New Invention of the 1920s: a Snow Loader


I’m setting my second Roaring Twenties mystery series in Chicago in 1924. I’ve finished the first manuscript and have started on the second, where the action takes place in the winter. That got me thinking . . . how did people remove snow from city streets before the era of snowplows?

A little research taught me a lot. First of all, in most cities, snow removal was done by men with shovels, gangs who were hired to shovel snow into horse-drawn carts. Those were driven to the nearest river where they could dump the snow. Salt was widely used, but pedestrians complained that it ruined their shoes and clothes. Cities also used sand and cinders.

Motorized plows began to appear in 1913, lessening the reliance on horses. Trucks and tractors with snow blades came shortly afterwards, but still, gangs of men with shovels predominated.

Chicago and other big cities had an edge. They could afford a new invention, the 1920 Barber-Green snow loader, pictured above. This scooped up the snow, dropped it on a conveyor belt that led to a dump truck, where it was deposited. When the truck was full, it drove off (to the river) and another truck slipped into its place.

So in my story, I’ll have a brief scene outdoors where my main characters walk past one of Chicago’s new snow loaders. I only wish I could include a picture!

Published in: on November 20, 2016 at 10:47 am  Comments (1)  
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Looking Up People and Places in Roaring Twenties

Before there were telephone directories, there were city directories, which listed (or tried to list) every person in the city by address and occupation. Needless to say, these are great resources for historians doing research in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I found the perfect one for my story–Polk’s Chicago Directory of 1923, the exact one that would have been on the shelf of most Chicago businesses and in all libraries. Few individuals owned copies. With this, I’ve been able to understand how my main character, Maddie, is able to investigate certain people. 

1923So I was confident about writing this short passage:

“If we could find those men—we might learn something from them. We know their names.” I checked my notes and added, “Samuel Brown and Earl Smith.”

“How we gonna find two men with names like that in a city this size? Chicago’s got more than a million people, and I’ll bet half of them are named Brown and Smith. Samuel and Earl are pretty common too.” To prove his point, he reached for Carlotta’s Chicago Directory and handed it to me.

I flipped a few pages and started counting. “There are eleven pages of Smiths but only twenty-four Earl Smiths. And . . . and . . . geez, you’re right. Fifty-one Samuel Browns!” I sighed. Although most names had occupations listed with them, we didn’t know what sort of work the two men did. None had telephone numbers, of course—these were people, not businesses. I racked my brain for a way past this roadblock. Knocking on that many doors would keep me busy until Easter. Supposing Brown and Smith were relatives—cousins, say, or in-laws—might they live at the same address? I crosschecked the two lists without success. Freddy was right. Stumped, I could only say, “Well, here’s an idea: the police know who they are, because they questioned them after the drowning.”

“You’re gonna walk into the police station and ask them for their files?” Freddy snorted.

Published in: on April 17, 2016 at 8:38 am  Comments (1)  

In the Roaring Twenties, Chicago’s trolleys were called streetcars.

My characters need to get around the big city of Chicago (with 1.7 million people in 1924, when my story takes place) with public transportation. Public services differed from city to city, and I learned that in Chicago, what were called trolleys in some cities (connecting to overhead electric wires) were called streetcars in Chicago. These pictures date from the late 1920s.


Another good detail I can use is that stops were marked by a black pole with a white band, as seen below,in the lower left corner.

10-03--Milwaukee-Halsted 1930

And sometimes, double cars ran on Chicago’s busiest routes:

10-03--two-car train


All good details to make my story feel genuine.

If you’re interested in the subject, click here. 


Published in: on March 26, 2016 at 9:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Identifying the Unidentified

images How does one identify unidentified silent films? That was the question in my mind as I sat down in my seat in the Culpeper theater at my first Library of Congress “Almost Lost” workshop. (They don’t call it a conference because, they said, they expect us to work!)

I quickly learned as I heard the experienced members of the audience shout out their thoughts. No silence for the silent movies! Some people could identify a studio from the font used in the titles; others called out the names of actors and actresses (occasionally receiving a rebuttal: “no, it’s not”). A camera flashing past a street sign helped on several occasions to identify the place where the movie was filmed. Those who knew their cars were a big help: they could call out the make, model, and date of almost any vehicle that appeared in the picture. And twice, the camera panned an office wall with a calendar on it, which allowed someone to say, “What year did May first fall on a Saturday?” A few taps on the computer answered that question and, Bingo! we had the year. Last but not at all least, that indescribable feel that pervaded a film’s overall appearance caused some experts to call out, “Look like a pre-Griffith Biograph.”

