Writing novels

I read a great quotation today: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s by Ray Bradbury, so of course I had to find out from which book and order it.

Way back in November, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I was feeling stuck in my research. I had applied for a grant for my collection of H. G. Wells’ writings, so it felt like I had no reason to work on it until I knew whether I got it (I didn’t, third time running). The other book on Wells was in the process of being written through a series of scholarly papers presented at conferences, but since I teach full-time plus, and can only present once a year, this was going slowly. I tried reworking the papers into publishable articles, but they didn’t seem to fit what journals were looking for.

So although I was still fascinated by my topic, output was lagging. Nothing felt completable. So on a gloomy November day, I haphazardly began writing a novel based on a character like me, in the process of doing research on H. G. Wells. Over the next four months, I wrote every night between midnight and 1 a.m., until it was done. The writing flowed. I downloaded Scrivener to have a place to write it, and ultimately paid for that program (and I rarely pay for anything). The book seemed to write itself. I edited as I went along, going back to the previous chapters nightly, rearranging and fixing. It was a strange process, since I have long thought of myself as having no imagination. But what came out was pretty good.

I wanted to get it published, so I began reading up on how to do that. I have a former student who’s now an author and writing coach, and subscribed to her advice. I thought I should join writing groups on Facebook, so I found a few and followed them. I searched out information on writing and writers conferences, novel construction, how to make a good plot. I discovered that I’m a “pantser” (writing by the seat of my pants, with no plan) rather than a plotter.

This conclusion annoyed me. I have for many years prided myself on my organization and planning skills. I had read that it is a good idea to start work on a second novel, while waiting for the zillion rejections on the first. The first book was in the genre “literary fiction”, I discovered, but I had been wanting for some time to write a Victorian mystery, so I started that. My many blog posts on the year 1862 attest to the fun I’ve been having doing it. The pundits said no, you should write in the same genre for several books. Oh well.

Unlike the first book, this one should have been planned out rather than “pantsed”. Mysteries are complex, and my memory is not good (few historians have good memories). I tried mind-mapping, and ended up with Scapple, from the same people as Scrivener, to map the plot. This didn’t work well. I tried to plan, but ended up putting things that I had already written on the map instead, a reverse process of tracking rather than planning.

And I kept looking for groups to join, because I’m entering a new world so I felt I should. Writers, they say, should hang out with writers, as a community, for support. I am not a joiner. I don’t like groups. And I’ve become annoyed with the process of looking for an agent, which everyone says takes huge amounts of time and lots of rejections. I expected rejections from publishers, but agents? The whole publishing thing has been frustrating and mystifying. The advice, the formulas, the sample letters, the filling out of forms that each have their own format, just to get someone to represent you whose fee will ultimately be paid through book sales. I have decided on one plan, anyway: write agents some, send directly to publishers if I can’t find an agent, and self-publish if I can’t get an agent or a publisher.

I do not, like some authors, seek fame or fortune. But I would like some people to read and enjoy my work. If the writing itself adds joy to my life, the seeking of agents and publishers seems to suck it back out. My book(s) are good, I think, but I have learned rather quickly that quality doesn’t matter that much in the publishing world. I’ve learned why Dan Brown and John Grisham sell, and beautfully written works do not.

The pandemic now has millions of would-be novelists putting fingers to keyboards. I have been joined by mobs. Am I novelist, without a published novel, just because I’m up at night writing novels? Does this graphomania have anything to do with my job? Why am I doing this?

And yet I continue to do it all wrong. I have read that my protagonist must have a horrible flaw, an Achilles heel that causes conflict. Mine merely has a penchant for buying too many books and taking his time thinking things out. The action is supposed to rise, with a status quo brutally disturbed, truths revealed, and a startling conclusion. Mine has likeable characters that mosey along finding things out. There are supposed to be twists, where I’ve led my reader to think one thing and then — shock! — it’s something else. I have some pinkish herrings, but I don’t think I have a single twist. It’s more like a churro than a pretzel. Is it a cozy? Apparently not, because there’s some plot-based sexuality and the person solving the mystery is a professional. But it seems like a cozy to me.

And now, I’m a bit stuck, with most of the mystery written, and no idea how it’s going to end. But when I allow the characters to just mosey along, talking and discovering and living their lives, the world of today utterly disappears. I am in 1862, caught up in the pushing and shoving of the audience at the Surrey Theatre, sensing the activity of overcrowded London, wondering whether it’s worth the trip to travel to the Exhibition in Kensington when the omnibus doesn’t go all the way there. When I let the characters take over, the plot just goes along fine, so I’ve decided to leave it to them. They know what they’re doing. They’ll figure it out.

