Writing Project Wednesday: 19th Century Cooking

It would be nice if there was extensive research to fit every subject in every place in every time. Sadly, that’s not the case. Sometimes doing research means looking backwards, forwards, and laterally and doing some conjecturing on the subject. The specifics of what people ate is one such arena. Sure, you can find plenty of research on what people generally ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but if you want to get specific, you’ll need to put your thinking cap on.

I found a couple recipe books that were helpful to me in my research on specifics:

Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail by Sam’l P. Arnold

This recipe book covers what people ate along the Santa Fe Trail from 1821-1870.

The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker

This recipe book features the frontier food from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic stories (1870s and 1880s)

The Best of Shaker Cooking by Amy Bess Miller and Persis Fuller

This recipe book includes over 900 recipes from nineteenth century Shaker Kitchens

I found a lot of overlap in recipes between the three books which led me to believe that referencing a food from one of the three books would probably be a safe bet. I also made the assumption that things probably hadn’t changed too much by the end of the century.

The thing I found most interesting in researching 19th century cooking (but it shouldn’t really have surprised me) is how simple and clean the recipes were. Of course, they didn’t have processed foods like we do today. And people didn’t have the abundance of food we have in the grocery stores. But the vast majority of recipes contain less than ten ingredients and they used food pretty much in its natural form. I’ve included a recipe for chocolate pound cake below (adapted for modern times) for you to see what I mean.

When the weather gets cooler, I’ve been thinking about making some of these recipes in my own kitchen. If I do, I’ll certainly document my results!

Shaker Recipe for Chocolate Pound Cake


What You Need:

-1 Cup Butter

-1/2 Cup of Lard

-3 Cups Sugar

-5 Eggs

-3 Cups Sifted Flour

-1/2 Cup of Cocoa

-1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Powder

-1/4 Teaspoon of Salt

-1 1/2 Cups of Milk

-2 Tablespoons Grated Chocolate

-1 Teaspoon Vanilla

-Greased and Floured Tube-type Pan


How to Make It:

  1. Cream butter, lard, and sugar together until light and fluffy.
  2. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  3. Sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Add alternately with milk to egg mixture, stirring after each addition until well blended.
  4. Add chocolate and stir in vanilla.
  5. Put batter into the greased pan.
  6. Bake in preheated 325 F oven for 1 1/2 hours.
  7. Turn onto wire rack to cool
  8. Center can be filled with whipped cream and shaved chocolate or left plain.
  9. Enjoy!


Writing Project Wednesday: Trains

I think I grew up knowing more than the average person about trains. My dad used to work for the railroad and there was always a healthy appreciation for these iron horses in our house. Sadly, the age of the train has long been on the decline. It was such a treat to get to research trains during their heyday! I’m sharing a few of my favorite tidbits of research below:

-Colorado’s history and growth is intrinsically bound up with the development of rail lines through and across the state. Colorado Springs was no exception. Until 1971, Colorado Springs had a functioning passenger train service. The historic train depot is still there. Until 2011, it was home to Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant.

-The Colorado Springs train depot is the very same one Nikola Tesla arrived at in 1899. Tesla is just one of many famous faces who passed through that depot. If you’re ever in Colorado Springs, you should pay a visit to the beautiful old building. You can see my pictures of how the building looked at the end of 2014 here. Here’s how it looked in 1871:

-At the end of the nineteenth century, steam locomotives were still used to power passenger trains. They weren’t fully replaced by electric and diesel locomotives until the first quarter of the twentieth century.

-In 1876, the Transcontinental Express train made the journey from New York to San Francisco in just 83 hours. A few days after its historic trip, passenger service began.

-In the 1890s, railroad lines covered the eastern side of the United States, but were comparatively sparse in the west:

-There are many examples of steam locomotives in museums across the country. If you visit Colorado Springs, there’s an example of one in the park across the street from the train depot. Here’s a rendering of one:

If you ever have the opportunity to take the train across Colorado or more broadly, across America, I would highly recommend it! It’s one of the most fascinating ways to experience our country as the railways take you through places you would not otherwise be able to see.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about food!

Writing Project Wednesday: The Alta Vista Hotel

The Alta Vista Hotel in Colorado Springs is notable because it is where Nikola Tesla stayed while he worked in Colorado Springs. Though it no longer stands, there are photographs and a smattering of information about it. For today’s Writing Project Wednesday, I’m going to give you the history of Tesla’s home away from home in Colorado!

