In Search of a Perfect Match
When writing an historical novel, the author can take nothing for granted.
Enter the streets of 18th century New York, and the most ordinary and mundane of modern living dissolves into the annals of progress. Streets that exist today … well, they’ve yet to be created. Modes of transportation? Forget about the A Train. But what about omnibuses? If so, how many did they seat? Who owned them? How long did it actually take to get from City Hall to Bowling Green?
You’ve got a murder on your hands? Unless your story takes place after 1844, NYC’s organized police departments (and non-volunteer fire departments) were a thing of the future that would have titillated H.G. Wells’s great-great grandparents.
Let’s say I’m writing a scene in which I need a smallish weapon that provides a deadly blow. My mind goes straight to the pistol. The questions begin firing: Did they have pistols back then? What did they look like? How did they fire? How heavy were they? Was there a popular brand? Were they easy to acquire? How much did they cost … At times, I feel as if I’m Alice, slipping ever further down a rabbit hole.
I offer laudatory homage to the writers of historical fiction who came before the internet. Yes, I’ve traveled to my locations, spent hours upon hours in historical museums and societies, and I have five bookshelves filled with research material.
But: To answer the question of the pistol? How can I get this tidbit of history?
I was able to find everything I needed to know on the glorious worldwide web. Often enough, Wikipedia is my Wonderland door. But there is never quite enough information. Never quite exact information … which leads me to door number two or three or four. The most phenonmenal thing is that many historical museums (see Museum Victoria for a fascinating photo and description of dueling pistols circa 1830) have placed their entire holdings online, allowing the postmodern researcher to find authentic photos and documented history with a bit of gumshoeing — all of which twenty years ago would have been done with phone calls, long-distance travel … or, perhaps the vivid imagination of the author who also knew that no one else could simply sit in front of a glowing screen and check for accuracy.
My most recent conquest was the simple match. I have a character in 1815 who needs to bring light into his makeshift tent atop a potter’s field. Easy enough. He’s known to smoke. Surely he’ll have a light. And then my mind begins to roam … obviously they didn’t have the standard matchbook of today. There were no Bic lighters. No Zippos. But when, exactly, did the versatile match come into existence?
According to the Museum of Everyday Life, my character is (currently) ahead of his time:
In 1826, John Walker, an apothecary in Stockton-on-Tees, conducting an experiment in his laboratory, stirred a mixture antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch with a wooden stick, and subsequently scraped the stick on the stone floor of the lab to remove a glob of the solution that had dried on the end of it. When the stick burst into flames, Walker realized he had created something of interest, and made several of the sticks, which he demonstrated for the amusement of friends and colleagues. One of the observers at a demonstration in London was Samuel Jones.
Jones realized the invention’s commercial potential, set up a match business in London, and cleverly named his product “Lucifers.” The term persisted as slang in the 20th Century. Lucifers caught on, and following their introduction in London, tobacco smoking of all kinds greatly increased.
However the Lucifers were unpredictable, often giving off violent bursts of flame, and emitted an extremely noxious odor of sulfur. Boxes of lucifers carried a printed warning: “persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use Lucifers.”
A non-poisonous match using red, rather than white phosphorous was invented in the mid-1800s, however it was more expensive to produce. Only gradually, after agitation and worker actions like the London Matchgirl’s Strike in 1888, did governments pass legislation against the use of white phosphorous, which forced match manufacturers to reform their dangerous product.
Well then. I guess I can’t have Francis light a flame so easily in his tent. Thus began another search. (Remember that rabbit hole?). According to Alice Morse Earle, most Colonial households had some sort of flint and steel mechanism — a tinderbox. But most often the fire in the hearth provided endless flame for oil lamps and candles. Seems a bit impractical for 15-year-old Francis B. McIntyre, who barely has food to eat.
So after all this chasing, I’ve come up with nothing to aid poor Francis. I’m forced to move the scene three hours earlier.
In writing historical fiction, moving the sun is often easier than … well, you get the picture.
© 2013 Lisa Rainwater