Historical dress, lifestyles, weapons, and time – some resources

Picture4Dress, lifestyles, weapons, and time: Here are more free online resources that historical novelists may find useful in their research. Also, four print resources that HF authors may not be aware of. If you cannot find one of the books locally, you can request that your public library get them for you via interlibrary loan.

Online resources

Fancy Dresses Described, by Ardern Holt. 3rd edition, greatly enlarged. Debenham & Freebody, [n.d., but likely ca. 1882].

The third edition of this originally printed book is available as an e-book as part of the University of Southampton’s Libraries Digital Collections. The book was written to give advice to 19th-century British society ladies on costume ideas for fancy dress balls. So if you are writing a historical romance where your Victorian characters attend a fancy dress ball, this work will give you ideas. Holt provides descriptions of colors and types of fabric to be used, and hairdressing suggestions for an alphabetical list of historical characters. Suggestions are also given for appropriate costumes for children, elderly women, sisters wanting to coordinate, and also advice on hosting such a ball. Men’s costumes are not included.

There are 16 color plates and some black-and-white drawings. Holt says the work “does not purport to be an authority in the matter of costume, for, as a rule, the historical dresses worn on such occasions are lamentably incorrect.” So the work is not a resource for historical costume, but Victorian society’s concept of it. A reference in prefatory material to the book’s illustrations by “Miss Greenaway” make me wonder if it is referring to the noted illustrator Kate Greenaway, but I have not been able to confirm this.

R.A. Long City and Country Homes Photo Album

Picture1Robert Alexander Long was a lumber baron and philanthropist in the U.S. Midwest. This section of the University of Missouri Digital Library’s site presents approximately 70 black-and-white images of Long’s extensive estates in the Kansas City area, taken in the 1910s. The pictures are largely of exteriors of buildings, and there is only a small amount of text describing the images. Still, novelists needing to visualize how a wealthy, Midwestern pre-World War I family lived will find resource material here.

[Image Courtesy of the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections, University of Missouri – Kansas City]

A Tourist’s Album of Japan

This page is part of the University of Vermont Libraries Center for Digital Initiatives collection. Katherine Wolcott and her uncle Robert Hull Fleming collected these photographs and postcards of life in Japan in 1909. Japanese life and customs are depicted during Japan’s transition from Picture2an isolated nation to a world power. While some of the photos may have been staged, a novelist can still gain insight from this online collection into everyday aspects of 1909 Japanese life, including topics such as dress, farming, street vendors, peasants’ lives, and working women.

[Image credit: Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, Gift of Katherine Wolcott 1937.2.77]


Eyewear: a Visual History, 1491-Today, by Moss Lipow. Koln: Taschen, 2011.  9783836525657

If you need to research what kind of eyewear your character would wear during his or her era, this book will be valuable. It seems to be as much a book about design as eyewear history—I found it in the library of an art college. But for historians’ needs, the first chapter will be important. It shows examples of eyeglasses up to 1900, starting with bone eye shields carved by Inuits, illustrations from medieval art showing people wearing spectacles, and photographs of early glasses in museums. The author states:  “Every effort has been made to represent the eyewear true to scale,” so the researcher will have a very good idea of exactly how large the historical eyewear depicted was. The English text is repeated in German and French in subsequent chapters, but nearly all the illustration captions are in English in the copy I viewed.
cover_va_eyewear_1104141618_id_422827 (1)The author is an eyewear designer and collector, so as one would expect, the bulk of the book covers the 20th century. Photos of celebrities wearing sunglasses, eyewear on magazine covers, and eyewear’s use in the military are included. All specimens are given at least an approximate date. The part of the book that was most fun for me was reminiscing about the mod-look sunglasses popular during the 1960s. Any novelist trying to get ideas for accessorizing a quirky character in the 20th century will find a lot of material here.


[Image courtesy of www.taschen.com]

Firearms: an Illustrated History.  New York: DK, 2014.  9781465416056

Beginning historical novelists who don’t know much about firearms in their chosen era will find an excellent introduction in this book. It offers worldwide coverage, not just Western arms, and true to DK’s tradition, provides excellent and detailed color photographs of examples of weapons over the centuries. The first section covers up to 1650, with examples like the Mons Meg bombard at Edinburgh castle, harquebuses, and accessories like musket rests. Descriptions explain whether the weapon was a breech- or muzzle-loader, date if known, and dimensions.

The book offers discussion on issues such as problems with matchlock guns that HF authors unfamiliar with firearms may not know: the burning match cord gave one’s position away, and the weapon was difficult to use on horseback. The more modern sections of the book cover cannons, field artillery, pistols, naval weapons, hunting and police weapons, machine guns, and weapons used by spies. It also has spreads on how powder cartridges evolved and the history of ammunition in general, and several features on noted gun inventors and manufacturers. Extremely useful for the novice are side by side comparison photos of how matchlock, wheellock, and flintlock firearms worked. The glossary and index are helpful to researchers.

Weapons: a Pictorial History, written and illustrated by Edwin Tunis. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1954.

This book isn’t as recent as the others, but it fits the theme begun by the DK book, an additional source novelists can consult about historical weapons. Tunis’ illustrations are black-and-white drawings, but they are extremely clear and educational. Tunis concentrates on Western weapons, starting with prehistoric stones and slings, through the hydrogen bomb.  He covers related issues, such as castle features that aid or act as weapons, trebuchets, stance of a longbowman, pole arms, helmets, and other accessories.  Because of its publication date, the book doesn’t go beyond the mid-20th century. This is one of several books Tunis wrote for children and young adults, and so provides a very good introduction for the novice.

The Story of Time, by Kristen Lippincott, with Umberto Eco, E.H. Gombrich and others.  London: Merrell Holberton in association with National Maritime Museum, 1999.

Picture5This book was written to accompany an exhibition held at the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 2000.  It looks at how the concept of time has been measured over the centuries, showing ancient manuscripts, Aztec stone calendars, Babylonian tablets, Native American calendar sticks, etc.  There are essays on concepts of time in various countries and cultures, early means of time measurement in Europe, how time is depicted in art, etc.

Probably the most useful part of the book to historical novelists will be the many illustrations of early clocks and watches. Photos are accompanied by extensive descriptions giving context to the objects. Writers wondering what kind of timepiece should be put into the hands or onto the fireplace mantle of their characters can find valuable ideas here.

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.











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