More Rare Books: Apostolic Fathers

While we’re on the subject of rare books… another book I needed to hunt down—this time for Josiah—was an 18th century edition of the letters of Saints Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, all first and second century Christian bishops.

For a variety of reasons, religious matters interest Josiah, to the point that he’s something of an armchair theologian. Like most Bostonians at the time, he’s a Congregationalist, but he has a lot of questions. And he’s not one to accept another’s say-so with having first examining matters himself.

Such things run in Josiah’s blood; he’s the grandson of a minister. And thanks to the father of my main character, he received a private education that included the study of Latin. In the 18th century, knowing Latin opened intellectual doors: most everything worth reading could be read in Latin. And Josiah has a knack for languages.

Following the Reformation, theologians were increasingly interested in the writings of the early Church Fathers, as the differing Christian factions sought to establish themselves against Catholicism. The argument was that the Catholic Church has veered from its apostolic moorings and needed to be purged of its accumulated trappings. (Disclosure: I’m a practicing Catholic.)

Being married to a theologian and patristics scholar, I knew that if my character was going to read the Church Fathers, then I had better find the actual book, double-check its contents, and come up with a plausible account for how my character acquires said book. Not the easiest task! Fortunately, Josiah is an officer on a merchant ship, and with that comes mobility. When one travels the world, one is more likely to find things that other people wouldn’t.

What I found was this:

Bibliotheca Patrum ApostolicorumLibrary of the Apostolic Fathers

Once again, hat tip to Google Books.

This edition was edited by a Lutheran divine name Littig, who published the volume in Leipzig in 1699. It includes an opening essay by Professor Littig, followed by the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp in both the original Greek and Latin translation on facing pages.

A rare book, indeed! And when Josiah finds it in a Savannah, Georgia bookshop owned by a grumpy French ex-pat, he knows that this is the book he wants!

But will he manage to haggle his way to a bargain? When that surly Frenchman knows exactly what kind book he has, beyond a shadow of a doubt?

Good luck, son. Good luck.

18th Century Cookbooks

Mrs. Robb, one of the main characters of my current work in progress, is an excellent cook. She was taught to cook and bake by the daughter of a French Huguenot refugee in Boston who had been a pastry chef in Lyons. Her cooking is a blend of French, British, and American, with a preference for anything involving pastry.

Of course, cooking has evolved over time. While I always do a quick internet search to check the history of any particular dish before including it in my story, it’s often easier to pick dishes from period cookbooks. The two I find myself returning to again and again are American Cookery by Amelia Simmons and The Modern Cook by Vincent La Chapelle.

And thanks to the wonders of Google Books, facsimiles of these books are not only available online for free, but also searchable. If historical cooking interests you, check them out!

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18th Century Fashion: Where to Begin

Molly, the protagonist of my current work-in-progress, is a talented mantua-maker (the 18th century term for dressmaker). Like today’s fashion designers, Molly sees her work as art and herself as an artist.

When it comes to fashion, Molly and I are nothing alike. I am neither a trendsetter nor trend follower, nor do I sew well. I know how to thread my sewing machine. I can make curtains, pillowcases, and simple clothes, like skirts. And that’s about it! In order to write this book, I have not only had to study late 18th century fashion and historical sewing techniques, but I needed to learn how clothing is constructed, simply.

A daunting task. Where to begin?

Vogue Sewing Book

I picked up the 1975 edition of the Vogue Sewing Book at a tiny thrift shop on West Street in Annapolis, fifteen years ago. (I well remember the shopping trip—my husband and I were either engaged or newlyweds and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering downtown Annapolis. Those were lovely days.) I’ve referenced the Vogue Sewing Book often over the years and especially as I’ve tackled this writing project.

Among the most important things I’ve learned from the Vogue Sewing Book: tailoring requires getting… up close and personal. Very personal. This was especially true of the 18th century men’s clothing, which was fitted snug against the body, without the aid of Lycra. Tailors were men for a reason!

Man’s assemble, circa 1790-1795. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kyoto Costume Institute

The Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection of 18th century artifacts is beyond impressive. While their collection is available for viewing online, I recommend purchasing a copy of their book. The book is coffee table sized and, with its big, glossy photos and lovely close-up shots, is worth the $15 price tag. I refer to this book constantly.

Screenshot of KCI’s online archives (1780s-1790s).

