Research Sources for Historical Novelists on Early American and English Country Houses
Early American houses
Newer historical novelists may not have heard of Eric Sloane, the author/historian/artist who died 30 years ago. And because we live in an age where libraries tend to toss 30+-year-old books as outdated, and brick-and-mortar bookstores are reducing stock or closing, people’s chances of coming across a Sloane work while browsing are not great.
Sloane’s books and drawings don’t deserve to be forgotten. They are still, 30 years on, a treasure-trove of information for historical novelists, or anyone trying to understand artifacts of America’s past.
Image: from American Yesterday, by Eric Sloane (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1956). Used with permission.
Google/Bing Images and YouTube videos may be worth a thousand words to an author trying to research what a cockloft is, or how early bed ropes were tightened. Yet Sloane’s comparatively low-tech print drawings give detail that photographs can’t. His line drawings “explode” tools and buildings, or show cutaway views, so that readers can understand how hand-crafted materials were put together and used.
The drawings’ elegant labels increase the worth of the visuals. Where else can a novelist find a two-page spread comparing the multiple types of hammers from 150 years ago, so their carpenter character can pick up the right kind? Or find a page on how baby cradles differed in construction from state-to-state in colonial days? Authors would not want their mother character in a book set in 18th-century New Jersey to place her baby in a cradle more appropriate for Connecticut.
A partial list of Sloane’s titles will make an American historical novelist drool:
– A Museum of Early American Tools
– The Little Red Schoolhouse
– An Age of Barns
– Folklore of American Weather
– The Do’s and Don’ts of Yesterday: a Treasury of Early American Folk Wisdom
Besides his love of early Americana, Renaissance man Sloane had deep knowledge of folk meteorology, and was a painter and tool collector, and an aviator. His work is displayed at the Eric Sloane Museum and Kent Iron Furnace (sometimes called the Sloane-Stanley Museum) in Kent, Connecticut.
If your chosen era as an author is the U.S. before 1900, it’s worth your while to seek Sloane’s books out and take advantage of his excellent visuals when building your fictional world. More Sloane titles and further information about his life and career here.
Here are some other print resources on America’s past which historical novelists may find useful:
America In 1876: the Way We Were, by Lally Weymouth. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. (0394716167): This book was published during the Bicentennial hoopla in 1976, and would be a fine place to start for authors looking for ideas on plots set in Victorian times. One chapter covers the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Others deal with politics of the time, how the poor and the rich lived, and one about showman P.T. Barnum and his entertainment empire. Weymouth said in the introduction, “I have tried to show what America was like in 1876 through the writings, photographs, and paintings of the period.” A bibliography and list of photo credits are included.
Image: Stereograph card depicting right arm of what would become the Statue of Liberty, displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (Library of Congress collection, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02957)
Team-work in Colonial Days, by Walter K. Putney. Boston: W.A. Wilde, 1938: This would be a good source to browse for story ideas set in the U.S. Colonial era, with the emphasis on tasks that required teamwork: quilting and husking bees, townspeople cooperating to bring a tradesman like a blacksmith to the village, barn-raisings, road maintenance, harvesting maple syrup, and firefighting. The book has no illustrations beyond a frontispiece, nor a bibliography. Still, Putney’s work would be a good starting point for ideas for a Colonial-era plot situation.
Image: SUPERSTITION: Rose Cade dressed as a lemon, defying the superstition of Friday the 13th, in 1920. Library of Congress collection, LC-USZ62-97419
A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions, by Vergilius Ferm. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965: Did you know that a butterfly in the house means a wedding in the family is coming soon? Or that both dropping and picking up a glove are bad luck? Or that consuming milk with fish will poison a person? These are some of the American superstitions outlined in this book, many of which would make good story ideas. It was believed that no girl should marry a man whose last name starts with the same initial as hers. That could be part of a romance plot keeping the central couple apart.
Bird feathers in a sickroom were supposed to delay the patient’s death, a ploy used to give distant family and friends time to arrive to say their goodbyes. If you thanked someone for a plant they gave you out of their garden, it means the plant will not grow-a cause for a misunderstanding between your characters? Ferm includes no bibliography, calling it “a modest handbook of a fractional portion of a vast literature.” But like the other titles listed above, it could be a good plot idea generator.
English Country houses
Are you an author setting a novel in Britain, but maybe can’t travel that far in person? Or perhaps you like to do some preliminary research before you go to a historic site? Here are some standout country house websites that would be useful for historical novelists crafting scenes set in an English country house.
The stars of the Goodwood House website for historical novelists are two documents filed under the “Online exhibition” tab, The Horse, and Goodwood House Party. The former covers hunting traditions, noted horse painters, racing at Goodwood, and information about the house’s stables. The House Party publication is especially rich for a novelist researching what a country house party was like around the turn of the 20th century. Sections cover race week, dinner menus, what being a servant was like, and famous guests at Goodwood, most notably a portly German prince who fell through the floorboards of the dining room.
Image: Goodwood House, West Sussex. Credit: Courtesy of the Goodwood Collection
Image credit: The Burghley House Collection
This portion of Burghley’s website lets the viewer see spectacular 360-degree views of important rooms in the house, such as the old kitchen, the chapel, and the four George rooms. Even if you were able to travel to see Burghley in person, it would be easy to forget some of the detail once you returned home and started working on your novel. Using the 360-degree views on this site to jog your memory would be a valuable research tool. Be aware, however, that even with a fast internet connection, the views can take a while to download.
The images contain little magnifying glasses, which you can click on to enlarge a particular object. You can also pan left or right, and even up to see the ceiling (a gift for the neck muscles, which are easy to strain when trying to peer at ceiling detail in person), or down to see the carpet or floorboards in the room. There are options for “show info” and “about this room” that will offer additional information if selected. This 360-degree viewing feature is a researcher’s dream!
Most country house websites include still photo galleries of selected rooms and collections, but Waddeson’s site is more generous than most. The above link lets the user view images of costumes, clocks, arms and armor, furniture, and textiles in its collection. There is also an option to search rather than just browse. Pages on past exhibitions at the house include options for downloading more information, such as an extensive catalog of an exhibit of 18th century French board games. The website has a more-extensive-than-average gallery of room interiors.
Image: The Dining Room, Waddesdon Manor, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust). Photo: Mike Fear © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
These are only three of the best country house sites that have valuable material for novelists. If you don’t have a particular country house in mind to research, and are not sure where to start looking on the web for one in the region or historical era you had in mind, try consulting the book England’s Thousand Best Houses, by Simon Jenkins (N.Y.: Viking Studio, 2004). It arranges the author’s selections of the most interesting historic homes by county, which you can then find websites for via your favorite search engine. It’s also a fun book for any history buff to browse, and may lead to serendipitous discoveries during your research.
The National Trust also maintains a wonderful collections page with images of over 820,000 objects from its properties. The page allows searching by collection (sites), category (such as laundry items, leatherwork, arms and armour), and by time period (a pre-1500 category for early material, then by century).
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.