Where to quickly learn hopes/setbacks of people in tiny 1890s village?
October 28, 2018 12:53 PM   Subscribe

Help-My-Fiction-Filter: What might be quick but rich sources of ideas for people's lives, economy, hopes, setbacks, trials and tribulations in a tiny remote (edge-of-desert/badland) village, under a dozen residents, 1890s, no electricity, good water, tiny train station (mostly for passing-by locomotives to restock their water), limited farmland?

I'm especially looking for the kind of (sometimes private) life challenges/hobbies/pitfalls that help make the characters very human and relatable but are also slice-of-history fascinating in the sense of "I never even thought about that being a problem but duh, of course that's a big deal here!"
The catch is that too many other things need my time too, so I'm hoping to find a variety of quick/fast/rich sources of early villager's lives, more than novels and other time-consuming sources. But if a particular novel is too much of a goldmine to not mention, please mention it! (There are no wealthy/aristocratic people in the village)

posted by Cusp to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Where, in the US? (I'm guessing US because of "desert/badland.")
posted by wintersweet at 1:03 PM on October 28, 2018

Anywhere in the world (other than polar climate I suppose). Learning about different region or culture specific issues helps me too. The main thing is to wrap my head around a variety of relatable daily concerns a long way from cities and of limited means in the 19th century. From there I'll be able to zero in on ideas that fit better.

Those specifics I gave (under a dozen people, no electricity, etc) are just for better context as well, not expectations. I wasn't very clear, sorry.
posted by Cusp at 1:12 PM on October 28, 2018

In 1940's Colorado, the author / newspaperman Forest Crossen interviewed settlers and early residents in a series of short books called "Western Yesterdays". They have a wealth of information and stories from original sources.

In particular South Park Railroaders (Western Yesterdays Volume XI), and David Moffat's Hill Men (Western Yesterdays Volume X), are railroad personal.
posted by nickggully at 1:26 PM on October 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't know how a town with twelve people in it would have a train station, unless the train long ago stopped stopping there, but anyway this is the era of Little House on the Prairie and the books illustrate the things you've asked about.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:48 PM on October 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

I don't know how a town with twelve people in it would have a train station, unless the train long ago stopped stopping there, but anyway this is the era of Little House on the Prairie and the books illustrate the things you've asked about.

Agreed, and this is especially true of The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years.
posted by jgirl at 2:17 PM on October 28, 2018

(maybe trigger warning)

The newspaper. I read it every night --papers from about 1860 to 1930. I use Newspapers.com but there are many free sites.

Government reports on google books. Look up most common causes of death. 1890? TB, Pneumonia, Diarrhea diseases (lack of clean water and food safety?), and unknown cause are 4 of the top 5. I am pretty sure it was just under a 60/40 chance to make it to 5 years old.

I do want to mention that each region is so different. Pellegra was an epidemic in the south (poor diet) and diseases from city living would likely be more common up north.

Google lots of 1890 photographs. Look at what stage shows were popular. Listen to some of the gay 90s songs on You tube. Google "occupational cabinet card 1890". You'll see butchers and paper hangers and advertising girls.

Stereographs were a way to pass the time in your parlor. Google those images and see what was popular in 1890.

World fairs were a big thing. Look up the Colombian Expo in Chicago.

In many papers in January they have events of note from the year before. It includes suicides, disasters, news events that were of note.
Lots of infants falling into boiling tubs of water, woman and children dying from fires from the heath, and suicides with carbolic acid. The papers in those days told it all (except for rape- they used terms like "outraged")

Train wrecks were common, and jobs weren't safe. Railroad men and miners have short lives.

1890s? Bicycles are big! They are obsessed.

There is a lot to say about women, speaking of bicycles. "Victorian dress reform" (no real big change made in middle American till after 1900) but they at least got some athletic bloomers.

Guys have clubs for a hundred different reasons and music is a huge part of clubs. Work in a factory? It might have a band. Some towns have bands and taxpayers pay for it. A lot of them are styled after the military bands from civil war.

1890 is the height of the GAR. They have big encampments and all these huge reunions. Medals and flag bunting and parades.

Speaking of parades? Circuses are pretty big. And the circuses can be BIG.

Google home interior 1890. Victorian parlor 1890. And tenement 1890.

