Re-creating Everyday Life in Late 1880s New England

Edith Maxwell author photoRelevant History welcomes back best-selling historical mystery author Edith Maxwell, a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story, “The Mayor and the Midwife.” She writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries; as Maddie Day she writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime fiction has appeared in many juried anthologies, and she is honored to serve as President of Sisters in Crime New England. A former doula, Maxwell lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site and group blog, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.


[Note: A version of this post first appeared on Storybook Reviews.]

My Quaker Midwife Mysteries take place in a bustling New England mill and carriage factory town in the late 1880s–which happens to be the town I live in. The family my midwife Rose Carroll lives with resides in my house, or the way my house was when it was brand-new and built for workers who toiled in the textile mill a block down the hill. By now it has had two additions to the back, but the heart of the home remains.

Old New England houseWe bought this house five years ago, and my boyfriend has renovated the entire structure, right down to the studs. We now have new plumbing, new wiring, insulation, smooth walls and ceilings, but we kept the original wide pine floors and the window and door trim. We’ve tried to keep the additions reminiscent of the period when the house was built, so the kitchen has old-timey looking subway tiles for backsplash, as does the bathroom.

Old timey wood stoveWe opened up the kitchen to the sitting room, and I love to perch on the couch and gaze into the kitchen, imagining Rose and her teenage niece Faith cooking and cleaning for the family. But what would it have looked like back then? This is a modest three-bedroom house, not a big fancy Victorian with maid’s quarters and a deluxe dining room.

I have visited several museum homes of the period. One was Orchard House, where the Alcott family lived. It’s only an hour from my home. I also stayed at a living history farmhouse in Maine where the public is invited for 24-hour live-in experiences. The Norlands-Washburn center features late nineteen-century life, from the wood cookstove to the chamberpot under the bed! And I often peruse Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book and Marketing Guide, where she speaks extensively of what a “hygienic” kitchen needs.

Wide table and water pumpRose’s kitchen would have had a wide soapstone sink and running water from a pump. The wide wooden table would have been used for food preparation as well as eating meals, and the cabinet space would have been limited. They might have had gas lighting on the walls, but not yet a gas stove. Certain places in town were starting to be electrified, but definitely not Rose’s home. Refrigeration would have been an icebox. The door to the outside was fitted with a screen door, a new invention that did wonders for keeping the bugs out but letting a breeze circulate in a hot July when Called to Justice takes place.

The family did hire out the washing, and by Book Three in the series (Turning the Tide, 2018) Rose has convinced her widower brother-in-law to hire a kitchen girl, too. Rose has a busy midwifery practice, and Faith works full time in the Hamilton Mills, and Rose argued that it wasn’t fair to either of them to have to do all the housework, too.

I also often think of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, which I read several times as a child. Those stories take place primarily on the prairie and the frontier, certainly, but many of the everyday household tasks would have been the same.

Readers: Do you have any fabulous late Victorian research sources? Knowledge of everyday life from back then? Please share!


Called to Justice book coverA big thanks to Edith Maxwell. She’ll give away a paperback copy of her Fourth of July mystery, Called to Justice, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. (Here’s a good review of the book.) I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Taking Liberties with John Greenleaf Whittier

Edith Maxwell author photoRelevant History welcomes Edith Maxwell, who writes the Local Foods Mysteries. The latest, ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, was released in May 2014. As Tace Baker, she also writes a modern Quaker series, the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries; book 2, Bluffing is Murder, will be released 11 November 2014. Under the pen name Maddie Day, she writes the Country Store Mysteries. Her historical Carriagetown Mysteries series is in development. Maxwell has also published award-winning short stories of murderous revenge. She lives in an antique house north of Boston and blogs every weekday with the Wicked Cozy Authors. For more information, check her web site, and look for her on Facebook and Twitter.


No, not that kind of liberties! But John Greenleaf Whittier is a secondary character in my new historical Carriagetown Mysteries series, and I’m having fun bringing him back to life.

Meetinghouse in the snow, photo credit Edward MairI’ve been a Quaker for a long time, and I worship at the same Friends Meetinghouse in northeastern Massachusetts where Whittier worshiped. He lived down the street (Friend Street, felicitously enough) and was on the building committee for the lovely simple light-filled structure that was completed in 1851.

