This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility or accuracy of a historical.
There’s one funny scene in my 7th Max’s House book that I now realise couldn’t have happened in 1943. Max’s hated youngest full brother Gene grabs a random pair of clothes in a beach locker room after their cousin Elaine put his real clothes down a sewer as revenge. Gene comes home and all the way out to a restaurant wearing pink shorts with a maxi pad stuck to them, and everyone, of course, laughs hysterically. Mr. Seward goes ballistic when he sees it, and refuses to believe Gene’s story. As punishment, he eats Gene’s dinner, rubbing salt in his wounds by making loud yummy noises.
Sanitary napkins didn’t have adhesive strips till the early Seventies. Prior to that, women had to wear belts, suspenders, and special underwear, or attach the pad with hooks or pins. Tampon use wasn’t that common, particularly among single girls. There also wouldn’t have been mainstream ads for any of these products, and they were often sold in unmarked brown paper right near the register, to save women the shame of being caught buying them in public.
Tattoos and non-ear piercings didn’t start going mainstream in the West till the 1980s. Even ear-piercings was frowned upon as prostitute-like for a long time. Having more than one earring in an ear would’ve been considered shocking and scandalous for much of the 20th century. You couldn’t just walk into a tattoo parlour or find one in the yellow pages 50 years ago.
What sports were popular in your chosen era? Were the rules different? My father and brother still laugh when remembering how I thought I knew all these football rules based on reading the 1965 encyclopedia we had. It included positions and moves that no longer exist.
Watch the slang your characters use. I’m embarrassed that I had my 1940s and even 1910s characters using 1990s American slang. Make it accurate to the time period, but don’t overdo it. And watch for modern terms and phrases, like “shut up” or “brainwashed.”
How did people most commonly get around in your chosen era? Trains were very common for long-distance transportation until airfare became more affordable for ordinary people. A lot of people didn’t have cars even after they supplanted horses. Most people crossed the ocean in ships, not planes, until probably the 1970s. And make sure you know how fast a given mode of transport could travel in that era. Crossing the ocean in a ship took a lot longer in the 18th century than in the 1920s, for example.
Cost of living
Look at some old catalogues and other resources to see how cheap it was (by today’s standards) to buy food, a car, a house, clothes, a wedding dress, shoes, appliances, and a night out on the town.
Sexual double standard
Sadly, it’s still very much alive and well, but before women’s lib, it was even more oppressive. Even a lot of women bought into it. It was so horrifying to read the slut-shaming in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and its sequel in all but name, Joy in the Morning. A minor character in Tree, Joanna, was treated like an absolute pariah because she dared go out in public with and show love to her baby girl born out of wedlock. Her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but his mother and sisters insisted she had cheated and he couldn’t be the father, since “if she let you, she let others.” In Joy, Carl’s hideous mother and sister also say this when they find out Annie’s pregnant, albeit some months after marriage. But of course, it’s okay for a man to sleep around and have premarital sex, since he’s a man.