Author’s Note: An Heiress To Remember

One of the themes in my Gilded Age Girls Club series has been reclaiming “girl stuff” that is so often deemed frivolous and inconsequential. Like romance novels, traditionally lady-centric stuff like dresses with pockets, lipstick, and shopping, is often dismissed even though—or maybe because—these things have been so empowering to women. Not just in how they make a woman feel, but because they put money in the pocket of her dress.

So, shopping. The Gilded Age is the Golden Age of the department store. Innovations like the fixed price, the ability to browse with no obligation to buy, stunning visual displays, and female salesclerks made them friendly and welcoming places to be. Many of them also offered amenities like nurseries, beauty parlors, post offices, restaurants, and libraries. As the stores got bigger—and they were massive palaces of retail—they became a destination, a place to go for the day.

As these stores increasingly appealed to women, they also became safe spaces for women to go—on their own, or at least without a man or a chaperone. Thus the department store was the first public space where respectable women could go independently without ruining their reputations. The Ladies’ Mile—a stretch of Broadway around Union Square—was the first area in New York City where respectable middle-class women could go out on their own. Once people got familiar with women being out in public to go shopping, they began to push the boundaries and go everywhere else.

Similar to department stores, women’s clubs were also popping up in this time period. The Ladies of Liberty Club is modeled on The Sorosis Society. According to the New York Times, this club “inaugurated and epitomized the women’s club movement and was itself one of the most influential organizations for women in late nineteenth-century America.” Their purpose was to further the educational and social opportunities of women. The members included activists, writers, female physicians and ministers, a fashion magazine editor, businesswomen, and even Emily Warren Roebling, the woman who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. These clubs gave women opportunities to learn, to practice speaking in public (!), and to normalize the idea of women getting out of the house and taking an active role in public affairs. It was no small thing.

Retail is the perfect business for a woman like Beatrice, who is desperate to get out of the house and do something. She’s inspired by two real-life women: Consuelo Vanderbilt and Margaret Getchell Consuelo, as many people know, was forced to abandon her true love and marry the Duke of Marlborough by her mother, Alva, a force in high society. The marriage ended in divorce years later. It should be noted that Alva also divorced, remarried, and went on to be a prominent supporter of the suffrage movement.

america's first lady boss

Beatrice’s work was inspired by Margaret Getchell, whose biography is called America’s First Lady Boss, so you can imagine how fast I bought that one! In the early 1860s Margaret was hired by Richard Macy himself as an entry level clerk. Thanks to her talent for math, she was soon promoted to bookkeeper and trained other clerks, and before long was promoted to an executive position due to the many innovations she implemented that made Macy’s a success, such as adding new departments, creating stunning visual displays in the windows, adding a soda fountain, and convincing Mr. Macy to use his personal red star logo as the company’s logo. She also dressed cats up in baby clothes for a popular window display and basically unleashed American’s obsession with cat pictures. Margaret was the superintendent of a million-dollar business with two hundred employees—but she gave up her salary when her husband was made partner and worked unpaid until her death in 1880, at just thirty-eight. The character of Margaret in this book is another tribute to her.

Margaret’s personal motto was “Be everywhere, do everything and never fail to astonish the customer,” which I gave to Wes Dalton. He is loosely inspired by real-life guy Alexander Turney Stewart who was called the Merchant Prince of Manhattan and whose retail business earned him one of the great fortunes of the age. He died one of the richest men in New York (behind a Vanderbilt and an Astor). After his death, John Wanamaker bought his store on the Ladies’ Mile and reopened it under his own name. I will also note that Stewart was a poor Irish immigrant when he started out. A small windfall—an inheritance from his grandfather—gave him the capital to start his business.

Some other characters who have real-life counterparts: Harriet Burnett is inspired by Jane Cunningham Croly, founder of the women’s club movement in the United States. Harriet’s partner, Ava Lumley, is inspired by Elsie de Wolfe who was the first professional interior decorator. Adeline the dressmaker has parallels to Madame Demorest, who popularized the paper pattern, published a monthly magazine, and decided fashion for American women for decades. Daisy Swann, the cosmetics inventor, was based on Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Helena Rubinstein, and Elizabeth Arden. Martha Matilda Harper is real—she pioneered the franchise hair salon and invented the reclining shampoo chair. The briefly mentioned architect Marian Morgan is inspired by Julia Morgan, one of the first female architects and the designer of Hearst Castle.

Josephine Shaw Lowell was real, as was her “White List,” which highlighted the companies that were treating their female employees right. In other words, instead of a boycott she started a “buycott” to attempt to harness women’s purchasing power to make a positive difference in the world. Lastly, I got the idea for my Detective Hyde from the New York Times obituary of Isabella Goodwin, a police matron who went undercover as a maid in a boarding house to help nab the suspect of a bank heist. (Someone please write this as a standalone romance.)

Beatrice’s insistence on a display about bicycles is no coincidence. According to Susan B. Anthony herself, bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Bicycling for women was really championed by suffragist Frances Willard who, when she died, was one of the most famous and beloved women in America. She wrote a little book called How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, which is a wonderful meditation on what it means for a woman to have the freedom a bicycle affords—and also how necessary it is for women’s fashions to change to allow her more freedom to ride. I will be forever grateful to Bill Strickland for teaching me about her and commissioning me to write a magazine article about her: How A 175 year-old Woman Taught Me To Ride A Bicycle.

In the process of researching this series, I have been delighted to discover so many dynamic, innovative, and successful REAL women—and that they keep popping up in each other’s life stories. I was also enraged that I hadn’t heard of them before. Based on history textbooks and what’s taught in school, we’re given to think that women were just languishing at home in the drawing room, doing nothing of great consequence. This is the noble duty of the historical romance novel: to rediscover and breathe life back into these women’s lives so we can learn and revere our otherwise ignored history.

One last thing—you may notice that Wes and Beatrice don’t have a baby in the epilogue. In all my years of research in the genre I have never found The Law that says every happy ending must have a baby or two or ten. So this HEA is for the readers whose idea of happiness does not include children and for those who struggle with having one (I feel you). So imagine what you will for Wes and Beatrice. Because happy-ever-afters are ours to create and define.

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