Maybe when ones characters become so real they write the story, one really is a novelist. So I’ll stay drunk on writing.

Underpants, cats, and the classroom

I just don’t know about teaching in a classroom.

I know we have to do it, and I am aware that we have no choice. It’s because of the emergency. In seven months, for some of us less, we’ll have to be prepared to teach in the classroom.

Most teachers know that this will be difficult. At times it seems impossible. How can we possibly teach in such a space? Some of us don’t have the training for it. Sure, we’ve hung out in classrooms to meet friends or socialize, but that’s not the same as learning there.

Realistically, how can we get to know our students when they aren’t Zooming from their living rooms, utility rooms, and bedrooms? We can discern so much from the pictures they have on the wall, what items hang in their broom closet, and what space they can (or can’t) claim for themselves.

It will be hard to wrap my head around the learning challenges they face when I can’t see that they’re taking class from their car in a parking lot, or that their parents don’t understand they’re in class and come wandering in wearing only underpants. That’s just not going to happen in the classroom. I won’t be able to hear the noise they’re subjected to when they try to do homework, or see that they enjoy using a different Transformers coffee cup every day.

I won’t have the privilege of meeting their children. No happy waves to the camera, or tugs at the sleeve for a cup of juice. Kids and siblings really give me an idea of who my students are. And pets! They won’t allow pets in a classroom, and you can tell so much about a student from their pet, seeing how they interact with it. We’ll have to abandon that whole Golden Compass thing, with each person having their own familiar. I’m proud that so many cats have learned history from me.

Let’s face it, a physical classroom is a sterile, artificial environment. It smooths away the individuality of our students, with its identical desks and whiteboards. What cool visuals are there in a college classroom? A few maps featuring a divided Germany, a flyer for an event that was over a month ago, some learning cards ordered from a set in 1992. When students are in their own learning spaces, or wherever they can find, we come to know their individuality, and in many cases their creativity.

I’ll miss watching the rearrangement of the cell phone so it leans properly on the bowl of oatmeal, the face turned away from me to yell at someone who’s come in the door, the earnest expression as a student speaks but has forgotten to turn his microphone on. These are all teaching moments.

But I know it can’t last. There’s an enthusiasm for the physical classroom, I realize. And there are people who, in the last few decades, have become real experts in teaching there. I’m of two minds about learning from these utopians. They’re just so enthusiastic about that environment. It’s intimidating. They really believe that learning can happen there, when everyone knows it’s an open question as to whether a physical classroom can ever approximate the online experience of learning.

The pressure on students to answer a question right away, the forbidding of food and drink, the hours spent away from ones dog. The cognitive load involved in seeing everyone’s lower half. I’m just not sure anyone’s ready for it. But if we must, we must. Teachers are nothing if not resilient.

Thoughts on art and windows

Some of the best things happening at the moment are related to art.

Not being an Instagram aficionado, I read in 1843 magazine that Instagram is the place for art and artists. So I signed on and followed my favorite museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi, the Getty, the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam, the Victoria and Albert, the National Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Bodleian Library (yes, I know it’s not an art museum).

Each are posting an artwork a day, and most are responding to questions. It’s a delight.

Most of these works, like most of my recent blog posts, are not directly about the current situation. And yet they touch upon the values, knowledge, and sympathies that inform our response to it. So for example, Antonella da Massina’s “St Jerome in His Study” (c. 1474-75), from the National Gallery:



This has been one of my favorite works since I first saw it. I can see myself there at the desk, reading and writing. (This is despite the fact that Jerome would not have liked me at all, and that if you look at it realistically the place would be awfully drafty.)

On Instagram, people replied to this post asking about the birds in front and the lion in the back hall, and National Gallery staff explained about peacocks and wisdom and the story of Jerome and the lion’s thorn. It had over 23,000 views in 13 hours. It’s learning, without a class, but with guidance and expertise, in an interactive environment, with object-based instruction and student-based inquiry. A perfect lesson.