-The Alta Vista Hotel was built around 1889, just a few blocks from the train station. It was torn down in 1962. You can see pictures of it during the demolition on The Colorado Springs Gazette here.

-It was located at 112 N. Cascade Avenue. The Kirkpatrick Bank and its parking lot sit on that site now. You can see the spot where it stood in my pictures from my trip to Colorado Springs here.

-The Alta Vista Hotel was made of stone and brick. You can see a beautiful colorization of it here. Additional photos of it can be found on The Tesla Universe site here and The Pikes Peak Radio and Electronics Museum site here.

-Tesla stayed in room 207 or 222, depending upon whom you ask. Most of his biographers agree that it was 207. As the story goes, he selected his room because the number was divisible by 3, a prime number.

-Tesla also famously asked for eighteen fresh towels to be delivered to his room every day. The biographies about Tesla abound with these details as if every biographer seems keen to prove Tesla’s eccentricity.

-In researching more facts for this article, I stumbled across a copy of the breakfast menu at the Alta Vista Hotel that is in the New York Public Library’s digital collection. I have to say, some of my most fascinating research is seeing what people used to eat.

-I also found a sample of the letterhead from the Alta Vista Hotel on the Tesla Universe site.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about trains!

Writing Project Wednesday: The Unsolved Murders of the Burnham and Wayne Families

On one of my trips home to Colorado, I popped into Barnes & Noble to kill some time and I decided to look at the local section. I ended up going home with a slim book called Ghosts of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak by Stephanie Waters.

I almost never read horror. I don’t like scary movies and I like scary books even less. But as I flipped through this book, it didn’t seem that bad and I thought I could handle it and that it would maybe give me some interesting ideas for my novel. It turns out this is the one book possibly on the entire planet that I could give actually read sitting alone and not need to lock every door. The book is actually told with quite a bit of humor so it’s not unlike visiting Disney’s Haunted Mansion – it’s not really supposed to be that scary.

And, I did get some ideas from reading it. I found myself drawn to the account of the 1911 murders of the Burnham and Wayne families in Colorado Springs – a crime that was never solved. If you don’t like gruesome, creepy stories you should stop reading now and come back for the next Writing Project Wednesday which will be on something less scary.

-For historical reference, the infamous Lizzie Borden axe-murders happened in 1892 in Massachusetts.

-In September of 1911, Nettie Ruth, sister of Mrs. Alice Burnham, went to the home of the Burnham family in Colorado Springs. She was greeted by a terrible, rotting stench.

-Nettie Ruth went inside the home and discovered her sister’s body and the bodies of the two young Burnham children in the bedroom. All three had had their skulls crushed in.

-The police were called and a crowd soon gathered at the Burnham home. It soon became evident that there was an unusual silence hanging over the Wayne home, located next to the Burnham residence.

-When the police entered the Wayne home, they found Mr. and Mrs. Wayne and their young daughter also dead in their beds with their skulls crushed in.

-The murderer’s creepy calling card? He tucked his victims into bed after murdering them, drawing the blankets up to their chins.

-The hunt was on for a serial killer who had murdered six people while they slept. Only one of the victims, one of the Burnham’s two children, appeared to have awakened during the crime. Robbery did not appear to be a motive in the killings as valuables were found in plain sight in both homes.

-Mr. Burnham, who lived at a local sanatorium as he suffered from tuberculosis, was the initial suspect in the crime. He was soon acquitted.

-Later, an Italian butcher was suspected of the crime. Though he was later let go for lack of evidence, many in the town believed him guilty.

-The 1911 murders of the Wayne and Burnham families have never been satisfactorily solved. In 2012, The Smithsonian ran an article that seemed to connect the slaying of the two families in Colorado Springs with a chain of ax murders that occurred across the Midwest from 1911-1912, the most notable of which seems to be the Villisca murders in Iowa. You can read that article here.

-If you want to read more about the case, The Denver Post ran a story in 2016 which you can read here. A longer account of the murders is posted on Genealogy Trails here.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about the history of Colorado Springs’ Alta Vista Hotel.



Writing Project Wednesday: Gibson Girls

On my last Writing Project Wednesday, I said I was going to talk about one of Colorado Springs’ creepiest unsolved murders. Which I will do, but while working on my book last weekend, I found myself researching women’s hairstyles form the 1890’s and stumbled across the Gibson Girl. I’d heard the term Gibson Girl before, but I never knew what it meant or what to attach it to. It turns out that the history of the Gibson Girl is as fascinating as the hairstyle. I showed my friend what I was researching and we were in awe of how these women managed to get their hair to do that. I feel like I have enough hair that I could probably pull it off if I didn’t have layers cut into it. Maybe there will be a WPW Video Tutorial in my future…

So what is a Gibson Girl? The name refers to the pen and ink drawings done by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson in the late 19th and early 20th century century America. Gibson said that his creations were composites of the hundreds and thousands of women he saw everyday.

