With Gladness: The Gilded Age

with-gladness-coverVictorian Christmas. The style, decorations, and ideals from the late Victorian era continue to influence holiday decorating and traditions. It’s the “classic” era when Christmas becomes a holiday and month long whirl of happiness.

However, “Victorian Era” is really a British term. The “late Victorian era” is the Gilded Age in American history. So, with its proper name, I’ve introduced some features of the holiday era in the story “Curses or Blessings” in With Gladness.

Today, we present some historical background to the story and invite you to explore this era of opulence and poverty.

The Gilded Age

It’s the era from the 1870’s to 1900-ish. Why the name?

“The Gilded Age” term was invented by Mark Twain to reflect the wealth and extravagance of the period which masked (gilded) the poverty and societal corruption. It was the era of political machines, development of the cities, arrival of electricity and telephones, feathered hats and bustle dresses, and waves of immigrants. Drunkenness, inner city riots, gangs, poor working conditions, and vices darkened the scene when the gilded veneer was pealed away.

It was an era of contrasts – something I’ve tried to emphasize in the story.

Christmas hollyA Materialistic Holiday?

During the Gilded Age, middle and upper class families discovered leisure time and holidays became more elaborate celebrations. Decorations, traditions, and gifts became more expensive; after-all, it was a way to proclaim wealth. Christmas trees, abundance in the toy shops, ribbons, garlands, knick-knack ornaments are characteristic of the era. Sleigh or skating parties, children’s holiday parties and games, dances, “fundraisers,” concerts became popular and fashionable pastimes in the Christmas season. While most families still appreciated traditional values, some of the trappings of the Christmas holiday hinted at the materialistic bent that would begin to obscure the former religious aspects of the season.

Extravagance vs. Poverty

In Curses or Blessings? the main character Molly O’Bryan is Irish. Her parents immigrated to American earlier in the century (probably the late 1840’s); her father still remembers the potato famine and incidents in the home country. When circumstances force her to look for work, she takes a job as a maid in a wealthy family. She is awed by the beauty of the house and the holiday decorations, contrasting it with her own home where the family is just lucky to spend a day. Many Irish girls took jobs as maids in city homes, and other details in the story follow historical norms of the era.

Featured In The Story

Here’s a section from the story “Curses or Blessings” from With Gladness:

The house amazed Molly. Every time she climbed the stairs from the basement or entered the hall from the kitchen, she felt like she entered a wonderland. Plush carpets covered the floors and the walls were decorated with gilded wallpaper. The ornate furniture and abundance of knick-knacks were endless curiosities to a young lady who was accustomed to plain, useful, and cheap. Best of all were the Christmas decorations. Gold, silver, and burgundy ribbons held boughs and sprigs of greenery to the stair railings. Mistletoe hung from the chandeliers, and garlands of holly perched on the large mirrors in the hallway and parlor. Molly was convinced she could’ve bought her family’s food for a month with the amount of money that must have been spent on decorations, but she still admired the beautiful, impractical holiday trimmings.

Your Historian & Authoress,

Miss Sarah

 

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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