When I first saw the work of Vanessa Bell, it was in an exhibit where the curator, Laura Smith, pointed out how views out of windows relate to women’s experiences. An example is “Interior with a Table” (1921 © Tate):

Some would say that women’s domestic lives are often more isolated than men’s, that over time many have seen the world from behind a window. Given a choice, I often prefer life through a window, but that’s because nature and I have an enigmatic relationship. I want her protected, unpolluted by my footprints. I prefer the idea of wilderness to the idea of conserving nature for human use. But I’ve also been teased, having been camping only twice and told that my idea of “roughing it” is a hotel without room service. Looking out a window, one has the illusion that one is in control of what is behind it. The wildness and beauty of nature is beyond, seen through glass. It can do its own thing, while inside I do mine. A Room of Ones Own must be a Room with a View.

Nowadays many people are supposed to be inside for awhile. There have even been art jokes about this self-isolating, and the tongue-in-cheek adapting of artworks. A copywriter named Peter Breuer in Germany posted this in Twitter:

Art can show, articulate, or contrast reality. A person can be put inside, or the outside can be swept of people. The work of Jose Manuel Ballester, which removes the people from art masterpieces, has a new resonance these days. For example, the Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” becomes “El jardín deshabitado” (2007).

I do miss the guy with the flowers.

Art appreciation can also be personal and timely — the Getty has people recreating art masterpieces all over the world. The idea of people using things they already have, to recreate great works, and create new things, shows the best of humanity. And yes, some people are working extra hours in dangerous conditions, while others are unemployed and too worried to create, but it is often at the busiest and worst times that art provides some comfort.

One of my Honors students just finished her final paper for this term. At the beginning, in January, she wanted to write about the history of social media. I assigned her Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall. As the term progressed, her topic gradually changed. Her paper is titled “Art and Technology as a Mechanism for the Reduction of Isolation”. And it’s quite wonderful.

It is said that the pandemic has proven the necessity of the arts and humanities. It’s true, and not just for the comfort they provide, but for the reminders. How to take the familiar and make it intriguing. How to hold an object in your hand so people see it and ask questions. How to change your perspective by changing your window. How to teach by showing instead of telling.

With the arts and humanities, we are part of a larger experience. We can be inside looking out, instead of outside looking in.

A Bit of Pedagogy: between remote emergency learning and online teaching

Quite a few colleges are putting their classes for summer, and many for fall, online. So many faculty who had never taught in the online environment before this term will be doing it again.

What might they do differently?

The hope of many admins and techno-utopians is that the newbies will have time now to take online pedagogy seriously, perhaps learn how to use the LMS more effectively, or read up on online pedagogy. But the hope of many newbies is that they can just do what they did again, while reducing their cognitive load.

There is a middle ground.

Emergency remote instruction

What just happened did not, in most cases, cause newbie online faculty to create a pedagogical plan based on their own teaching. There wasn’t time. So it wasn’t normal “online instruction”. It’s been emergency remote instruction, often instituted in the middle of the class. See, for example:

Of course, what one does in an emergency couldn’t be the same as what one would normally do.

Pressure from above

Distance learning is different. It’s an entire field of knowledge. They give PhDs in this stuff. So now there may be a demand (mostly from those PhDs) that all faculty must up their game. Now. In the middle of the pandemic (yup, sorry, I think we’re still in the middle for summer and fall, but that’s only because I know about 1918-19).

And commercial pressure? I’m sure you’ve seen it all ready. Faculty mailboxes have been jammed with “we’re here for you” emails from every conceivable online learning product, textbook, and service. All free! Well, for now, anyway. They advertise like old 50s commercials. Got a problem? We understand! Our product will solve it for you! Try now with no obligation to buy!

We don’t want to do this

Increasing instructor dependence on the LMS, adding various products and materials from publishers, will not turn newbies into online instructors. It’s better to face the fact that those who were not teaching online before the pandemic were resisting because they didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t their thing. They didn’t care for the online environment. They were forced into this, and are still being forced. Maybe now they can use their LMS better. But they’re not happy.

Yes, there’s plenty of training out there, but they don’t want to be doing any of this. I don’t blame them.

A Bit of Pedagogy

What’s the middle ground? A Bit of Pedagogy. Bring ourselves back into our teaching, even though we must do it online. Change things? Sure. Not everything went well this time around. Good faculty will want to make changes. What they won’t want to do is become online teachers. And that’s ok.

A bit of pedagogy would consist of doing some thinking, on ones own or with others, about how we can adapt to work with our strengths. If I fell in love with Zoom, and it was effective for my students, I should use it again. If I wasn’t, I should look at different ways to do things.

