Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Holding History in Your Hands

by Anita Mae Draper

This is my first post under our new theme days. I picked Historical because I'm a history nut. It also explains why I write Historical Romance. Actually, I'm in the final chapters of my inspirational western, Emma's Outlaw and I'm very pressed for time and was hoping you'd forgive me for re-posting something I used on another blog awhile back. (And if by chance, you were one of the very few individuals who read this post, I've changed the questions at the end just for you.)

I’d like to show you some of the items I keep on my desk for inspiration while I’m writing. These items are specifically for my current historical, Emma’s Outlaw. When I hold them in my hands and let my fingers slide over them, I feel like I’m holding a piece of history. Well, I guess I actually am!

To start with, here are a couple U.S. Indian Head cents minted in 1897 and 1883 respectively. Emma’s Outlaw is set in 1879 Wyoming Territory so these pennies weren’t even around when Emma (the heroine) was kidnapped. Since they were minted from 1859 through 1909 though, Emma and Dan (the hero) would have had access to these coins.

Another item I keep nearby is this 1886 Morgan dollar. However, I don’t touch the face of this coin. Made of 80% silver, any natural oils on my hands would leave fingerprints that turn black over the years. I handle it by the rim when I want to hold it for inspiration. (Usually, I just look at it and sigh.) U.S. Morgan dollars were struck from 1878 through 1904 and then again in 1921. Weighing 24gms, this hefty silver dollar is supposedly the kind Buffalo Bill shot a hole clean through after a toss up.

Other famous people who were known to carry the silver dollars were Billy the Kid, Jesse James and even Geronimo. People of the Old West preferred the silver coins to paper money which made the Morgans the main form of currency in the latter part of the 19th century, second only to gold. Somewhere in my research I’d even read where old timers used to keep a silver dollar in their canteen to ensure water purity.

Prior to the Morgan’s release, the most common form of payment for a drink was an unspecified pinch of gold by the bartender. Silver dollars brought equity to the table which was appreciated by everyone from the locals buying dry goods to travelers and even gamblers.

In the late 1800’s, a silver dollar would buy 50 pounds of flour, two pounds of sugar, five pounds of butter, 60 pounds of potatoes, 10 quarts of milk or a pair of moccasins. It would also buy a bottle of bourbon or rye whiskey. Of course, you could buy a glass of cheap stuff for a nickel but if the bottle came from a peddler’s wagon, it might contain a dash of pepper, Tabasco, tobacco juice, or even rattlesnake heads to improve the bite.

A complete meal of roast beef or pork, potatoes, 2 veggies, bread, butter, tea, coffee or milk and a piece of pie cost a dime. However, travelers stopping at stage stations had to pay from four bits to a dollar even if the meal was horrible.

A bit is one of those words unique to the western frontier. It comes from the Spanish milled coin real (re-al) which was also called ‘pieces of eight’. Unlike the dollar which can be broken into 4 equal ‘quarters’, the real was broken into 8 bits. So the quarter became known on the frontier by it’s nickname ‘two bits’ and 2 quarters ‘four bits’ etc.

While growing up, I remember my step-dad saying, ‘I wouldn’t give you two bits for it.’ It was one of those phrases I accepted as fact without knowing the origin.

The last item I like to pick up and feel while immersing myself in Emma’s story is an antique 3”x5” Bible. It was quite worn when I bought it at Value Village for just a couple dollars, but the 1860 publishing date gives me a good feeling of touching history.

I mean, how many people have opened this little book looking for comfort and answers? How many tears have fallen on its pages?

This is the type of Bible I envision Emma to have – well, if she’d been allowed to grab a book before they kidnapped her, anyway.

Are you an coin, antique or vintage collector?

Do you just look at your treasures, or do you pick them up and wonder who owned them before you did?

Have you ever researched a historical item and discovered a fascinating story?

Care to share? We'd love to hear it.


  1. What a great idea to keep this inspiring memorabilia around. I don't own any medieval artifacts, but maybe I can wave around my medieval pennant from the Medieval Times when I'm working on my historicals :)

  2. I enjoyed the information regarding the Morgan silver dollars. I have a number of them because, as I was growing up, my grandparents would give us a silver dollar each year.

    I also like to collect old books and have the 1912 printing of The Light That Failed by Kipling. I find it interesting because it has a swastika embossed on the front--a reminder of how some things/words can be twisted or used inappropriately.

