Today Flows from Yesterday, Without Labels

We humans love our boundaries.  Between nations, between states, between property.  So important to know where you end and I begin, not?

But in history, maybe not so useful.  When I was taking history classes, there was a tendency to teach historical periods and eras, as if the Plantagenets filed out in an orderly fashion one day, the Tudors clocked in, and everything–clothes, art, technology, politics–changed right then.  But history isn’t a single timeline, there are huge overlaps, some of which can take me by surprise.

For instance the dapper fellow in the photo? That’s Wyatt Earp, of the O.K. Corral: major character in the American saga of The Wild West.  After Tombstone he moved to California where, among other things, he was a consultant to the film industry; he and western star Tom Mix were great friends. Earp died in 1929, well into the era of electricity, cars, flight.

Sometimes I’m asked when the Regency was.  There’s a simple and accurate answer: the Regency began in 1811, when Parliament enacted the Regency Bill and the Prince of Wales became a stand-in for his father George III. It ended in 1820, when George III died and the Prince of Wales became king.

But in discussing the Regency, particularly when talking about fiction, the period is a more squishy, pliable thing.  For convenience’s sake, I’d say it was roughly 1795-1825, the era of England’s involvement with Napoleon; the point when the Empire style was at its height; the Romantic movement was in full blast; and technology was beginning to make serious inroads in daily life. But from another vantage point, the Regency is just a subset of the Georgian era, a blip on the way from the Enlightenment to the Victorians.  It all depends where you draw the lines.  And frankly, the lines didn’t matter as much if you were at the lower end of the economic spectrum: things don’t change as fast when you’re scrabbling for dinner and all your money goes for necessities rather than a new gown.

It’s easy to forget that while some people were living what we would consider a medieval life, others were smack dab in the middle of the Renaissance.  To me one of the most arresting scenes in The Return of Martin Guerre (a lovely French film from a few decades ago) is at the trial, when there are the nice medieval peasants and the clergy and lawyers, all in their robes of office–and there in the audience are people who would not look out of place in the court of James I.  My initial belief in my own historical knowledge (oh, I know when this is!) was knocked askew.  In the same way, I love the film versions of Austen in which women are wearing clothes from several different eras–from the older woman who is still wearing a highly structured gown from 1795 to the young woman whose gown is the latest cry: high waisted, sheer fabric, Romantic draping.  It reminds me that many women didn’t toss out the old gowns–they wore them, or tore them apart and remade them–because fabric and labor were not cheap.  And that no one was sitting there thinking, “well, I’d better rethink my wardrobe, because we’re transitioning into the Regency, and these old rags will simply look like they belong to another era.”

My daughter has been watching Mad Men from the beginning of the series.  I mentioned that (because my father worked on Madison Avenue in the 50s and 60s) it all looked rather familiar to me.  And this launched us into a discussion about eras, and how you know when you’re in one.  And of course, you don’t.  At the time, it just seems like today is an extension of yesterday, and tomorrow will flow right out of today.  At the time, even fringed suede vests seemed like the thing to do.



Posted in History Tagged permalink

About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Today Flows from Yesterday, Without Labels — 18 Comments

  1. There exists a brief film segment on YouTube of a quiz show – the ‘twenty questions’ variety. And <a href=" person questioned had witnessed a historical event.
    That event was the shooting of Abraham Lincoln.

    When I saw it, I was absolutely floored, because suddenly a whole chunk of history was moving much closer.

    150 years equals six to seven generations, if people have children when they’re young. But it also can be bridged by two people – an old person’s childhood memories of their elder’s tales.


  2. And then there’s the people who when they find something they would call Renaissance in the medieval era then go, “Oh, the Renaissance started earlier than we think.” rather than question whether it was misclassified.

    And the historians who treat eras as if their entire purpose was to foreshadow another era — or call something a relic, and treat it as if it had been sickly, even if it flourished in that time even more strongly than before.

  3. I did a little calculation, and figured that Sally Draper (Don’s daughter in MAD MEN) is exactly my age, born in 1955. I recognize all her clothes because I wore them! although she was definitely a trendier teen than I ever was.