American Duchess

Where would I be without the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking? American Duchess makes and sells historical footwear and is well-known in the historical costuming world. This book is mainly an instructional manual on how to sew period costume using period techniques but also includes narrative on the history of each fashion, commentary on materials, and instructions for how to put the bloomin’ things on!

The authors also point out some historical inconsistencies with regards gown names. For example, the Italian gown, which was the gown from the mid 1770s through the beginning of the 1790s, sometimes goes by robe à l’anglais. But the English gown, which is an entirely different style that was fashionable earlier in the century, also goes by robe à l’anglais. (Kyoto, for example, uses robe a l’anglais for labeling both.) For me, understanding the difference between the two was crucial.

Also, American Duchess recently released The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty, which is a companion book to their dressmaking book. I have not yet purchased it, but oh, I want to! There’s nothing quite like big 18th century hair.

Big hair, don’t care. Portrait of Marie-Antoinette. (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, American Duchess maintains a blog. This post goes over the basic types of 18th century gowns—an excellent primer for us non-experts. And their “Historical Analytics” series has helped me get inside Molly’s artistic, dress-designing head.


Corsets (stays) get a bad rap. The idea that women were restricted in too-tight harnesses, causing them to faint at every turn, is mostly fiction. No woman in her right mind would put up with such nonsense—not when there’s life to live and work to be done. Only vain, silly women tied their laces too tight.

What are stays? Support garments, plain and simple. They kept the girls and the mama belly/spare tires in their proper places, so that gowns fit correctly and lay smoothly. Stays also helped with posture. And like most garments of the 18th century, they were custom fitted to each woman.

To learn more about corsets or to purchase your own, check out Redthreaded. Browsing their site, you’ll notice that different centuries have different types of corsets, designed to accommodate the reigning fashions of the day.

Interestingly, while mantua-makers were women, male tailors were in charge of making women’s and children’s stays. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. Tradition?

18th Century Notebook

Another website I reference constantly is the 18th Century Notebook. This site has links to historic examples of not only clothing, but also accessories and common household items. For example: at a few points in the story, we see Josiah, my male lead character, carrying hard coinage. I needed to know what he was carrying his money in. From perusing the 18th Century Notebook, I learned about different kinds of men’s wallets, purses, bags, and pockets and was able to make a historically accurate choice.


As it turns out, historical costumers love Instagram! And I’m among their thousands of silent stalkers followers, salivating over their pretty 18th century creations in silk, lace, and ribbon. Using Instagram’s “save” feature, I file away any interesting pictures, similar to the way people use Pinterest.

Not surprisingly, many of these costumers are real-life friends with each other. Once you follow one of them, you will eventually figure out who knows who, etc. etc. (Social media is weird.)

When it comes to 1780s and 1790s fashion, my favorite Instagram account is @modernmantuamaker. One example of her work: this amazing late 1780s/early 1790s gown:

She made that fly fringe by hand. I am in awe.

Other 18th century costumers I follow: @markslauren, @lydiafast, @timetravellingredhead, @alyssagallotte, @fabricnfiction, @before_the_automobile, @makethishistoricallook, @sewstine, @silk_and_buckram, @sew_18thcentury, and (not a costumer) @18th_century_cleophas.

I also follow businesses @americanduchess, @birnleyandtrowbridge, and @redthreaded, as well as the accounts for Mount Vernon (so good!), Colonial Williamsburg, Historic New England, the School of Historical Dress, 18th Century Society, and the DAR Museum.

These people are the 18th century fashion experts, par excellence. Highly recommended.

And so goes my continuing education on all things Federalist America. It’s been quite the ride!

P.S. Speaking of Instagram… I’m an expert of nothing, but if you’d like to follow me, I’m at @rhondafranklinbooks. See you there!

Featured Image: Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, Self-Portrait with a Harp, 1791 (Wikimedia Commons)

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Records of a Salem Vessel in 1803: Featured Documents from the National Archives at Boston

Speaking of Custom House

This online exhibit from the National Archives about early 19th century merchant shipping and its paper trail is amazing. I’ve referred to it again and again as I continue with Book Two revisions.

From the exhibit’s introduction:

This exhibit features early federal records that document the first voyage made by the Ship Mount Vernon of Salem, Massachusetts in 1803. At that time, tall ships from Salem, like the Ship Mount Vernon, traveled around the world exporting and importing cargoes from the West and the East, including exotic locations such as Canton and Sumatra. These documents, and the information recorded on them, are typical examples of records for thousands of American ships of that time. They are also documents that were an integral part of the daily life of seamen, merchants, and officials.

