Thursday, March 29, 2012


Author Carol Bodensteiner

Stepping back in time with Carol Bodensteiner

Carol writes from her home in Des Moines, Iowa

It’s vaguely uncomfortable to think of the late 1950s and early 1960s as fodder for historical writing, but I guess they are! 

 In writing the stories that comprise a memoir of my childhood, I wanted readers to experience life on a family farm the way I did – see it, smell it, taste it, have fun, as I did. We milked cows, butchered chickens, attended a one-room country school. Our life was simple but not easy. In many respects, my childhood was rural life the way people today like to idealize it. 

It’s been gratifying to hear from so many readers that they relate to my growing up stories, which were my first step back in time. Research for those stories mostly involved talking with my sisters and parents and drawing from deep memory banks. But one chapter involved the church ladies of my home church digging through decades of church records. Their efforts enriched the story of our annual church auction.

My second step back in time is the novel I’m writing now. Set in rural Iowa, circa World War I. This was a time when roles for women, particularly farm women, were well defined. Get married. Have children. A woman might teach school, but only until she married. Then she lost the job. But change was in the wind. Suffragists were campaigning for the vote. As men were called to war, women stepped up and took on new roles.

My story is roughly based on my grandparents who were newly weds at that time.  My grandfather died in 1918 of the Spanish flu. I’ve always been intrigued by my connection to this pandemic that killed millions worldwide. However, my story is entirely fiction because, I didn’t ask my grandmother anything about her life.

This is my first work of fiction and I chose historical fiction because I have this story to tell and because it’s my favorite genre to read. The ‘facts’ of my grandparents’ gave me a set of steppingstones to move from fact to fiction.

The research I’ve done to write my novel has made the ground more fertile for my story. Plus, the research yields more ‘facts’ to work with.

Here’s an example. Family lore has it that after my grandmother finished 8th grade, she was sent to town to go to a sewing school.  When I asked at the local historical society about sewing schools in the area at that time, I was told there weren’t any. However, young girls were often apprenticed to seamstresses where they honed sewing skills they’d use after they married. Since the seamstresses were invited to the house parties given by the women for whom they sewed, the girls also had opportunities to meet the ‘right kind’ of young men.

‘Sewing school’ conjures up one image. ‘House parties’ where girls can meet the right kind of men conjures up something with far more dramatic potential!

Does the research come first or the story?  At one point, I stopped writing because I felt I didn’t know enough about the time. Ultimately, I resumed writing, deciding that if I got the story arc right, I could retrofit the facts. This approach has worked for me even though it means substantial rewriting of scenes to make them historically accurate.

Historical fiction is an evolutionary process for me. The journey as much as the destination. Though I’ll be happy to see the destination, too.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hidden things - Regency underwear

Underwear was the very last thing on my mind as I was watching those women in the clip from the movie "Pride and Prejudice" whirling and twirling and having a jolly good time on the dance floor. But since the topic for today is underwear - what did they wear under those gorgeous Georgian/Regency era gowns? Let’s take a layer by layer look.

The first undergarment our lady of the era would have slipped on was a chemise, also called a shift. Usually made of thin, white cotton, it had close fitting short sleeves, a higher hemline than her dress, and a low neckline if it was to be worn under an evening dress. Chemises served two purposes. One was to provide a layer of decency under the sheer dresses that were all the rage. The other was to protect outer garments from perspiration as they were washed less frequently than undergarments.

 Next came the corset, which was worn over the chemise, though a slender woman wouldn't have needed to wear a corset under the high-waisted dresses of the time. I'll mention here that a lady of the era would have found it impossible to get dressed without the assistance of her maid. The corset was laced together at the back - and tightly. Made of linen, it was boned for firmness and often had a long busk of wood or whalebone in the front to create the lift necessary to carry Regency fashions off. Some women preferred tight linen stays (pictured above) that had the same effect as a push-up bra. These came slightly below the breasts, though there were stays that extended to the waistline for a slimming look. Some attempts were made to design undergarments that would serve the same function as the modern bra, but I’ll save that for a future conversation.

Petticoat circa 1800
 When I look at those dresses, I can’t imagine there could have been another layer under them, but apparently there often was. It was the petticoat, a sleeveless garment that closed in the back with hooks and eyes, drawstring ties or Dorset thread buttons. Since a lady would often lift her dress to prevent the hem from getting soiled, it was certain her petticoat would show. Because of this, petticoat hems were embellished with ruffles, lace or whitework. After a long search for a picture of a petticoat of the era, I finally found one on Here it is on the right. It was a real find. The hem is a beautiful example of whitework.

What about panties you ask? There was no such a thing because underdrawers (the predecessor to panties) didn't arrive on the scene until around 1806. But here's what they looked like.

 Are you thinking what I'm thinking? What was the point of wearing those? According to janeaustensworld where I found the picture, they were designed to allow a woman to “attend to her business without having to remove too many clothes.” I still don’t get the point of those two tubes of cloth tied to the waist, do you?

If you're interested in learning more, visit my sources below.