Are you a proud nerd like I am? Does the word research send pleasant little tingles down your spine? Have you considered tattooing a footnote on your foot? If so, this post is for you.
Summerfield’s Angel is set in New York City in 1888, which means I joyfully engaged in a lot of background research as I wrote it. Here are some notes to accompany the story—they provide a little background information on some of the details. You absolutely don’t need to read these notes to understand and enjoy the story. But if you can’t get enough of the details, these are for you. To avoid spoilers, I’d recommend reading the story before turning to the notes.
Page numbers refer to the page in the PDF and print versions.
1—New York City was bigger than Alby Boyle remembered, and noisier. I didn’t realize it until well after I’d written this opening sentence, but I was echoing the rhythm of the final line of one of my favorite Walt Whitman poems, which was written in roughly the same era in which this story takes place.
1—nowhere near the killing temperatures that had changed his life the previous year. The winters of 1886-87 and 1887-88 were extremely harsh in much of North America. In the Great Plains states, one terrible blizzard killed 90% of the cattle on open ranges, bankrupting ranchers and changing the way ranching and farming were done. This article describes that blizzard and its aftermath, as does this one. I’ve taken a bit of artistic license and moved that disaster to 1888, which is the year New York City suffered an awful blizzard. I’ll discuss that in notes for Chapter 4.
1—Alby hunched his shoulders inside his duster and tipped the brim of his Stetson downward. The John B. Stetson Company was founded in 1865. Their famous hat, the Boss of the Plains, was intended to meet the needs of the people who lived and worked in the challenging conditions of the West. That hat became such standard wear for cowboys that it became the quintessential cowboy hat. It’s still manufactured by the Stetson company and retains most of its original styling.
2—It was covered in tiny electric lights, glittering ribbons, and colored glass baubles. Electric Christmas lights were invented by Thomas Edison in 1880, but I’ve jumped the gun a bit in my story since they weren’t widely in use until the early 20th century. Before then, people generally used candles–which of course created a real danger of fire. Incidentally, I’ve always loved those bubble lights, which weren’t invented until the 1920s. Turns out the original kind were pretty dangerous, though.
2—a pair of horses trotted by just an arm’s reach away, pulling a trolley down the tracks. Before motor vehicles were invented, NYC had a variety of forms of transportation. One of these was the trolley: an enclosed wagon pulled down rails by one or two horses. The rails reduced friction, helping the horses pull more weight at a faster rate. The first of NYC’s trolleys began running in 1832; they were eventually replaced by cable cars and electric streetcars. The final horse trolley in NYC stopped running in 1917. Here’s a bit of good trivia. The Brooklyn Dodgers were originally the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, so called because people had to dodge the electric trolleys on their way to the games. Here are a few more details.
4—“Can you point me in the direction of Baxter Street?” Baxter Street was part of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, which may be one of the country’s most famous slums. It persisted as a slum for most of the 19th century. Emancipated African Americans lived there early on, as did large numbers of Irish immigrants. It was notorious for squalid tenements, violent crime, gangs, and disease. It would have been a very difficult place to live during Alby’s childhood. Here are a few websites with photos and more info: http://www.anthropologyinpractice.com/2010/04/five-points-then-and-now-landmarks.html and https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/where-exactly-was-the-citys-five-points-slum/ and https://longislandwins.com/columns/immigrants-civil-war/five-points-on-the-edge-of-the-draft-riots/ . This photo by Jacob Riis was taken on Baxter Street the year Summerfield’s Angel takes place. More on Jacob Riis in Chapter 4.
5—a wooden building with clapboards in disarray and a roof in danger of imminent collapse. This is the photo that inspired my description of the saloon.
6—he could see the church spire rising two blocks away on Mott Street. Alby is looking at the spire of the Church of the Transfiguration, which still stands.
6—It had been a sprawling wooden building, three stories high, with a roofline that swooped and bowed at dizzying angles. This photo inspired my description of Alby’s childhood home.
7—Irish immigrants had been landing in this neighborhood for generations. Although some Irish people immigrated to New York prior to the American Revolution, the biggest numbers came after the Great Famine in 1845. Irish people constituted a large portion of the population of cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Almost all of them were poor and uneducated when they arrived, and they faced discrimination and harsh living and working conditions.These websites provide more info: https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/irish-immigrants-new-york-tenement-museum and https://www.claddaghdesign.com/history/irish-new-york/ and https://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/Irish-immigration-to-America.html .
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Additional links? Are you finding these useful and interesting? Please comment!
And stay tuned for additional notes!