    My paternal grandmother was born in Imperial China. Her feet were bound, in the ancient way. She lived to fly on intercontinental jets (to visit us, her American grandchildren) and see men in space, although she died before Armstrong got to the Moon. We live in an age of miracles and wonders.

    • I’ve always said that my grandmother was a time-traveler: born at the end of the 19th century, she lived through two world wars, the Spanish Flu, the depression, the red scare, and saw men walk on the moon. Of course, she did it all one day at time.

      I remember thinking, in the late 60s, that this was an important time to be alive. I remember believing that somehow the world was going to be a better place for it. I am now not certain about the second judgement, but I’m glad I had the wit, in my young teens, to pay attention to what was going on.

      • I thought the first season of Mad Men captured women in that late 50s-early 60s period perfectly. I was just old enough to be aware of it and watched my mother deal with so much of it. And — because the times are not neatly packaged — ran into some of that sexism myself as I got older.

        My father, who just passed this year, once sang Dixie at a Confederate Veteran’s Reunion. That is, my father, as a small kid, knew people who fought in the Civil War. That muddies the historical waters for me.

  4. I saw The Butler a week or so ago. It is, in some ways, a profoundly predictable movie, not so much because we know the history but because the way it’s laid out is (to a person who is immersed in plot all the live-long day) pretty obvious. It does have a remarkable cast, and some marvelous acting, and more stunt casting than Heinz has pickles. But it also marks eras with clothes to such an extent that it felt like it was the garments that were checking in and out: Okay, pillbox hats! Report in. And later: Polyester bell-bottoms! You’re up!

  5. I date the beginning of the Regency period when the powder tax was passed, changing men’s hair styles; Emma Hamilton and Josephine had already radically changed women’s gowns by then. Otherwise, agreed.

    Mad Men‘s first season seemed to go in and out of focus, here striking echoes in memory, and there seeming like modern people putting on disguise. The focus got better in later seasons, I think.

    • Sherwood, I thought the first year of Mad Men nailed the situation of women in the late 50s. Truth is, I was so focused on on that aspect that I’m not sure if some of the male characters could be seen as modern people in disguise. I thought the later seasons lost a little of that focus, so I found them less interesting. I was more interested in Peggy than Don.

      • Nancy Jane: in the very first episode a good Catholic girl goes to bed the first night with a co-worker. I thought that entire scene totally wrong for the period–I could see her trying hard to be modern, but there was no affect, none of the dithering I remember as a kid, and saw in writings by women at the time.

        There were other moments where the focus seemed to go in and out, like Betty with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth shooting at the neighbor’s birds. No woman obsessed with class and status would ever, ever have had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. That was an instant sign of “white trash” in those days.

        There were moments when they should have had gloves and hats, etc. But overall? Really good job. Especially at the office!

  6. If I remember rightly, one of the things Wyatt Earp did before his death was prospect for uranium.

  7. Whoa! Wyatt Earp! My hero/protagonist! I love this guy.

    One of the reasons I chose Wyatt for my novels was because his lifetime stretched over so much change in American life. He was born in the year gold was discovered in California, and died the year the Great Depression started. He knew everyone–he’s a complete four-degrees-of-separation guy. He knew Teddy Roosevelt and Tom Mix, Jack London and the founder of the New York Rangers, John Wayne (who copied his walk) and Lotta Crabtree, whose fountain stands on Market Street in San Francisco. He was a teenager on a wagon train, a bouncer in a brothel, a town cop in Kansas and Arizona, and a gambler always. He went EVERYWHERE. Following his life is exhausting and illuminating.

    Your point about technology and timelines is well taken. One of the things most people don’t know is that at the end of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the news of the street fight went out BY TELEPHONE to the surrounding communities. Raoul Walsh didn’t tell us that bit. 🙂 Wyatt himself made use of what were then modern crime-fighting tools: telephone, telegraph, undercover informants, and forensic science, such as it was. Yet when his story is told, it’s always in a setting made deliberately remote from our own. I am not sure why movie makers and many writers are so very eager to make the so-called Old West look like it happened a thousand years ago, when the wagon tracks of the Santa Fe trail are still visible on the prairies today. Maybe it doesn’t suit our modern urban sensibility to remember where we came from. 🙂