I could go on a lot and I'm sorry I have so much already, but if you choose a specific location you can really get specific. Each place had a way of life, often a job half the town did. There are lot of mill towns and kids often start working in a mill at about 13. Look up "doffer 1890" Don't even start me on newsies.

I'd say more than now -- individuals lives were very different from each other. Each region and class had a real different way of life.
posted by beccaj at 2:24 PM on October 28, 2018 [18 favorites]

Wouldn't surprise me to learn there were 12-person towns with a railroad stop. There was way more passenger rail in the 1890s than there is now.

Wikipedia has info on rail transport sorted by year.
posted by aniola at 2:43 PM on October 28, 2018

- Links on the right about daily concerns
- Old medical books will give you some ideas about the kinds of things people worried about fixing, e.g.: Health at Home, or, Hall's Family Doctor
- diaries: girl in 1800s Canada, village life + diary of girl in 1860s US (there are many more if you search)
- Tsuchi (Soil), a novel of rural village life in Japan
posted by wintersweet at 2:55 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, trains of the time didn't stop because there was a population center, they stopped to take on water and fuel, and deliver the mail, out here in North Dakota it was about 10-15 miles apart there was a stop; speculators set up townsites at pretty much every one, hoping that it will become "The Big Town" for the area. So, a town of 12 isn't unusual. Think Petticoat Junction.

Something else to keep in mind: the "village", at least from a northern Great Plains standpoint, wasn't where most of the community lived. A square mile is 640 acres; so if each farmer had 160 acres (the minimum for homestead rights), that's 4 farms per square mile, and people had to live on their claim to get homestead rights; if someone had 80 acres, which was small but not unusable, that's 8 per square mile. That's how stories of some farm resident quickly running to the neighbor's house were possible -- the next house was only maybe a quarter or a half mile away, only a couple blocks in a city scale. For example, the population of North Dakota now is about the same as it was 100 years ago -- but Fargo was 15,000 people then, and is 120,000 now, and it was the largest city in both times; we've always had the population, but it was far, far more spread out back in the day. A Township is 6 miles across in both directions, 36 square miles, so if the land is remotely farmable that probably means there could be about 150 families in the area; even in Bonanza days (large farms claim hundreds of acres of land), you still need people to farm that land; if you're on the edge of the desert, yeah, there may not be arable land, but if anything remotely green can grow there's going to be either ranchers or farmers around. Where I'm going with this is: your town of 12 may seem small, but it's probably in the middle of a big community of people who come into town on a regular basis for supplies and to visit with neighbors. Although you've got a small village in mind, there's probably still a lot of people around.

Chronicling America from the Library of Congress is my go-to place for old newspapers; you can browse by state, so pick the region like what you're looking for and flip through them. It doesn't take long, and you'll start to learn the structure of there the paper puts their "locals", sometimes it's always page 1, always the back page, or always page 3, but they tended to be pretty consistent within a time period.
posted by AzraelBrown at 3:26 PM on October 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

Google News Archive also has newspapers of the appropriate vintage as does the National Library of Australia's Trove web site. Then there's the California Digital Newspaper Collection at the University of California, Riverside.
posted by XMLicious at 4:53 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's a section in the book The Worst Hard Time (which was about the Dust Bowl) about one of the families during the generation before, which should have some good descriptions of what you're looking for. I believe it was describing a part of Texas.

