Patricia Grady Cox
September 23, 2015
Some of us spent our childhoods watching westerns on TV: Gunsmoke, Wanted—Dead or Alive, Palladin, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Big Valley, Bonanza . . . Westerns were the NCIS of the late 50s and early 60s. You could find at least one every night. And then they were no more.
From the mid 1990s to present, I’ve been researching the period between 1860 and 1890 in an attempt to make my writing as authentic as possible. I do not claim to be an expert, historian, or even as knowledgeable as I’d like to be. I did find that the more widely I read, the more I learned. This is in-depth stuff you won’t find by googling a particular, narrowly-defined subject.
Possibly because I’m originally from New England or possibly because my early frame of reference consisted of the listed television shows, I got surprised often. This is a tiny list, with a never-ending supply saved for future posts.
- Most main streets through towns were, of course, dirt. I guess this was a surprise because in my television-fueled frame of reference
(especially Bonanza and The Big Valley), nobody ever got dirty. They seemed to somehow avoid the dry, dust-cloudy, throat-clogging, clothes-staining dirt. I also never thought about what would happen when it rained until I visited an old ghost-towny place here in Arizona with a boardwalk that was about three feet off the ground. The resident codger told me that was so you could ride up and step off your horse without getting your feet mired in the mud as the town was next to a creek that flooded often. During dry spells, when the street hardened into concrete, the liveries shoveled manure into the ruts to make the road smoother. Now try, once more, to imagine what it would be like to cross the street in a rainstorm . . .
- Women’s underpants were crotchless. This really shocked me because, of course, I thought crotchless underwear was
racy. But then it made perfect sense. You’ve got four layers of clothing that need to be pulled up for certain functions. You have to hold all of that up with one hand and lower the britches with the other? And they didn’t have elastic waists – you had to untie a drawstring or unhook fasteners. Crotchless was actually modest. What if dire circumstances forced you to relieve yourself with other people around? You could just squat and nobody would even know until you walked away, demurely lifting your skirts away from the puddle. (I don’t know if that ever happened; it just seems like an added convenience.) Only the whores wore “French bloomers” with the crotches sewed shut. But then that was pretty much all they wore so they probably appreciated being draft-free.
- Crotchless underwear would have come in handy for Sarah Bogard Ashurst who, according to more than once source,
went into labor while her husband was off hunting. She tethered her 2-year-old daughter to a wagon wheel, went back inside the tent they called home (in Winneucca, Nevada in 1874) and delivered her second child by herself. The little boy grew up to be Henry Fountain Ashurst, one of the first Senators from Arizona when statehood was achieved in 1902. Sarah and Henry are characters in my current work-in-progress.
- Mostly, I’m still reeling from the prescribed treatment for snakebite (see my Sept. 9th blog). The ammonia sticks pushed me over the edge.
Have you ever learned something about the 1800s that surprised you?
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