Lois Leveen


February 25, 2012

Oscar Trivia

Today's Civil War fact is also a bit of Oscar trivia:
Who was the first African American to win an Oscar?

That'd be Hattie McDaniel, for her role as Mammy in *Gone With the Wind.*
An offensively stereotyped character in an offensive film. But as McDaniels put it, better to make $700 a week playing a maid, than $7 a week being one.

She did both in her lifetime. And she also was part of a lawsuit to challenge racial covenants (neighborhood "agreements" making it illegal to sell or rent homes to blacks--or other groups, such as Jews).

There are a lot of enslaved women in my novel, and not a Mammy-stereotype among them. I wish McDaniel had lived long enough to see an America that's more interested in these kind of stories.
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February 24, 2012

Antebellum Bedwetters

One of the weirder types of research I did for *The Secrets of Mary Bowser* involved figuring out what medical remedies people tried in the mid-1800s. This is gross and hilarious stuff, and I only wish I could have worked more of it into the book.

So here's a tip that didn't make it in, courtesy of The Family Nurse, published in the 1830s: spirits of turpentine can be used "to bathe the loins and seat of the kidneys" to cure children of "involuntary discharges of urine."

Which seems like bad medicine, because I think most people, upon finding their loins and kidney seats bathed in turpentine, would be discharging some rather unpleasant material, regardless of age.
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February 23, 2012

The Germans and the Confederates Wore Gray

What do Jefferson Davis and Humphrey Bogart have in common?

Probably damn little, aside from this Civil War-ish factoid. Today is the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of elected Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Don't be confused: the same dude was already Confederate President, having been appointed to the position a year earlier by a provisional constitutional convention. He was then elected president in November, 1861, and officially inaugurated in February 1862.

It was a rainy, miserable inauguration day. But it did end with a raising musical number . . . "The Marseillaise." Which as we all know is French for, "that catchy tune they sing during Casablanca to piss of the Nazis."
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February 22, 2012

Judge This Book By Its Cover

The first admonition not to judge a book by its cover came in 1860, just one year prior to the Civil War. Actually, the warning was against judging a book by its binding. But still.

Civil War fact of the day: during the war, paper was in such short supply through much of the Confederacy that people would reuse sheets, writing over an old letter or receipt by turning the sheet a quarter-turn and scrawling in a different direction. Which is what the talented designer at William Morrow did to make this pretty cover.
Cover Photo
As for the orange ribbon, it's taken from one of my favorite early scenes in the book. I've never liked the color orange much (and neither does Mary Bowser) but yet I love this cover. Insert joke about importance of overcoming color prejudice here.
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February 21, 2012

My (Victorian) Angel is a Centerfold

Welcome to the special place in my mind where Godey's Ladies' Book meets the J. Geils Band.

Ever wonder where the phrase "fashion plate" comes from? In the mid-nineteenth century magazines like Godey's began including "plates" or pictures of the hottest fashions. Get your corset gussied up tight, ladies, because they are showing some bare elbows in Paree.

The advent of print media technology that made such plates cheap enough to reproduce (not to mention postal service that made magazine delivery more feasible) contributed to a new era of female consumerism. These plates were so treasured that women would sometimes save them and hang them as wall art (think of it as the Christie Brinkley poster thumbtacked to the teen bedroom running that J Geils soundtrack).

Women of the emerging American middle class--aspiring to be Victorian "angels in the house"--could now be told how to dress, and how to comport themselves, with charming regularity. An exciting new era, even if that baby does look a little Edward Gorey-esque. At least the young girl approaching it is armed with a saber. I'm sure everything will turn out just peachy, aren't you?
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