Some ideas for the in between, the middle ground, a bit of pedagogy:

1. Work to your strengths.
What did you do this term online that you liked, or seemed to work for both you and your students? That should be the central guiding idea for summer or fall.

2. Decrease areas of weakness.
What didn’t work? Can you get rid of it? For some, synchronous (Zoom) meetings were horrible. Students wouldn’t show their face (why should they?) and you didn’t want to show yours. Are you required to do synchronous sessions? Then think of ways around the worst parts of it. For example, show slides, narrate, and record the session. Require students to view if they don’t attend, and submit questions to a discussion board. During the session, have a student monitor the chat for questions. Make it “present and chat”, not the Brady Bunch. Don’t expect enthusiastic participation if Zoom isn’t your strength. And if you aren’t required to have synchronous sessions, consider how to teach without it.

3. Pull in your pedagogy.
What do you like best about your pedagogy in the classroom? If  you are a lecturer, get better at online lecture. If you like discussion, work more with the discussion board, and do some database searches for how to create good online discussions. If you like student-led inquiry, think about how to do that online. A set of collaborative documents, maybe. If you like creating an environment with rich resources, then leaving students to it, do that.

4. Be kind.
It’s tempting to think that this time around, students will know what they’re getting into. They may, but that doesn’t mean they like it any better than you do. In fact, those students who were hoping to celebrate a big life change (entering or transferring to university) may well be angry about this. So the same advice is as true now as it was for emergency instruction. Don’t expect too much. Lower the bar a little, but keep the challenge. The good students want to do well. Some will depend on your class to be a distraction from the real world. Some will need to feel they can reach out to you, and get that deadline extended. Do it for them. Consider how you’ll answer the question, “how did you help students get through the plague year?”

For more than bits

For those who want to get group-y about this and work together, or follow a more structured path, you’re welcome to use or steal my open access Canvas course in Practical Online Pedagogy. It’s more than a Bit of Pedagogy, but it’s not a full course, nor is it LMS training. Rather it’s an expansion of the first three points above, and has some useful handouts, worksheets and reflection exercises. It’s available to all (the download link is on the main page) for free use only — no one may be charged for using it, no matter who’s leading the group.




Armchair historian does London Bridge

Historians sometimes reinvent themselves. Or maybe it’s better to say that historians who are very famous, or not famous at all, sometimes reinvent themselves. If you’re very famous (like Simon Schama) you can do whatever you like. If  you’re basically unknown (like me) you can also do whatever you like. But if you’re an acknowledged expert about One Big Thing, I suspect you can’t do anything else.

I’ve been working for a few years on making Victorian England my new specialty, and I’m also writing a novel that takes place in 1862. To find good resources and just enjoy the era, I’ve joined some Victorian-focused Facebook groups. People post old photos:

These are London Bridge in 1890, the top one facing north, the other facing south. And oh, the traffic! I’ve read that the bridges were often jammed in the 1860s, and it looks like by 1890 they weren’t any better. Can’t you just imagine yourself trying to cross the street?

Then someone on Facebook asked whether the stairway was still there:


Let’s go look! (And get a load of all the “temporarily closed” on Google. Might want to take some screenshots — this will all be history too, remember).



So I “drop down” my little G droid* and go look.



Hmmm… looks like maybe the top of a stairway? I’d better drop down by the river bank for closer inspection.


A ramp! Much nicer than stairs for lots of people. Plus you don’t have to go out past the church and turn left to get onto the bridge.

The ease of doing this sort of thing amazes me. An armchair traveler in the 19th century could sit at home and read books to go to wonderful places all over the world. I can drop down my G droid anywhere and walk around (well, click around).

I can’t go to England this year, but I can do this. The Google Map images are relatively recent. I can walk down streets. I can look up old maps and then go see what’s different (I do that all the time for research). I can even go to webcams like this one and see places in real time. I can start up Google Earth and see buildings in three dimensions.

All of which beats relying on H. Rider Haggard for my view of the world. But I would like a wingback chair, please.


*I know the droid is called “Pegman”, but why should it be a man? I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a man.

Is it better to be a milkmaid?

In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would discover the inoculation process for smallpox while she was living in Turkey. She had lost a brother to the disease, and barely survived it herself. Smallpox in the 18th century was particularly virulent; the CDC says it had an average a 30% death rate for those who got it. The inoculation was done using actual scabs from people who had smallpox, inserting it under the skin through a cut. Lady Montagu had her son inoculated while in Turkey, and her daughter in England when she returned in 1721. She then campaigned to popularize the method in Europe.

