers without and within. Small boys, and many of larger growth, chose the tin horn as the most appropriate method of voicing the feelings within them, which had been aroused by the arrival of an anniversary which they probably would never see again. Mothers whose babes were born in the last week began to have hopes that the little ones would live to see three centuries and get their pictures on the elevated stations and in the newspapers.

Those more gravely inclined were found by the thousand at prayer or praise within the churches when the clocks struck the midnight hour. Communion was celebrated in some churches, in others watch night prayer meetings were held. Preachers pressed home upon their hearers the lessons of the old and the duties of the new century, and recalling some of the great improvements made by man in the last ten decades in the way of scientific development and mechanical invention, expressed fervent hopes that as Americans can count with confidence upon still greater material progress in the future, they could also be assured of the continued march of the human race toward a higher plane, causing the world to become better as it grows greater and older.

Really, except for the glimpse of naked slaves that Henry got at Charles Ross’ party, I think he’d have had more fun downtown at Trinity Church and City Hall.

A 2000 article about how the previous century was marked: 1900’s New Century Hype Was Millenial

Oh, and Happy New Year to you, of course :)



Cora’s circus

schoenhut circus

For her 8th birthday, Henry and Martin give Cora what is probably the best present she has ever received: a toy circus. This is based on a real toy, the Schoenhut Humpty Dumpty Circus, which was made between 1903-1935 – so, actually, years after Cora is given her present. I love toys, and I really love old toys, and although I don’t collect these circus pieces, I’ve been aware of them for years. When I ended up writing about a turn-of-the-century child, I immediately thought of the Schoenhut circus as something she might enjoy. I fretted about this a little bit, because it wasn’t accurate to have a child playing with such an elaborate circus toy as early as 1900, but my extreme fondness for the Schoenhut circus argued in favor of including it, and it’s very unlikely I’ll have the opportunity to put it in a story ever again, so Cora got her gift.

I think of Cora’s circus as looking very much like the Schoenhut one, but overall somewhat smaller, with the animals being more pocket-sized.  Her bear would differ from the first one pictured here in that it would be able to stand on its hind legs, but it would definitely have that same crazed expression! The ID guide at the Old Wood Toys site has lots of pictures of the different circus performers and their variations, and I find it all absolutely charming. They’re not realistic, but they’re captivating.

jumeaubruAlso, if you’re curious, Cora’s dolls are primarily Bru and Jumeau, and there are zillions of pictures of different dolls from either manufacturer available online. A big grouping of these dolls, like Cora has in the nursery, can be a little unnerving with their big-eyed stares, so it’s understandable that they make Henry a little uneasy, and even more so when you consider the state they’re in after residing awhile with Cora!

Men’s clothing circa 1900

With all the dressing and undressing that Martin helps Henry with, I thought it might be helpful to provide some visuals of just what sort of costume he’s wearing.

Everyday menswear:

edwardian young man in bowler

When you stopped wearing short pants, this is the outfit you put on, regardless of social class. The fellow in this picture probably isn’t poor, but without detailed images it’s difficult to tell much about his standing in the world because that’s what every other man wore, too. He’s neat and clean, at any rate, and he has a spiffy walking stick!

Continue reading Men’s clothing circa 1900

Henry’s Museum Day

Henry and his Algonquin classmates are taken to the museum for an edifying cultural experience just before Thanksgiving, and they’re about as appreciative as you might expect a group of restless young men to be.

There’s a shoving match over the prime viewing space in front of a painting of Ariadne. It’s an actual painting that would have been on view in 1900, and it was painted by Asher Brown Durand.

Ariadne_Asher Brown Durand_ca 1831-35_acc 1897

Ariadne @ Metropolitan Museum of Art

Continue reading Henry’s Museum Day

Martin’s dirty book

dirty book is rarely dusty

Toward the end of A Most Personal Property, Henry and Martin have a conversation about what sorts of dirty stories they’ve read. Henry tells Martin about the excerpts James read him from Psychopathia Sexualis, and Martin relates the following:

“Oh, there was a book, Sir, that we all read in secret, though our teachers must have known we had it. I don’t know what it was called because the cover was missing—as were some of the pages, for that matter. It was very dirty, Sir! It was from England, I think, as some of the words were different than we use, and it was about a family who all had sex with one another, mothers and sons, aunts and nephews. I know that feeling you referred to, Sir, excited and sick. You don’t want to like it, but you do, in some deep way, and your prick responds just as it would to something you really want.”

There is an actual book I had in mind when Martin gives that description, and thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can read it, too:

FORBIDDEN FRUIT, Luscious and Exciting Story AND More Forbidden Fruit OR Master Percy’s Progress In and Beyond the Domestic Circle (1898) (most definitely NSFW)

It has more than its share of title, as you can see. It is perverse and ridiculous. It contains pedophilia, incest, rape, florid language, and the term “fucker” used as an endearment, and it is absolutely the sort of thing a bunch of teenage Victorians would furtively pass around their dormitory.

There’s actually a lot of Victorian porn available online, and I read quite a bit of it trying to find just the right story for Martin and his friends. Honestly, though, I think they’d have been happy with anything, and that description would fit about half the Victorian porn out there anyway (they were really into incest!). Regardless, it made me happy to have a specific book in mind when writing the scene.