  3. Dina, you may not have medieval items, but I can see you dressing up in a gown and pointy-ribboned hat and dancing gracefully to Greensleeves or some other minstral song.

    I would think that's almost as powerful as physically holding it.

    Anita Mae.

  4. Anita, I've actually taught medieval history and literature several time. When I did it with a 1st-4th grade homeschool class, we had a blast. We made armour out of silver poster board. Surcoats out of big brown paper bags. The girls made wimple. We designed coats of arms.

    We had a tournament with cardboard sword fights and jousts on rolling office chairs. And we had a medieval feast. We ate from trenchers of bread and threw chicken bones on the floor.

    Two years later we covered the Renaissance and did an Elizabethan themed Christmas play and made everyone full Elizabethan dress. Mind you, I didn't sew, but I put some of the boys outfits together out of pieces I found at the thrift store. We had a lot of Shakespeare love quotes in the play for the girls and plenty of fake sword fighting for the boys. Oh, and it opened with a Renaissance dance.

    Okay, now that we're talking make believe and play acting, obviously you've hit on my interest.

  5. Just recently I bought a bunch of old books. I don't usually think of who might have had them before unless I see a name. I wonder more so if I see words. I have a Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman book and the giver had written a bunch of useful things to consider. I enjoyed all the information and historical facts!

  6. Hmmm, this is giving me some insight into why I can actually tolerate and enjoy things such as not having hot water for three months when we were having our house worked on. Having to boil water for dishes and washing might have felt just a bit too much like 'playing at history'.

    Dina, I love the ideas of your costumed themes for your students.

    Anita -what a great post! I love seeing your special items that tie you to the past.
    Last night I wrote my post for next week's HISTORY theme and I worried that I might seem a little odd. Well, at least I know a few of you who won't think so...

    Thanks everyone!
    Sandy, your Kipling book is a real treasure. Have you seen the BBC drama "My Boy Jack"? If not, I think you'd enjoy it. It's not light, fluffy stuff but a real look into one special family and one terrible war.

  7. Hey Sandy. Your grandparents were special people who saw the value of giving - both mentally and aesthetically.

    I felt the same way when my uncle used to gave me a fifty cent piece (same as the US half dollar). In Canada, the fify cent piece is legal tender but it's not in common circulation which makes it a collector's item. You have to order a roll from the mint. What does it say about me that I hoard all special coins lke this, and hubby loves giving them out because he likes to watch the receiver's face light up when they look at what's in their hand.

    I also know what you mean about the swastika. I gave away a German coin once because it had a swastika and I was raised to never draw the symbol and turn away if you saw it. However, hubby was given items from his paternal grandfather which included a bullet making kit, brass and bone powder horns, and a German helmet complete with swastika. And he insisted on keeping them to remember.

    Over time, I realized it's not what you keep, but the significance of it. I have since obtained some German pfennigs from 1938 and 39 with swastikas on them and they sit in my collection as a reminder that something as innocent as one pfennig (bottom of the scale like the cent) can stand for something as indescribable as Hitler's world.

    Thank you so much for sharing with us, Sandy.

    Anita Mae.

  8. Dina, I would have loved having you as a teacher!

    History can be a dry subject if all you do is memorize dates. It takes a special teacher with imagination to bring it alive. I bet those kids tell their kids about the fun they had in your class.

    Anita Mae.

  9. Well, that was a small homeschool class of about 10-12 kids including my own and the children of my close friends. I'm not sure that I could have pulled it off with a classroom of thirty. In fact, when I did medieval lit with high school seniors, I had a hard time reading Beowulf around the imaginary great hearth I drew on the board without people misbehaving. So I guess it takes a special kind of teacher and class.

  10. One of my CPs gave me a set of medieval coins. They were made about a 100 years after my story is set, but they're close enough.

    I like having tactile reminders that help set the mood.

    Of course, right now I'm surrounded by clipped grocery coupons so I'm in a non-writing mood. But if you knew what I'd packed in the kids' school lunches, you'd be happy that I'm gettign ready to go to the grocery store.

  11. I have an old map of Washington DC that I bid and won on e-bay. I kept it close to hand while writing my last story. Not only did I enjoy poring over it, but it was really helpful in getting things right. I'm planning on framing as a memento of this story. Seems like I've come across special things like that for each of my stories.