But Edward Jenner gets all the glory, even today, because he developed a vaccine to replace the inoculation. Inoculation is an old idea — you take some likely material from a living victim of the disease, and put it in a person who hasn’t had it (similar to the convalescent plasma being tried today). But there is always a danger of actually giving the healthy person the disease. A vaccine uses a more benign substance to achieve the same immunity.

I was taught in college that the discovery of the smallpox vaccine came out of the realization that milkmaids didn’t get smallpox. This was apparently because in leaning their cheek on the cow while milking, they acquired cowpox, a very mild disease. The cowpox antibodies protected them from smallpox.

There is a wonderful mythology around Edward Jenner and his 1796 vaccine. It’s based on the story of a milkmaid he met when he was a boy, bragging about her lovely skin that would never be scarred by the pox.  Rather like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, it was created by a later biographer. The real story is more ordinary. Nevertheless, milkmaids didn’t get smallpox.

I learned today that an old vaccine for tuberculosis may have some value in helping with the current virus. The New York Times article says:

The B.C.G. vaccine has an unusual history. It was inspired in the 1800s by the observation that milkmaids did not develop tuberculosis.

The active ingredient of the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine is Mycobacterium bovis, which was isolated from a cow in 1908. It was made into a proven vaccine by 1911, and is today used in areas with high tuberculosis danger.

Unlike the Jenner/smallpox tale, the story of BCG inspiration and milkmaids is harder to track down. I can find nothing in a verifiable source, other than popular/journalistic websites copying each other’s phrasing, to confirm the background of the discovery.  Closest I could get was a 2008 Russian article saying that milkmaids and others close to cattle could carry a latent infection that gives a false positive for a tuberculin skin test. I couldn’t find anything even saying that milkmaids didn’t get tuberculosis. Is this a case of people just mistaking one apocryphal tale for another?

But we know that Mycobacterium bovis is to Mycobacterium tuberculosis as cowpox is to smallpox — a similar, less deadly disease that protects against a more virulent one. The Lancet warns that it might not be effective against the current virus, and there might not be enough available, but it has helped people with similar respiratory diseases recover faster.

I’d still like to think that milkmaids would be safer.


Perusing pictures

I almost forgot, in all the madness, that I am trying an experiment in my History of Technology class. I detailed the idea in my post from July. But I hadn’t implemented it till this semester.

First a review: in every class I teach online, instead of a traditional discussion board, I assign a set of primary source documents. I put these in Perusall (using the LTI in Canvas), uploaded as a pdf. Students then can select parts of the text, and annotate it. They can respond to each others annotations, and add images or video to help each other read the material.

This semester I’ve tried it with images. I put together two sets of images in Microsoft Word, one for images from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry (for the Middle Ages), and one for a collection of postcards from the early 20th century imagining the world in 2000 (for the turn of the 20th century). I then saved each collection as a pdf, and uploading them into Perusall.

I’ve just been reviewing the latter. The History of Technology class is always difficult to get talking. The class attracts a wonderful assortment of students, particularly those in computer science or who already work in information technology. They don’t tend to be much for chit-chat, and some of the written articles on technological history don’t interest them. The pictures, however, have created much more participation.

You can see here that not only did they comment on the images, but that they also replied a lot to each other (the bubble with the number is replies to the comment showing).

So I’m calling this one a success, and plan to do more!

Thoughts on locked-down London

I came upon this wonderful film today.

The walker is taking a walk I’ve done many times, from Trafalgar Square bus stop, round Canada House, across the Square, up Charing Cross Road, across to Leicester Square, out past the Chinese gate, past the Swiss thing, through Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street.

But when I make this walk, I am jostled by tourists and shoppers. I’m usually trying to get from one place to another. And although I sense the buildings, see their shapes out of the corner of my eye, I’m rarely able to take a good look. Stop on the pavement and you’re a target; stop in the road and you’re flattened.

The film was made the day before lock down, so that would be 22 March.

Some would, I’m sure, describe this filmed walk as eerie, or creepy (a word that goes back to Victorian times, it turns out). Some might say it’s something out of science fiction, or note how clean the air is without so many vehicles, or even (as the filmmaker does) call it “empty”.