I also live in a house built in 1880 for the mill workers who wove cotton cloth in the tall brick buildings only a block away. And I worked as a childbirth educator and doula many years ago, stopping just short of being a midwife.

Amesbury in the 1890's, a bird's eye viewSo I’ve put all these experiences together in a completed novel called Breaking the Silence, in which Quaker midwife Rose Carroll hears secrets and keeps confidences as she attends births of the rich and poor alike in 1888 Amesbury. When the town’s world-famed carriage industry is threatened by the work of an arsonist, and a carriage factory owner’s adult son is stabbed to death, Rose is drawn into solving the mystery. Things get dicey after the same man’s mistress is also murdered, leaving her one-week old baby without a mother. While struggling with being less than the perfect Friend, Rose draws on her strengths as a problem solver to bring two murderers to justice.

What did being a Friend in 1888 mean? And what was it like to deliver babies at home without advanced medical assistance, antibiotics, or sterile procedure?

Quakers have always followed several testimonies: simplicity, integrity, peace, equality, community. For a couple of centuries they wore plain dress—simple clothes in muted colors—as a way to demonstrate simplicity and equality. They refused to go to war. They did not doff hats to those of higher class and did not use titles. They refused to swear an oath in court, because integrity guided their lives and they considered that they always told the truth. Friends of 1888 might still have used “plain speech,” using “thee” and “thy” to both familiars and strangers, which originally was to avoid distinguishing between two classes of people when “you” was used in a more honorific way. But by the late 1800s “theeing” and ”thying” only set Quakers apart, since the language had regularized to “you” for all second-person usage.
The testimonies haven’t changed for modern Quakers, although the manifestations have. Many Friends have been conscientious objectors, and simplicity might be now expressed by living in a modest-sized dwelling, owning a used car, and wearing a jacket from the consignment shop. Many modern Friends still refuse to swear an oath in court, instead requesting to affirm the truth.

John Greenleaf WhittierMy protagonist, 27-year old Rose, is happy in her calling as a midwife, but she’s also being courted by a young doctor whose family is in high society one town over. When she’s invited to a fancy dinner dance, Rose consults with Whittier about wearing a party frock, and he gives his blessing. I’ve greatly enjoyed joining the Whittier Home Association and immersing myself in his life, and was gratified when one of the docents read my completed manuscript and said he thought I had captured the famous poet and abolitionist’s appearance and essence. And Rose lives in my house with her late sister’s widower and his five children, so I can imagine the story as I walk through not only my own home but the streets of my town.

Pinard hornAs for attending births, Rose uses a Pinard horn to listen to a baby’s heartbeat, and struggles with infections and the common diseases of the day, sometimes losing a baby to prematurity or a fever. But germ theory was already known, and she practices hand washing and sterilizing what she uses to cut the umbilical cord. She encourages her pregnant mothers to eat well and take fresh air and exercise, and helps postpartum women with both breastfeeding and depression. She’s had experience, as most modern independent midwives have, with difficult births like breech, twins, or when a baby’s shoulder gets stuck. These are skills that are falling out of many modern obstetricians’ tool boxes, because of the relative ease of surgical births, despite its still real risks to both mother and newborn.

A Time of Change
Women on safety bicyclesIt’s a fascinating period to write about, just before the electric trolley replaced the horse-drawn system. When rich people might have electric lights indoors but most still used gas lamps. When the telephone existed but wasn’t common. When women wanting to ride the safety bicycle, with its equal-sized wheels, started to wear bloomers and cycling costumes and developed a less restrictive style of dress so they could move about more freely.

I piloted the premise of the Carriagetown Mysteries in an award-winning short story, also called “Breaking the Silence,” that was published in the anthology Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold from Level Best Books. The series is not yet under contract, but I’m determined that it will be somewhere, sometime. “A Questionable Death,” a short story featuring Rose and her friend Bertie Winslow, will appear in History and Mystery, Oh My from Mystery and Horror, LLC. Stay tuned for news in this space, as they say!


Bluffing is Murder book coverA big thanks to Edith Maxwell. She’ll give away an uncorrected proof (ARC) of her soon-to-be released book, Bluffing is Murder, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the United States only.


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