    I'd have loved Dina as a teacher too!

  12. Thank you, adge. You hit upon a very good point concerning books - should you be allowed to write in them? LOL

    I used to consider books as sacred - you don't write in them because it would ruin it for the next person. But that was before. :)

    I still have the Bible I received when I was 12. Lots of red underlines and a few blue ink notes, but that old Book was almost 30 yrs old before I dared right a note in the margin of a confusing part.

    One of my friends was given a new Bible by her husband because her old one was falling apart. Almost every margin contained ink notes. However, he made her promise not to 'mark up' her new one. Say what? Which one do you think she uses on a daily basis?

    So, congrats, adge, in seeing the value of handwritten notes in an old book. For the most part, their enhancement to the printed word is invaluable.

    I appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

    Anita Mae.

  13. Deb - Did you just call me an oddball?


    Thank you. :D

    I used to love going to visit my Finnish grandmother's farm. Wood cooking stove. No electricity, no running water. Mind you, I wasn't crazy about the outhouse or emptying the pee pot in the morning, but that came with the territory. My mom used to say I was born a hundred years too late. I don't think so. I like indoor plumbing. However, that part of my childhood is serving me well now that I'm writing about people in similar situations. I just have to remember not to talk about the glossy Sears catalogue. LOL

    Thanks, Deb.

    Anita Mae.

  14. Hey Gina, I hear what you're saying about the 'close enough'. I have dirt-encrusted Roman coins from the the 3rd and 4th century and Greek from the 1st century soaking in olive oil on my window ledge. I originally bought them for my coin collection, but the more I clean them, the better an idea is forming for a biblical story.

    I'd love to see your medieval coins some day. Thanks for mentioning them.

    Anita Mae.

  15. Hey Lisa. I'm using a similar map of Wyoming Territory c1880. My story is 1879 so, like Gina said, 'close enough'.

    I found the valuable part of these maps is in the placenames. Locations appear on my old map that disappeared over time. Maybe they were mining towns. Or maybe they were towns who didn't make the 'cut' when the railroad went through. But like one of my earlier posts on the Granite City ghost town, they did exist and it's nice to know where they are located.

    Kudos to you for using eBay. It's where I finally found an original Montgomery Ward catalogue. I can't believe how small it is!

    Thanks, Lisa.

    Anita Mae.

  16. This got me all excited to start plotting out my Colorado history curriculum for my youngest this year.
    While I love ghost towns, and old buildings, and museums, I've discovered a passion for old newspapers. Reading the articles, seeing what the media was saying 50, 100 years ago is intriguing. Not to mention the ads for Grape-Nuts that claim to cure all manner of digestive ailments.
    Great post, Anita!

  17. Oooh, maps!
    great treasures.

    I have a large, framed map that I purchased the pdf of, from the Univ. of Glasgow. I tried for one as a bid on Ebay UK and missed it but this one was much better. It's a treasure. I show it off to visitors. Right now it's covered (on top of the glass) with little ripped pieces of sticky notes as labels for where all the action is taking place in my WIP.

    Well, Anita, I didn't mean to put a name on any particular character trait but it looks like we're not alone.

    more on that next Tuesday!

  18. Thanks, Niki. You're right about the old newspapers. I always loved reading the old ones in the small town I was born in since that newspaper office kept the actual copies. But I didn't like the black hands! Microfiche was a step up, but the internet is wonderful for this type of research.

    Of course, the negative aspect of having so many old newspapers at my disposal is that I get so caught up in the history and the stories it inspires, I forget my reason for looking. LOL

    Thanks for your insight, Niki.

    Anita Mae.

  19. Deb, your map sounds like a perfect investment. Maybe some day I'll get to be a visitor and see it, too. Something to look forward to. :) In the meantime, do you have a digital camera? Could you send me a photo of it? I've never seen a large pdf map and am having trouble imagining it.

    Sounds like next Tues will be an exciting day. Unfortunately, I'm flying home that day but I'll probably catch it later in the week. ;)

  20. Ebay sings its siren song to me quite often. A treasure trove of vintage goodies just waiting to be found. :)

  21. Yes, Angie I agree. Good for you for seeing the value.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Anita Mae.

  22. Anita, I'm late to the party but I loved your post! Thanks so much! I also appreciate the photos. I'm so glad you shared this with us today.


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