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FRIDAY, Part 2 – SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP, FRONTIER-STYLE

Love it or hate it, May or December, shopping is an unavoidable part of our lives. We’ve glommed onto online shopping for its don’t-leave-home convenience and dizzying array of choice. But it's nothing new. Long before the internet, the Sears catalog bulged at more than 1100 pages offering thousands of items. From the Sears catalog we learn what it cost Adam to expedite certain matters by ripping Annie’s drawers off. That customers had to sign their orders with their “full Christian name.” That some things haven’t changed—the first item in the catalog is coffee. (The last is an Acme coal furnace). That Sears sold everything from baby jumpers to tombstones.

My 1902 Sears catalog was the research tool I turned to countless times for period detail. It cost me all of $1.50. Here’s how it happened:

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK”: How the Sears Catalogue Shaped THE RIVER BY STARLIGHT

How much research is enough? Writers of historical fiction know the dilemma well. We fall in love with our characters and want to know them as intimately as we can. What did their environment look like, smell like, feel like? What did they eat, wear, have in their homes? What were the tools of their trade, how did they conduct business, spend leisure time, celebrate holidays, doctor themselves and their families?

Researching The River by Starlight involved six cross-country trips. Close to 100 books and numerous notebooks bulging with documents and newspaper clippings cram a seven-foot bookcase in my office. But as delightful karma would have it, the book I consulted more than any other, the one I dog-eared with use, cost me all of $1.50.

I found the 1902 Sears Catalogue on a lonely back table at a used book sale. As much an anthropology lesson as any textbook, author Cleveland Amory called it “a view of the American scene at the turn of the century with an excitement and accuracy that would defy the most eminent historian.”
“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK IS PLAINLY SHOWN IN EVERY PRICE QUOTATION” blares the front cover. From the Sears catalogue I learned what everything from thimbles to pianos cost, what they looked like, how many choices there were. What men, women and children wore in every imaginable situation, what size range was available (“Fat men usually experience much difficulty getting a shirt in the right shape.”). How credit worked. How it all reflected the larger economic picture of the country.

Details from the catalogue colored my descriptions of home furnishings, tools and weapons, toiletries and potions. Stoves and washing machines, hay loaders and hobby horses, paint and fabric colors. I acquired some rusty artifacts of homestead life and was able to see what they looked originally.

I wrote a frisky scene giving an intimate look at the layers of societally-required undergarments my female lead, Annie, dares to forego on a sweltering summer day. There’s a charged scene wherein you can all but smell the “overpowering cloud of Le Muguet” enveloping the town’s queen busybody. A gorgeous tortoise shell hair comb becomes an heirloom and a pair of “ugly cloth-top lace-ups” leads to disaster. We see and feel the fabrics used in a prostitute’s costume, a child’s nightgown, a wedding quilt, a funeral shroud, the garish handkerchief of the queen snoop’s informant.

It was exhilarating to slather on such details throughout the story. But how much is enough? Alas, much was lost to the delete button, “cool research,” as more than one editor called it, that didn’t move the story forward. An example: the reader knows Annie and her sister Jenny shared glasses of lemonade out on Jenny’s porch. But they don’t get to see the original version of the scene: Annie sticking a pinkie through a door screen (“handsomer than the cut shows”), opening Jenny’s refrigerator (nope, Sears didn’t call it an icebox) and pouring the lemonade into ruby-stained tumblers while Jenny finishes up her work with a white cedar dash butter churn (“peculiarly adapted for milk and butter purposes”) and puts the butter into brass-locked molds (“securing the utmost possible rigidity”). country lace wedding dresses

But writing those kinds of details helped me experience the world in which my characters lived, and empathize with its beauties and challenges. Even when deleted, the details remained embedded in the story by virtue of how they influenced the thoughts, dialogue and deeds of the characters.
A battered old cast-off catalogue—$1.50. Creating a richly faceted portrait of another time—priceless.

[Originally published on Sarah Johnson’s blog, Reading the Past]

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