All of the documents in this exhibit are from records created by officials of the Salem and Beverly Customs District for keeping track of American vessels, the cargoes that they carried, and most importantly, to account for the import and tonnage taxes that were the main source of federal revenue in those early days of the Republic.

As Josiah, my lead male character, says, “Paperwork is Custom House’s raison d’être.” While I would never bore my readers with the intricate details of said paperwork (snooze…), it’s always fun to see historic documents and artifacts. If you have a few spare minutes, head over to the National Archives site and take a look!

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Story Research: Current Go-To Books on the Bookshelf

I love perusing other people’s bookshelves. Don’t you?

As a historical fiction writer, I spend much of my time doing research. Below is a sampling of the books currently sitting on my bookshelf. Have fun browsing!

Bulfinch’s Boston, 1787-1817
by Harold and James Kirker
Oxford University Press, 1964

This book provides a charming, if somewhat biased, view into Federalist Boston through the lens of Charles Bulfinch, the famous Boston architect. Reading it, I feel as if I am walking the same streets as the characters of my story.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840
(Everyday Life in America series)
by Jack Larkin
Harper & Row, 1988

Larkin covers nearly every aspect of early American daily life in this comprehensive social history.

The American Heritage History of the Making of the Nation, 1783-1860
Ralph K. Andrist, series editor
American Heritage/Bonanza Books, 1968

Coffee table books have their uses! A helpful historical survey.

Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century
The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

Another coffee table book, and gorgeous, too! The Kyoto collection is online, but nothing beats seeing large, glossy spreads and close-ups of historical fashions. All the details!

The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking
by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox
Page Street Publishing, 2017

My main character is a mantua-maker (dressmaker). I am not. My story could not have been written without this book. I reference it constantly.

America and the Sea: A Maritime History
by Benjamin W. Labaree, et al
Mystic Seaport Museum

And my other main character is a merchant seaman. Another book I couldn’t do without!

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Forgive This Emo Moment: The Lumineers and Character Psychology

Fiction writing is a strange process, and fiction writers, strange for it. For me, story writing is largely an analytical process of thinking through cause and effect:

If this happens, then this happens next.

If this character meets with these circumstances, how would this character react? As opposed to that character?

I always have characters A and B together. What would happen if I put A and C together? Or B and C? A and D?

The pacing of this scene is off. Where do I introduce conflict? At what rate did I build it up? Did the scene reach a crisis point? Did the character make a choice? Was their an unexpected twist as a result of that choice?

And so on. But every so often my right brain shuts up, my left brain takes over, and I’ll have an unexpected and almost always dramatic emotional breakthrough that pushes the story forward in ways my right brain never anticipated.

The source of these breakthroughs also always surprises me. Once upon a time, many years and many stories ago, I had a breakthrough while typing on my computer in the middle of McDonald’s Playland. I was seven months pregnant, my oldest was playing with other kids, Hootie and the Blowfish was blaring from the speakers… and my main character decided that this was the exact right moment to tell me her deepest, darkest secret.

Have you ever blubbered like a baby while typing frenetically against the backdrop of squealing kids and “Order 294!” and I only want to be with yooooo-oooo-oooo-uuuuu and that Mickey D’s french fry smell? Well, I have. Just another crazy writer. Don’t mind me.

I’ve had several of these emo moments while working on my current project. One of them came while listening to this song:

I don’t follow popular music. All I know about Stubborn Love was that it hit the top of the charts some years back. My husband and I had listened to the album a few times and liked it, but I hadn’t thought much about it until after I began working on my current project, in which I have a 23 year old male character who is in love, and has been in love for many years, with his childhood friend.

Stubborn Love was the song that gave me an emotional insight into the dynamics of that kind of love.

How? Not entirely sure. Perhaps because Stubborn Love has a male protagonist. Perhaps because the lyrics speak to childhood affection and unrequited love. Perhaps because the beloved in the song is a girl on the run. Perhaps because the lover is faithful to her, regardless of the pain she causes him. Perhaps because the lover is, in fact, stubborn.

All these dynamics are at play in my story. But only when I happened to hear the song again, about four chapters into the story process, did I have the cathartic moment that allowed me to understand my character.

Of all things to help me understand the emotional workings of an eighteenth century man… contemporary folk pop rock.

As I said before, don’t mind me. Just another crazy writer.

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Tax Collectors There Must Be: Inside Custom House

Remember that little kerfuffle we call the American Revolutionary War?