One of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girls”

In a nutshell, The Gibson Girl was a willowy, regal Caucasian woman who oozed poise and grace. The signature Gibson Girl hairstyle involves piling all of the hair on top of the head in an elaborate hairstyle. Most writings call this either a bouffant, pompadour, or chignon style. But it’s really a combination of the three:

-This is First Lady Betty Ford wearing her hair in the bouffant style.

Via Glamourdaze

-This is actress Katherine Hepburn wearing her hair in the pompadour style. The rest of the hair could be worn up or down.

-This is actress and Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly wearing her hair in a version of the chignon style.

Credit: Lucy at Loepsie

-And this is an example of the Gibson Girl hairstyle, done by hairstylist Lucy from Loepsie. She has a tutorial for the Gibson Girl hairstyle up on Youtube here if you want to watch.

Some people say The Gibson Girl was the first national beauty standard for American ladies. Others say The Gibson Girl was the first pin-up. Whatever she was, The Gibson Girl was certainly an icon!

Next week on Writing Project Wednesday, I really will discuss Colorado Springs’ creepiest unsolved murders!

Writing Project Wednesday: Tesla, Edison, and The War of Currents

While the feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison predates my novel-in-progress, it’s still a fascinating story that few people are familiar with in present day. If you’re a younger person, you’ve probably seen The Oatmeal’s lengthy comic which summarizes Tesla’s life and also mentions the famous feud. You can see that full comic here.

I’m going to summarize the issues and introduce you to the major players in The War of Currents. For an extended look at the issues, I recommend Tesla Vs Edison by Nigel Cawthrone, a well-researched book that really covers this issue in depth. Eventually, I’m going to do a post ranking all these different Tesla biographies since I’ve read so many of them.

Ok so first things first as we dive into The War of Currents:

-This is Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor who was born in Serbia in 1856. He arrived in America in June of 1884. At this time, he had already been experimenting with the alternating current (AC) motor. After he failed to raise money to back his invention, he accepted an offer from Charles Batcherlor to go and work for the Edison company in New York.

-This is Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was a genius inventor who was born in Ohio in 1847. Edison either invented or improved upon a number of things we still use today like the lightbulb. In 1884 his electric company was busy lighting up New York with direct current (DC) power.

-Nikola Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison in 1884 and stayed for nearly a year. All the while, Tesla continued to work on his AC motor.

-When Tesla left Edison’s employ, he became to file his own patents. Tesla applied for patents on his AC motors, which were ultimately granted in 1888.

-This is George Westinghouse. George Westinghouse was an inventor turned entrepreneur who was born in New York in 1846. Westinghouse invented the air-operated brake for railroad cars. In 1885, Westinghouse decided to develop an AC power system. In 1888, Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s AC motor patents. Tesla then became a consultant with the Westinghouse Electric Company.

-Meanwhile, Westinghouse and Edison were fighting The War of Currents with their rival electric companies and rival power systems.

-Edison claimed that AC power was dangerous. In February 1888, Edison published an attack on Westinghouse and AC.

-Enter a fourth player, Harold P. Brown. Brown was an electrical engineer who also published an attack on Westinghouse and AC power in June of 1888. Brown knew he needed an ally so he called on Edison, who accepted.

-Brown then began to stage demonstrations that involved shocking animals with DC and AC power. Brown electrocuted dogs, calves, and horses to prove his point that AC was dangerous.

-In 1888, New York adopted electrocution as its preferred method to administer capital punishment.

-Brown was then hired by the prison system of New York to design its electrical equipment. Naturally, he decided to use the Westinghouse AC generators.

-In May of 1889, William Kemmler was convicted of murder and was set to become the first person to be executed by electrocution. Kemmler’s lawyers protested that electrocution was an inhumane punishment and the defense team began to dig into Brown’s background which later revealed that Brown was working with Edison. Nevertheless, the sentence was upheld and Kemmler was executed in August of 1890.

-By 1890, The War of Currents largely began to wind down. The Panic of 1890 caused by the collapse of Barings Bank in London created havoc for both Edison and Westinghouse. Faced with financial trouble, Edison General Electric and Thomas-Houston merged, Edison was dropped from the name, and the new company become General Electric. At this point, Edison also stepped away from the electric lighting business to focus on other things. By the end of the century, AC would become the undisputed winner in The War of Currents. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison continued for the rest of Edison’s life, though not quite at the same magnitude.