Depending on what you're writing about, keep in mind also that you're not necessarily talking about Anglos if you're talking about some parts of the Southwest during that time.
posted by twoplussix at 5:08 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Daily concerns would have included the difficulty of finding someone you're not related to to marry. Livestock diseases and weather could totally destroy a tiny town like that. It is highly unlikely that there would be a doctor within easy travel.
posted by irisclara at 6:01 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Where I'm going with this is: your town of 12 may seem small, but it's probably in the middle of a big community of people who come into town on a regular basis for supplies and to visit with neighbors. Although you've got a small village in mind, there's probably still a lot of people around.
This seems to me to be a good and important point. I can't link to any literature (it exists but it's only print, only Danish and out of print), but at the train station closest to our family farm, there are only two farms, not even a village. Both would have had a lot of people on them in the 1890's compared to today, but not over 20 including children. Then all the farms in the community and the school and the church lie along a 6 mile road going east-west, while the train goes south-north. Up till when I was in my 20's, that road was a gravel road, and everyone knew each other along it. The road didn't go anywhere else, and both north and south of the farms were not-arable land, so back then, it was very isolated. To the North and , there were similar parallel roads and communities, but there were only few and badly maintained paths between them, all with the original but now redundant purpose of getting people to church (the next two village/roads were churchless originally, but their churches were built just about the 1890's, so it must have been a time of both relative wealth and piety). The station opened in 1890.
There were no shops or stores back then. In the nearest larger village (pop 230-ish) there was a cattle market once a year. Otherwise everything was either home-made, traded among the neighbors, bought on travels or from traveling salesmen. Living there was really hard work, all year round. The individual farms were like little communities, almost all of them had people living and working there along with the family. There were social events, and when ones compares the church rolls over several years, the young marry and often move away.
Still, there was a lot of activity and communication. People read a lot and discussed their readings. They had a book club. Some of them went far and wide on business trips in spite of the hardship, and they brought back news and literature. Also, people wrote tons of letters, often every day. Two people from the parish emigrated to the US, a woman to NY and a man to Seattle. I don't know if they moved on to the farmland or stayed in the cities.
posted by mumimor at 6:55 PM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

AzraelBrown has the key insight here. A town of 12 can hardly exist on the scale of a few decades anywhere ever. The village center exists in a context of at least dozens of family and business groups in the neighborhood region.

Don’t think about so tiny a place so isolated: it has to either have more people to be isolated, or live in a matrix of several other close settlements of farmers and ranchers and hunters and trappers to be so small.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:58 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have you seen this book: Pioneer Women, Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna Stratton? (Link is a Google preview of the book). In the 1920s, the author's great-grandmother solicited remembrances about the early settlers' lives from 800 women. A portion of them were edited into book form.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:59 PM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Wisconsin Death Trip
posted by Hypatia at 12:17 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just one more thing. Even today, when I am at the farm, someone comes over almost every day. While you may be a little isolated from the larger society in a small and remote community, with some news taking a day to get there, you are never alone.
posted by mumimor at 6:49 AM on October 29, 2018

Definitely browse project Gutenberg and Librivox. These are all in the public domain, pretty accessible popular works, many of which are historical letters, novels, or accounts based around that time period. For example:


posted by shalom at 7:36 AM on October 29, 2018

Barry Broadfoot's The Pioneer Years is now out of print, but most likely available used. It has anecdotes told by Canadian pioneers, some of which are quite funny. One I'm thinking of is a man saying how he loved his mother's prune pie, so a young neighbour's wife made him one. He chewed determinedly through it, never telling her that the dried prunes should be soaked, first!
Old housekeeping and cookbooks can be useful. Think about the challenges of no plumbing, dirt floors, and where wood floors existed, often there were gaps that attracted vermin. Also, food storage problems frequently led to food poisoning, which was mistaken for stomach flu often enough. Contagious diseases weren't understood, either and whole families could be wiped out by measles or mumps. I read an old newspaper which spoke admiringly of a teacher who continued to work even though he was fevered covered in spots.
posted by Enid Lareg at 7:57 AM on October 29, 2018

Another thought. It was not unusual for letters to be forever lost. There is a lost letters archive in Britain somewhere (foggy memory here) with hundreds of letters from wives and husbands saying, why haven't you answered my letters? Where are you, and when are you coming home? So of course, this means that money sent home never got there, a huge hardship for the families left behind by men gone away to find work.
posted by Enid Lareg at 8:00 AM on October 29, 2018

Maybe not a perfect fit: Francis Marion (Frank) Stahl was born in Ohio on 23 May 1841 and moved to Kansas in 1857. He rode the Santa Fe trail twice, prospected in Colorado, fought in the Civil War, served as chief of police in Topeka, and was a leader in the Kansas temperance movement. His autobiography and diaries were transcribed and posted online, which I posted on the blue, giving credit to this thread to complete the loop.

Probably even farther from what you want: Mary MacLane wrote of her life in Butte, Montana, published in 1902, in which she instead imagined herself conversing with the Devil, and she could come across like "an off-kilter Walt Whitman with odes to her red blood, her sound, sensitive liver."
posted by filthy light thief at 1:05 PM on October 30, 2018

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