Remember what started it all?


Detail of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770; Custom House visible at right. (Public Domain)

In Book One of my current work-in-progress, the male lead character, Josiah, is offered a job as a secret agent, gathering intelligence for the President’s office. France and England were on the brink of war in 1792 and America was trying to stay out of it. American port cities need to be watched, Josiah is told, and between his foreign language skills and experience as a merchant sailor, he’s a perfect candidate for the job.

(Long story short: Washington had a black ops budget. Technically the funds were allocated for overseas operations and their incident expenses, but it’s not too much of a fictional stretch to include domestic operations among those incident expenses.)

It’s an intriguing offer. But for Josiah, there’s one major drawback: the cover job. Specifically, working as a tidewaiter (inspector) at Boston Custom House.

The idea of being a tax collector doesn’t thrill him, at all.

Tell me how you really feel about paying taxes: A depiction of the tarring and feathering of (British) Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1774 under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts. (Public Domain)

Taxes: America’s favorite controversial topic. This is no less true today than in 1789, when the First United States Congress was faced with the task of figuring out how to raise revenue without ticking everyone off.

Congress’ solution was the Tariff Act of 1789, which established duties (taxes) on imported goods into the United States, and the subsequent Collection Act of 1789, which established the United States Customs Service and designated American ports of entry. Every inbound ship, American or foreign, was required to stop at the nearest port, undergo inspection, pay duties, and clear papers before going on its merry way.

For years, tariffs were the main source of revenue for the federal government – only in 1861, with the Civil War as an excuse, did Congress dare to impose an individual income tax. Tariffs, by comparison, were far less intrusive.

Every customhouse was run by a Collector of Customs. He was assisted by a naval officer (in the case of largest ports), who acted as deputy collector and supervised the clerical staff, and a surveyor, who measured ships and tonnage and supervised ground operations and inspection staff. Customs officers received their appointments from President Washington and answered to Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury.

In order to make the idea of paying tariffs more palatable for the general public, the first customs officers were carefully chosen, well-respected Patriots, many of them war heroes. On the flip side, in order to attract good candidates, the Department of the Treasury paid its customhouse officers a percentage of incoming revenue, making the positions highly lucrative, especially for those officers assigned to the largest ports, such as Boston, where my story is set.

Of course, we know who ran Boston Custom House in 1792. And they weren’t nobodies, either! My character may be fictional, but his employers were influential men. For a writer, this is where things get fun: my job is to blend fact and fiction, playing each off each other and seeing what kind of story develops.

So who is Josiah working for?

Benjamin Lincoln, Collector of Customs

General Benjamin Lincoln by Charles Wilson Peale. (Public Domain.)

Benjamin Lincoln served in the Provincial Congress and then as a major general for the Continental Army. As Washington’s second-in-command at Yorktown, Lincoln was the man who formally accepted Cornwallis’ sword of surrender. Afterwards, he served as Secretary of War for the Confederation government and led the troops that put down Shay’s Rebellion. He was the second Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. General Lincoln was then appointed Boston’s first Collector of Customs in 1789, a post he held until 1809, the year before his death.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more respectable man to fill the position of Collector of Customs. With General Lincoln at the helm of Custom House, paying taxes felt almost patriotic.

James Lovell, Naval Officer

James Lovell was the son of the headmaster of Boston Latin School. After his graduation from Harvard, Lovell joined his father and served as an instructor. In 1771 he gave the first speech commemorating the Boston Massacre, making him a well-known Patriot, while his father was an ardent Loyalist.

In 1775, Lovell was arrested by the British for spying and was released in 1776 in exchange for Colonel Philip Skene. Afterwards he took his seat in the Continental Congress, where he served on the Committee of Foreign Correspondence and of Secret Correspondence, and as such was responsible for creating and implementing cyphers for the country.

So the real-life Lovell was involved in intelligence work, a fact which ought to dovetail nicely into my story, except for one itty, bitty little detail:

The chances of President Washington having actually trusted the man are slim to none.

Admittedly, this is conjecture on my part, but justified, I think. During the war, Lovell was a vocal critic of George Washington and an open supporter of General Horatio Gates. He took Gates’ side in his quarrel with General Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s future father-in-law) and then (along with the Adamses) supported Gates in his attempt to usurp command of the Continental Army from Washington. Lovell was among those encouraging Gates to send his reports directly Congress instead of reporting to Washington, his commanding officer.