* Some of you may have noticed I included AC/DC’s logo in my title image for this week’s Writing Project Wednesday. The story goes that Angus and George Young noticed the initials AC/DC on their sister’s sewing machine and thought that would be a cool name for a band!

Next week, I’m going to talk about one of Colorado Springs’ creepiest unsolved murders!


Writing Project Wednesday: The Color of Lightning

Growing up in Colorado, I used to think we’d hit the jackpot when it came to natural disasters. Hurricanes never bothered us, earthquakes didn’t happen, and blizzards were easily handled with a pile of blankets and some advanced planning. While we were close enough to the mountains that tornados in our area were rare, we were also far enough away that wildfires weren’t much of a concern. But one weather phenomena we did have in abundance was thunder storms and with it, lightning. These lightning storms and Colorado’s dry climate are the main reasons Nikola Tesla traveled to Colorado Springs in May of 1899.

I’ve seen a lot of these natural light shows. A normal summer day consisted of a hot and sunny morning with a thunderstorm rolling off the mountains in the afternoon. If you wanted to go to the pool, you best not sleep in since eventually you would be chased out of the water by ominous, dark storm clouds.

Living in San Diego, I kind of miss the thunderstorms. In the nine years I’ve been living here (yes, nine, wow!) I’ve only seen an actual thunderstorm a handful of times and aside from the one time we got a tornado warning in Del Mar, it’s nowhere near as beautiful (or as dangerous) as the type of storms Colorado tends to produce. In my parents’ house, there’s a series of pictures that’s been hanging up for as long as I can remember that my dad took one summer. It’s aptly titled “Armageddon”.

Depending on where you live, you might not know that lightning actually comes in colors! Yes, colors! I’ve seen white, of course, but also purple and red and twice I’ve had the fortune of seeing “thundersnow”: the rare phenomenon of a thunder storm coupled with snow! I always thought the different colors of lightning were merely a trick of the light or the eye (is that still a trick of the light?) and nothing more. But as I’ve been doing research for my novel, I found out that colored lighting actually tells you something about the lightning and the atmospheric conditions of the storm!

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) “lightning can appear to be many different colors depending on what the light travels through to get to your eyes. Haze, dust, moisture, raindrops and any other particles in the atmosphere will affect the color by absorbing or diffracting a portion of the white light of lightning.”

A Reddit Ask Science forum also had this to say about the colors of lightning: “When white light passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, the molecules that make up the air (nitrogen, oxygen, and argon) will scatter the wavelengths of visible light disproportionately. Shorter wavelengths are scattered more than longer wavelengths by a factor of roughly 3.5:1. This causes a beam of white light to appear yellowish. As the light travels through more air, the shorter wavelengths are depleted even more and now the yellow wavelengths are being significantly depleted causing the light to appear reddish. So the more air between you and the light source the redder the object appears. A lightning flash reaches temperatures of about 30,000 K (54,0000°F) which is five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Objects with this temperature would emit a brilliant white light. The closer the lightning flash is to you, the whiter it appears. Distant lightning flashes will have a yellowish color because the light has to travel through more air molecules. If there are raindrops between you and the lightning flash, the color will appear reddish. Sometimes fine dust particles are eroded from the surface by the wind beneath the cloud and lifted into the air. These particles will also scatter the light and give the lightning flash a yellow/orange appearance.”

In lay terms, basically the closer you are to the lightning and the less interference from dust and other pollutants, the more white it will appear. The further away it is and the more dust and pollutants in the air, the more yellow or even orange it will appear. You can think of a flame…the center is often white or nearly white where the fire is hottest and the outer edges appear orange and red where the fire is cooler. Raindrops in the air also cause the lightning to appear reddish…you have probably often seen purple lightning with thunderstorms that have a significant amount of rain. Other colors are possible, though more rare. The NSSL mentions that during the thundersnow phenomena, the lightning can appear pink or even green!

Bonus fact: if you’re always trying to remember whether lighting or thunder comes first, lightning comes first because light travels faster than sound! You cannot have thunder without lightning because lightning causes thunder. NSSL has a great description of how lightning causes thunder here.

A little off topic, but while doing research I found these two insane videos of what happens to wood when lightning hits it…worth a watch!

Next week I’m going to be diving into the great feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the “War of Currents”!