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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Science and Surgery in Victorian Times

Tracy Ward author photoRelevant History welcomes Tracy L. Ward, the historical mystery writer behind the Dr. Peter Ainsley Mystery series, gothic morgue mysteries played out in the dark streets of London. The fourth novel in the series, Sweet Asylym, was just released at the end of June and features the continuing story of Peter Ainsley, a young surgeon, and his high-born sister, Margaret Marshall, as they are pulled unwillingly into a mystery involving a young pregnant woman and her strange, ominous family. A former journalist, Tracy has been writing creatively for a number of years and currently has four novels and three anthologies to her name. To learn more about Tracy’s books, check out her blog, and follow her on Facebook.


Chances are sometime during your lifetime you’ve required the services of a doctor. I would also wager that during treatment you were grateful for the doctor’s knowledge regarding your illness or medical needs. That gratitude stems from understanding that these individuals have amassed a great amount of knowledge and the fact that their pursuit of this knowledge has benefited you. The Victorians, on the other hand, did not hold reverence for the medical profession.

During the 19th century, a time of mass improvements within the medical field, the average person both young and old, distrusted the medical establishment with fervor. Gone were the days of the four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm), but that didn’t mean the end of superstition and poor health practices.

Physician vs. surgeon
In Victorian times there were two distinct classes of doctor: the physician and the surgeon. A physician was a medical professional with a somewhat limited understanding of anatomy. Their main purpose was the diagnosis of illness and the prescription of various tonics. Physicians were seen by the average person as a more upper-class position, but that did not mean automatic respect. Physicians spent most of their days with illness and disease, which made their profession far less desirable. Despite society’s need for them they did not enjoy a robust salary nor were they welcome in all corners of society. This changed closer to the end of the century but before then physicians were not praised or revered by any means.

Surgeons were even worse off. Working in surgery meant getting your hands dirty. Unlike physicians, surgeons did the nitty-gritty of medical work, and the Victorian classes viewed this as labour. Before the time of gloves, surgeons often wore the mess of their trade as they traveled from patient to patient. Surgical uniforms stained with the evidence of prior surgeries were worn with honour, a tribute to the wearers experience at the surgical table. Handwashing as well was not widely practiced at this time, which contributed greatly to the spread of infection and in turn high rates of mortality.

Victorian obstetrics toolsIn fact, until handwashing was proven as effective bacteria control, surgeons would move freely from morgue to labouring women without taking care to wash their hands. This practice has been proven to contribute greatly to infant and female mortality rates following childbirth. It was the experiments of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister in the 1860s that convinced the medical establishment that germs could be abated and even eradicated if proper instrument washing and heat application techniques were used. These discoveries have saved many lives and changed medical practices irrevocably. (Photo taken by Tracy Ward: This case of obstetric tools used in the mid-18th century at Guy’s and St. Thomas Hospitals in London, England is currently on display at the Old Operating Theatre Museum.)

Women and their doctors
Despite advances in cell theory and anaesthetic development, there remained a huge gap in medical care available to women. Prior to 1850 all doctors were male and none were permitted to touch their female patients unless absolutely necessary. This applied not only to treatment but also research. Such moral barriers halted advancements in childbirth techniques and menopause treatments. So much of the female body remained a mystery that when locomotive engines were invented and installed throughout England, women were advised not to travel on them because of suspicion their uteruses could not handle the high rate of speed!

The first medical college for women was established in 1850 in Pennsylvania, US. It was 1870 before Edinburgh University in Scotland began allowing women to attend anatomy classes, but even then they wouldn’t permit any of the women to gain medical licenses until 1876. The introduction of women in medicine brought about swift change in how women’s health was studied and treated, which paved the way for advancements in fertility health.

Forensic police work
Prior to the 1800s formal police departments were rare both in North America and across the pond. A spike in crime rates in London in the 1820s highlighted the need for a unified police force to service the boroughs outside the City of London. This need paved the way for the creation of The Metropolitan Police, or more famously Scotland Yard (which was really the name of their building). By the mid-19th century an interesting partnership between surgeons and detectives had emerged. It had become apparent that the bodies of the dead could give many clues to the method of their demise through close observation both outside and in.

Post mortems were nothing new. The ancient Greeks had been studying the bodies of the dead, utilizing the Y shaped incision, long before the invention of forensic science. The practice of autopsies, which means “to see for one self,” fell out of vogue for a number of centuries due to strong Christian views regarding the afterlife. Medical schools were finally permitted to study the dead in the 17th century. Their cadavers were often procured via questionable means before strict laws were introduced in 1834 (England).

Using a highly skilled surgeon with an observer’s eye and a nose for clues, detectives in the 19th century soon realized how invaluable the right doctor could be. Forensic investigations were still limited though. Fingerprinting was at least half a century away, and DNA was more science fiction than proven fact. However the Victorian scientist knew a great deal about chemical reactions and the construct of anatomy. The quintessential text, Grey’s Anatomy, was first published in 1854 and is still used today. The second half of the century saw doctors relying less on superstition as many embraced the scientific method of trial and error and later the power of deduction.

The bulk of advancement within the medical field can be attributed to the Victorian scientists and doctors who often challenged long held, erroneous beliefs and ushered in a new era of scientific advancement. Were it not for the experiments of Pasteur and Lister, we’d view surgery as a definitive death sentence. I also have no doubt that countless murders would remain unsolved. So, this begs the question, have you thanked a Victorian surgeon today?


Chorus of the Dead book coverA big thanks to Tracy Ward. She’ll give away an autographed trade paperback copy of the first book of her series, Chorus of the Dead, 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 in North America, including Hawaii and Alaska.


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