Monday, December 8, 2008

A Fantastic Historical Research Book!

The Women: The Old West Series, by Time Life Books is an invaluable book to own when researching women's lives of the 19th Century.

I first found this book at the library among the entire collection, The Old West Series, which included The Gambler, The Trailblazer, The Railroad Men, The Lawmen, The Gunslinger, and many others. I had read about half of The Women when I knew I must own this book.

The first five pages of the book are black and white photos of women performing their daily tasks. These are not the only images. Throughout the book there are other photos which are in full color. There are pictures of women riding, cooking, teaching, farming, and best of all my favorite...items from the past. Such as a box mill, china, quilts, a fluting iron which pressed pleats into cotton fabric, a "choke" used to catch mice and snakes, a candle mold, and a butter mold with a pretty picture.

There are pictures of dresses plains women wore. One dress, the owner boasted she had wore all the way to Oregon without repair. This woman was so creative. When she fashioned the dress, she took her pattern pieces and sewed the cotton fabric to canvas material (the material used for tents and wagon covers). Then she pieced the dress together to sew. No wonder it made it across the country without repair! The woman knew practicality and fortitude would be needed for the journey. Another picture was of a slat bonnet. Ever heard of it? Me, neither. Apparently, for a long, arduous journey west, plain bonnets didn't protect the eastern women's faces well enough. So, the clever seamstress would sew little wooden slats into her bonnet to strengthen the bonnet against wind. Other pictures include furniture (even ones from brothels), dishes, cookingware, and documents.

The second thing I love about this book, is the multitude of journal entries. I read of a wagon train heading west. Three women, all newly weds, wrote about their journey. Each woman had a different prospective of the same trip. I felt so sorry for this one woman. All she wanted to do was please her husband. If she tried to carry on a conversation with him, he would say she talked too much. If she tried to limit her conversation with him, he would say she had ill spirits. If she tried to talk in a group setting, he would reprimand her in front of everyone. In her journal, she believed the trouble with her marriage was all her fault, well mostly her fault, one couldn't discount her husband's roaming eye. She was convinced her husband was more pleased with their neighbor's wife.

The third thing I love about this book, is its many topics. We begin the book reading of the wagon trains heading west. Then we read about the hardships of life and the reality of marriage of convenience. What I really love is how the book reveals occupations of women during the 19th century, which all seem to end in prostitution. If the woman was a laundress, she made extra money on the side. If the woman was a cook, she supplemented her income. (I can just hear the local, upright women saying, "She doesn't have no man. You know she just said she's a laundress. Why there's no telling what she does a night!") And even if the woman willingly became a prostitute, there was still money to be made by becoming an owner-operator. Madam's would make an agreement with seamstress' to allow her girls to charge to her account. Then the madam would hold the debt over the girls head, so they couldn't leave.

Whether a prostitute, an adventuress, or a woman with a cause, this book seems to to have it all. This book opened up the old west for me in ways other books could not. The only drawback to owning this book is that it was written in 1974 and is out of print. I bought it at from a used book seller for $2. The shipping and handling cost more than the book.

So, this is my favorite research book. Tell me yours.

1 comment:

  1. Now I can see where you get some of your historical information for your books. I didn't know that about working women in the west. Interesting fact!


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