UnknownFinding copies of missing films is a race against time, because of chemical decomposition every day, and fires. Why weren’t more saved? Here’s what the famous director Frank Capra had to say when he was asked that question.

“Nobody thought they were important enough to save. You know, the films we were making in those days were just nickel and dime affairs. They were like today’s newspaper–you don’t save today’s newspaper. And when they were finished, nobody expected to ever see them again.” 

Published in: on July 12, 2015 at 8:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Library of Congress presents: Almost Lost

FullSizeRenderAnd they truly are “almost lost”–only about 20% of the silent movies made in America survive. The Library of Congress is the largest repository for them. Every year for four years, they have put on a workshop at their building in Culpeper, Virginia [near Washington DC], where film historians, experts, collectors, and the general public (me!) are invited to spend three days watching snippets of unidentified silent movies. The goal is to identify them, by recognizing the actors or settings or style or date made.

I attended my first workshop last month and it was, to say the least, a hoot! Although I don’t have enough expertise to have made any profound contributions, I had a blast and learned a good many things that I can use in forthcoming Roaring Twenties mysteries.

One thing I learned is that the era of silent film features lasted a very short time, from 1912 to 1929. During those few years, about 11,000 silent features were made in America. Film historian David Pierce, who gave us a very entertaining lecture, has counted 2,749 titles that survive in complete form and another 562 that are incomplete. The rest are lost, due to carelessness (the movies seemed to have no value at the time), chemical deterioration, fire (the film was highly flammable), or thrift (the films contained traces of silver which had some value when melted down).

IMG_0142The workshop’s format is simple: in the mornings there are a couple of scholarly presentations followed by lunch, and then an afternoon of viewing bits of film, some just a few seconds long, others might be 14 minutes. The evenings are taken up with screening important silent features–that much is open to the general public. The workshop audience of about 125 people sits ready to shout out their observations: “Looks like early Pathe,” or “That’s Harry Depp,” or “No it’s not,” or “That looks more like Australia than southern California.” Twice we caught a glimpse of a calendar on an office wall, and someone shouted, “What year did December 1 fall on a Sunday?” A dozen computers clicked away until one 11-year-old boy called out, “1912,” and we had identified the film’s date.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, the opportunity to attend comes around again next June. The cost of the workshop, $60, covers three very nice lunches. Watch this space for news about the 2016 event. I’m hoping to attend again. Maybe next time, I’ll even make an observation!


Published in: on July 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Refrigerators or Ice Boxes?

When I wasn’t sure if my Roaring Twenties characters should own refrigerators or iceboxes, I did some research. Iceboxes had been around for decades before the 1920s and were common in middle-class homes. These were, literally, boxes with a bottom door (or two or more) for food and a top compartment lined with tin for the block of ice. The ice compartment had a tube that drained the melted water down to a pan on the floor, which of course had to be emptied periodically, usually every day. The ice box had hollow walls that were insulated with cork, sawdust, or straw. They came in all sizes and some were quite fancy, like a piece of furniture, with carved oak exteriors. An ice man delivered ice blocks to the home every few days.

geRefrigerators were available in the 1920s thanks to the introduction of electricity in the home. General Electric supposedly produced the first motor-driven refrigerator in 1911. But . . . the motors were noisy and not attached to the unit. This didn’t interest many people, since the ice box was silent and relatively inexpensive. Frigidaire produced a better model in 1923, and there were some sold to wealthy consumers, but not many. Refrigerator sales didn’t really take off until after World War II. So I have my characters using ice boxes. Except for David, the rich ex-bootlegger, who has an electric refrigerator in his house–and a radio too! He’s the sort to spend on newfangled technology. 

I came across this statistic: in 1920 there were 10,000 refrigerators made. Five years later, there were 75,000 made. The big boost in sales came as more homes were wired for electricity and more families became prosperous enough to afford new technology. (This was also the era for the introduction of vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, and other electrical appliances.)

Iceboxes came in many sizes, so prices aren’t easily comparable, but a 1923 ad for a white, enamel lined ice box was $27.95, and a larger steel one that held 100 pounds of ice was $56.95. Here’s another: 1920srefrigerator

How Much Did They Earn?

32221u_0.previewI’ve been looking at job advertisements from the 1920s in order to learn about salaries, and have been amazed at the wording used during those years. Of course, everyone knows women were paid less than men and that interviewers could ask questions that are not permitted today, still, I was amazed to read some of the Want Ads. Like this one, for a woman:

Wanted: Stenographer and typist with knowledge of bookkeeping, 18-19 years of age . . . give previous experience and state religion. $18/ week to start. 

