Lois Leveen


February 10, 2012

When Goth Chicks Wore Hoop Skirts

Today's fascinating fact is more of a fascinating phenom, namely the mid-nineteenth-century obsession with death and mourning. In the antebellum period, death was part of life. Families experienced the death of children. Most people died at home (rather than in hospitals). And then the Civil War brought death on an unprecedented scale.

Even before the war, mourning was a highly ritualized event.

Entire stores, such as Beeson and Son's in Philadelphia, were dedicated solely to selling mourning attire. Yes, Goth chicks, a store where ALL THE CLOTHES were black.

Godey's Ladies' Book, which was sort of the Cosmo magazine of the day, but without all the sex tips, ran articles about what to wear and do in mourning (alas, these did not come in Cosmo-quiz format).

And of course, there was the exceptionally creepy practice of wearing jewelry made out of your dead loved one's hair. And not just a single lock, like some hairy version of the Italian horn. Women wove whole landscapes crafted out of different shades of dead beloveds' hair. I have yet to see the 21st century Goth chicks take that one on.

While you await the 95 more days till *The Secrets of Mary Bowser,* you can bide your time learning more about nineteenth-century-mourning attire here: http://www.librarycompany.org/laurelhill/dressed.htm

And don't worry, I won't be wearing anybody's hair but my own on book tour. Well, maybe some of the cats' but that's pretty much par for the course.
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February 9, 2012

The Battle of Wasabi Junction

We've had some great but TOP SECRET (appropriately enough) news about The Secrets of Mary Bowser, so me and the boys celebrated with some sushi and sake.
Civil War Sake Flight

Civil War sushi

If it seems like this is a stretch for a Fascinating Fact about the Civil War, please consider that the Union Navy was indeed involved in an incident in the Straits of Shimonoseki during the Civil War.

So yes, the Civil War in Japan, I am totally claiming that as a countdown fact, even if there is no evidence of Ulysses S. Grant ever ate the crunchy salmon skin roll.
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February 8, 2012

Sic Em

97 Days till Publication, and here's today's fact:

Sic 'em. Or really, *Sic Semper Tyrannis* 'em. This lovely Latin phrase is on the Virginia state seal. Which, as you might guess, is NOT what this photo depicts.
USCT 22d Battle Flag

This is an image of the regimental flag of the USCT 22d, a Pennsylvania unit. USCT stands for United States Colored Troops, the units in which African Americans served during the Civil War.

There are many lovely facts about the USCT to share . . . but I wanted to start with this one: the use of the same motto on the flag as on the Virginia state seal. Oh and of course that leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination image of a black soldier in uniform taking the Confederate prisoner at bayonet point. Which would have distressed Virginia's Confederate troop more?

The image was one of several USCT flags painted by the Philadelphia artist David Bustill Bowser.

Hmmm, Bowser, where have I heard that name before? Oh, but the relationship between David Bustill Bowser and Mary Bowser is definitely a story for another day. A day that is 96 days from now!

Tune in for another fascinating fact tomorrow . . .
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February 7, 2012

Great Sporks of the 19th Century!

Great sporks of the 19th century! Sounds like a Victorian curse, but actually it's literary inspiration.
AND it's today's Fascinating Fact in the 100-day countdown.
Wooden Spork Photo
A few years back, I snapped this photograph while visiting a bunch of plantations and other historical sites in Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisiana, to research how they represented slavery. This picture was taken in a reconstruction of a slave cabin. I doubt the glass window was original; glass was expensive, certainly more of a luxury than most slave owners would have seen as befitting a structure that they perceived as more like a barn than a home. But the unfinished walls and mismatched furnishings give us some sense of how slaves lived.

The wooden utensils especially stuck in my mind. A wooden knife--who could imagine such a thing?--probably wasn't very useful. But the other sporkish cutlery . . . that was a perfect example of the everyday experience of enslaved people. As I was writing *The Secrets of Mary Bowser,* I wanted readers to understand in visceral, specific ways what it would be like to grow up surrounded by wealth and luxury--and yet live as a slave. For example, I wrote one scene in which Mary, still a child and still a slave, is asked to sit down to dinner with a white family. She is astonished at the difference of eating food "served hot in the dining room instead of snatched down cold afterward in the kitchen," and finds "the heavy silverware felt cumbersome compared to the wooden spoons" with which she always ate.

It's only a small detail. But in some ways the small details can help us understand the enormity of history.
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February 6, 2012

Did African Americans Own Slaves?

99 Days to Publication, so here's today's entry in the 100 Fascinating Facts Countdown:

Did African Americans own slaves? It's a good question for black history month, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The short--and surprising--answer is yes. But as they like to say on Facebook, "It's complicated." Or at least more complicated than a simple yes suggests.

For one thing, the vast majority of slaveowners in the U.S. were white. And even most whites didn't own slaves. So it's important not to overplay the idea of black slaveholding. But in Virginia, where my novel is set, there were blacks who owned slaves. And although they were only a small fraction of all slaveholders, today's fascinating fact is about understanding why blacks owned slaves at all.


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