This is the second blog in a short series about my experiences working with historical fiction author Susan Reiss. I supplied the historical details and background for her new book, Diaries in Time. She wove them into the story. During my research I found myself digging into books and magazines from the 1860's and found myself turning to Godey's Lady's Magazine again and again, fascinated by the beautiful engravings and accompanying details, recipes, and stories. Poor Susan would receive so many emails with links and photos that I set up a dropbox folder to store all of my finds in, to make it easier (?) for us. Well, for me at least.

Susan writes:

The illustration of brides popped up in my email from Chris one day. Actually, it was an illustration of five brides, published in 1861, showing probably the most important gown in a woman’s life during the 19th century. 

Chris was impressed by the detail of the lavish gowns and wanted to share. It arrived while I was still in the early stages of story development... that point when the story could go in so many different directions. The illustration appealed to the little-girl in me. I wanted to incorporate a wedding gown because I like having pretty things on the bulletin boards in my study. The items pinned on these 3’x4’ boards offer inspiration, reminders, and details to make the book real for you, the reader. 

For example, according to the lengthy captions that went on for pages about the gowns in the illustration, one gown – the first on the left – was the most luxurious of the group. I did the math and found that in today’s US dollars, that gown would cost between $17,000 and $26,000! 

The nun-like gown next to it was listed as the least expensive of the group. The editor didn’t see fit to include a price. 

I printed the illustration, pinned it on a board, and stared at it while sipping a cup of tea. I wanted to use it, but how? Then the what-ifs started to form and my writer’s brain began to fashion some answers. 

I decided to use both the extravagant and simplest gowns to give the reader some insight into a particular lead character and lead to certain actions. I also read some of the magazine articles and more ideas started to form. 

I wouldn’t have thought some important story ideas for the new book Diaries in Time would be triggered by a 19th century lady’s magazine...but that’s part of the fun of being an author. I never know what will trigger an idea. I believe it’s important for a writer, especially one working with historical elements, to be patient. Let things rise to the surface, float around, and wait to see what comes together in larger and larger parts of the storylines. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

And, in this case, some of the pieces came from Godey’s Lady’s Book (pronounced go-DAY with a French flair), launched in 1830 by Louis Godey. By the 1860s, it was the most popular American periodical with over 150,000 subscribers. It was known as a fashion magazine, but it published nonfiction articles, fiction, and poetry. Features about cooking and needlework were designed to help a woman manage a well-run home and nurture her family. 

Yes, there were extensive articles about fashion, including style trends, details, even patterns for making dresses, gowns, hats, so many things for the whole family. The fashion illustrations were done in breathtaking detail. Each issue contained one hand-colored illustration.  This Fashion Plate of a group of brides, Godey’s stated, was believed to be the first illustration of its kind ever published in any magazine.

The Godey illustrations are valued today. Many have been cut out of intact publications and framed. It isn’t unusual to see at least one hanging on a wall on the wall of someone’s sewing/quilting/crafting room.

It seems the staff of Godey’s knew what the women of the times wanted and needed... and delivered what this author needed for her new book!

Posted on Categories : Antique Items