Compare to this job, posted in the same year:

Wanted: Young man stenographic position in executive office, large corporation, $125/month.

imagesTens of thousands of women worked as telephone operators. In the early 1920s, they earned $20/ week in Chicago. Probably less in small towns. 

This is just the sort of information I can use in my books to provide historical background. 

Makeup in Silent Movies

220px-ChaneyPhantomoftheOperaYou’ve seen silent movies where the actors had pasty white faces, dark black lipstick, and looked positively ghoulish. And it wasn’t even a horror flick! Why was makeup so bad back then? Why didn’t they use a more natural look?

A combination of lighting factors, film types, and makeup availability made movie makeup tricky. First, the type of black-and-white film in general use before the mid-1920s made blues register white and reds and yellows register black. So a cloudy blue sky would look solid white; blue eyes would look eerily white; red lipstick would look black. Second, faces without makeup appeared dark or dirty on film, so actors used a whitening material called whiteface (like blackface, which was burnt cork, was used to make them look like caricatures of African Americans). Think of clowns and mimes, but lighter. Mary Pickford is credited with being one of the first stars to use makeup in a more natural manner, but even she, with beautiful skin, resorted to whiteface for the camera. Pickford curls

Throughout most of the silent picture decades, actors and actresses–even stars–applied their own makeup, so you see a good deal of variation. Much of the makeup had to be developed and mixed by the actor. There was little in the way of commercially available makeup. Makeup experts were gradually introduced into the film industry, at first for extras who didn’t know what to do, and later for the stars as their skills grew.


Published in: on April 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm  Comments (3)  

What to call a toilet?

170px-Old_toilet_with_elevated_cistern_and_chainOne of the challenges in writing about the 1920s in first person is finding the correct vocabulary–no modern words that weren’t used at that time are allowed! For example, I can’t use the word “teenager” because it wasn’t in use until the 1940s, or the word “date” (as in “I went on a date”) because that word hadn’t come into use yet, or the word “Model T” to describe that popular car (I call it a Ford or a flivver, or if I’m being less brand-specific, a motorcar).

2938308_f520A problem I faced early on was what to call a bathroom, especially when the three-part bathroom (sink, toilet, and tub) was not in wide use during the Twenties. The three-part bathroom was rapidly becoming the norm, but it wasn’t yet. Showers were something only the wealthy had. And multiple bathrooms in a single house was highly unusual. In Jessie’s house–an old farmhouse in Hollywood converted to a rental for five young women–a toilet was added under the staircase and a bathing room with a tub was added at the end of the upstairs hall. In SILENT MURDERS, coming out in September, I describe a boarding house where the toilet is on one end of the hall and the tub on the other end. So what word to use? Was “toilet” commonly used then? No. 

According to Merritt Ierley in an article on the history of bathrooms in American Heritage magazine (May-June 1999), only about half of the homes in America had what we consider a normal bathroom, that is, a room with the sink, toilet, and tub & shower. Evidently the word “water closet” was widely used when referencing the toilet. So I’ve made sure to use that term in my series whenever it comes up, which isn’t often, but to me, it’s a critical detail that I want to get right. The other word I can use is “lavatory,” which could mean a room with washing facilities only (tub and sink) or a three-part bathroom. 

Published in: on March 15, 2014 at 8:16 am  Comments (6)  
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Kleenex–a product of the Twenties

imagesOnce upon a time, everyone carried handkerchiefs. Usually linen, sometimes cotton, often decorative and white. Ladies carried delicate lacy ones, gentlemen carried large monogrammed ones, children carried ones printed with juvenile or educational images.

In 1924, Kleenex came out with tissue paper squares that they marketed to women as makeup removers. The description provided to the patent office was “absorbent pads or sheets for removing cold cream.” Ads encouraged women to be like the movie stars, and remove your makeup with cold cream and Kleenex tissues. According to the official Kleenex site, the first magazine ad appeared in 1925 in Ladies Home Journal touting “the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars.” Soon, ads were in all the major women’s magazines like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Redbook. 

In 1926, executives discovered that more people were using the tissues as disposable handkerchiefs than for makeup, and they adjusted their advertising accordingly. In 1929 colored tissues were introduced; in 1930, printed tissues; and in 1932, the pocket pack. 

This is good to know, but the characters in my Roaring Twenties series, which takes place in 1924 and 1925, must still use handkerchiefs. I could write a scene where a woman removing her cold cream with a disposable tissue, but I’m not inspired by that idea . . . 

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 7:56 am  Comments (5)  
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