Surely Washington would remember a little detail like that.

But that’s not all! Lovell found himself embroiled in personal scandal on more than one occasion. As a young man, he fathered an illegitimate son. But worse was his… indiscreet flirtation? failed attempt at something more?… with Abigail Adams. Lovell and the Adamses were friends, and Lovell sent her some suggestive letters while her husband was overseas as commissioner to France. (Barking up the wrong tree, methinks.) Between the letters and an accusation that he was having an affair with his landlady, Lovell resigned from Congress in 1782 and returned home to Boston under a cloud.

Afterwards, Lovell served as collector of taxes and customs officer for the state of Massachusetts. His appointment as naval officer in 1789 was, in effect, a continuation of the job he was already doing, except that Custom House was now under the auspices of the federal government instead of the state. I find it notable that Lovell was not offered the job of Collector of Customs, despite being far more qualified for the position than Benjamin Lincoln, who had neither the experience nor education. Washington and Hamilton didn’t fire Lovell, but they also didn’t promote him.

What I’m going to do with all of this in Book Two of my series, I have no idea. I have a draft of the story but haven’t yet incorporated Lovell into it, for the simple reason that I didn’t know of his existence until a month ago, when I found this document. Let the revision fun begin!

Thomas Melvill, Surveyor

Thomas Melvill, artist unknown. (Public Domain.)

Thomas Melvill (or Melville) was a cool cat, and I’ve taken the liberty of making him even cooler. As surveyor of Custom House, he would be Josiah’s direct supervisor, overseeing all tidewaiters, weighers, and gaugers. But Melvill’s supervisory role extends beyond his Custom House duties…

Melvill was a Son of Liberty and a close friend of Sam Adams. He was present at the Boston Tea Party. (He even came away with tea leaves stuck in his shoes, which he saved as a souvenir.) During the war he was an officer in the army and served in the Rhode Island campaigns.

After the war Melvill was appointed to Custom House as surveyor and eventually replaced Lovell as naval officer. He was also a fireward, a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of the Massachusetts General Assembly. But his biggest claim to fame is being the paternal grandfather of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick.

Major Melvill was a well-known figure in Boston, a robust, energetic, and charitable man, most especially loved by his fellow firefighters, and whose death was publicly mourned and eulogized for weeks in both poetry and prose.

Finally, for the purpose of my story, Melvill is also one of Washington’s spies. Because… why not? He’s just the kind of man who would be a secret agent, on top of everything else.

And now… time to go hunt down some bad guys!

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From Nothing to Something: Nathaniel Silsbee

Josiah, the male lead of my historical work-in-progress, is not only first mate on a merchant ship, but a small-time merchant himself. His captain allows him a share of cargo space in exchange for a cut of his profits. Josiah has made a small fortune off of his investments, which he squirrels away in boxes hidden beneath his kitchen floorboards. He is saving to build his own ship.

When I first wrote this scenario, I merely assumed it was possible. Would an 18th century merchant-captain share cargo space with his ambitious young officer? Sure! Why not?

Fortunately, as I found out later, this scenario has historical precedent. Elias Hasket Derby, the wealthiest shipowner in Salem, Massachusetts, made it his policy to encourage and facilitate his young employees’ small-time investments in foreign trade:

He allowed his apprentices to put their savings into small ‘adventures’ in foreign trade, for which he gave them space in his vessels. Even his seamen were allowed 800 pounds of freight apiece, to exchange for foreign products.

Alexander Laing, Seafaring America, pg. 69

One of Derby’s young ship masters, Nathaniel Silsbee, was so successful in his investments that

…he retired from water, wealthy, at the age of twenty-eight, to manage his [own] ships from on shore. He made it a family enterprise by bringing in his brothers, William and Zacariah, when they, too, duly swallowed their anchors at the proper age of twenty-eight. Both had become shipmasters at nineteen.

ibid. 69-70

Not only did Silsbee become a wealthy shipowner, but he eventually entered politics, serving as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and member of both the Massachusetts House and Senate.

Nathaniel Silsbee. (Public Domain)

Josiah’s fictional and Nathaniel Silsbee’s real-life stories are very similar. Both their fathers experienced financial failure. Both went to sea at a young age in order to support their families (Josiah leaves home at fifteen; Silsbee at fourteen). And both are determined young men with enough business savvy to take advantage of the financial opportunities that came of working on a merchant ship.

The scenario works. And the novelist wipes her brow with a, “Whew!”

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