To a historian, and quite possibly the social scientist, the only thing that’s missing is modern-day crowds. All the history is there, in the buildings themselves. You can actually see the base of the National Gallery without the tall Yoda actor in front of it, the whole front of the Cafe Royal, the way the shops on Regent Street hug the corners. Normally, the bottoms of the buildings, where they meet the pavement, can’t be seen at all. Outdoor shop displays, homeless people, piles of rubbish bags outside everywhere usually prevent that. Here the whole building design can be viewed.

The dearth of people also makes it possible to see the statues.  The lions at the base of Nelson’s Column are marvelously bereft of climbers. There’s the statue of Edith Clavell on Charing Cross Road, normally hard to get to between the close traffic on either side and the inevitable political campaigners in front of her.  Piccadilly Circus is usually blocked by people taking pictures of each other, and of themselves. And I saw something new: the Paddington Bear statue in Leicester Square (I’m there a lot, because that’s where the cut-price ticket booth is). I had to look that one up to find they recently installed movie-themed statues I can see next time. Maybe.

Even the rubbish bins look quite fashionable without the actual rubbish overflowing out of them.

You can also see the security measures: the steel bollards, the heavy planter boxes, the metal fencing around the square, the measures put in place to make it more difficult for someone to run a vehicle into a group of people. And like London itself, the video is unplanned, accompanied by the soundtrack of a Jesus preacher in Piccadilly Circus. It leant the whole thing a sort of Assassin’s Creed tone. I kept expecting Ezio to go walking in front of me, bumping into pedestrians and rattling armor.

Please understand, I am not in any way downplaying the horror of the pandemic, or the extraordinary cost in lost trade and jobs. But it’s so rare to rejoice in the cleanliness and design of the city. One usually doesn’t get that chance.

Essential women

The New York Times recently reported that American women are taking the place of men in the pandemic work force, as one in three of the jobs dominated by women have been deemed essential. Female employees dominate health care, social work, and retail, as well as the unpaid labor involving child and home care.

And it’s news!

Except it isn’t, of course. Immediately the Great Depression of the 1930s comes to mind. With many men unemployed, women took over to the point where some declared it an era of matriarchy (consider Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). Despite unemployment statistics, women’s numbers in the workforce increased rather than decreased. In the movies, women’s roles became stronger and more nuanced (and it would be almost 90 years before they became strong again). Female students and faculty also opened new avenues in educational settings. And then, like now, their work was underpaid.

But it also happened before the 1930s. Clerical work had been a male purview prior to the American Civil War, then women took it over. From the mid-19th century onward, many entered the nursing profession, formerly dominated by men. Then consider two world wars, where women went to work in factories because so many men were at war.

It’s not that men aren’t available now — it’s that the industries which are male-dominated are the ones hardest hit by the pandemic: commerce and finance.

Consider that during the 1918 pandemic, the U.S. had similar economic problems (here’s a good source, but skip to page 20). The difficulties were short term, and began with an pay increase in many places. This benefit was also short term. Just like in the Black Death, when 1/3 of the population of Europe died, workers in demand can insist on more pay temporarily, until the traditional forces regain the strength to stop them.  Smithsonian Magazine claims that the pandemic increased women’s rights, their service convincing people to support suffrage.

Women fill the gap, then, (1) when there are not enough men around, or (2) when the jobs dominated by men are temporarily not needed, or (3) when they dominate the sectors needed most. We have the latter case now. And we know it won’t mean more respect, or more pay in the long run. But it certainly isn’t news.

Order now! (100 years ago or so)

As Amaz*n gets overloaded, and Instac*rt can’t find the diet soda, we journey back 100 years or so to see what we could have ordered then, delivered to our homes. It turns out, quite a lot. Montgomery Ward could deliver pretty much anything: pianos, washing machines, tools, ready-made clothing. The Sears Catalog boasted pages and pages of everything from canning jars to do-it-yourself houses.

During the pandemic of 1918-19, Sears also produced their seed catalog. It began with an disclaimer about how the events of the past few years have made people realize we need to grow more food, but they can’t be held responsible for the many factors (weather, soil) that could make your seeds not grow. They knew that many people were starting gardens for the first time, so they gave advice:

I was pleased to find that the Montgomery Ward catalog of 1920 had their priorities in order: chocolate at the top, washing soda at the bottom:

(I could use a Bluing Paddle, actually. I am one of the few remaining people who use bluing.)

I counted seven pages just of chairs (not counting loveseat-style). To give an idea of selection, here’s just a tiny clip of the index from that catalog:

Need to get me some of that canoe glue, and find my paddle. Oh wait — I can order one.