Anachronisms to watch out for, Part IV

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility or accuracy of a historical.

Menstrual products

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.

Body modification

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.

Sweet Saturday Samples—1965 Blackout Continued

I’m continuing in Sweet Saturday Samples this week with more of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. This time the spotlight is on 13-year-old Ernestine in the Meatpacking District. Ernestine reaches a milestone at the mother of all inconvenient times.


Ernestine is fumbling around for some matches or a flashlight when she feels as though she’s wet herself.  Hoping against hope it’s not what she dreads it is, and at this worst of all possible times, she dashes out to the fire escape and looks around for people standing on nearby fire escapes or down on the street.  When the coast is clear, she pulls down her skirt and underwear.  In the bright light of the full moon, she sees what looks like a colored stain and lets out an angry shout.

Girl comes running out onto the fire escape after her. “Ernestine, what in the world are you doing with the bottom half of your clothes down where everyone could see you?  Even I ain’t so into the mystical and unexplained that I’d believe people go nuts with a full moon.”

“Look at this,” Ernestine whispers in mortification. “I’m having my first period.  Damn, I wish I could just hang out on this fire escape all night and bleed onto it.  At least then no one would know what I was doing.”

Girl puts her arm around her. “I know it stinks.  Pull your clothes back up and we’ll go across the hall to Mrs. van Niftrik.  She helped me when I got mine back in June.”

“Can’t I just spend all night sitting on the toilet?” Ernestine begs in mortification. “I don’t like the idea of anyone else knowing.”

“What if someone else needed to use it?  They’d wonder what you was doing in there so long.  And you know Boy would be embarrassed beyond belief if he was told you was in there all night ‘cause you were menstruating.  I don’t envy him, the only guy in a household full of girls.”

“Then I can sit on onea the buckets we use for washing windshields in the warmer months, and just switch buckets if I fill one up all the way.”

“Even I think that’s gross.  Come on, Mrs. van Niftrik was a girl once.  She knows how to handle this.  I keep the cloth sanitary napkins I made in a purple laundry bag in the bathroom closet.  Yours are in a smaller blue laundry bag within the big laundry bag, ‘cause it ain’t healthy to share something as personal as that.  We’ll just take ‘em over to Mrs. van Niftrik and let her do the rest.”

Ernestine feels herself blushing in the dark as Girl leads her over to the bathroom and pulls out the blue laundry bag, then takes her by the hand and slowly makes her way over to the van Niftriks’ apartment.  The other four residents assume they’re just going to borrow a flashlight or something and don’t question why they’re leaving.

“We’re glad to see you, girls,” Mrs. van Niftrik smiles at them when she opens the door. “We were just wondering how you all were making out with the power outage.  You can all come over and keep us company if you want.  Mr. van Niftrik isn’t home yet.  I assume he’s trapped in the subway with all those other poor people.”

“Ernestine needs your help the same way I needed your help in June,” Girl says. “She just started to menstruate.”

Ernestine hangs her head in shame.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, dear,” Mrs. van Niftrik tries to reassure her. “All normal girls have that happen at about your age.  It’s a normal part of growing up, and it means everything is working just as it should.  I know it’s inconvenient and that you don’t always feel your best during this time, but just think, this is your body’s way of preparing for having a baby when you’re a grownup.”

“But normal girls don’t have babies as teenagers anymore,” Ernestine protests as Mrs. van Niftrik ushers them inside. “Why couldn’t our bodies evolve to do that when we’re eighteen or twenty-one instead of twelve or thirteen?  I don’t want all those years of menstruation when I’m not even old enough to get married or have a baby.  My ten-greats-grandma probably got married and had her first kid at my age!”

“I’m not looking forward to my first one either,” Betsy admits. “That filmstrip we saw in sixth grade just made me even more confused and scared about what’s gonna happen, and so did that silly booklet.  Why am I supposed to look forward to something so annoying and cherish it as some magical, special part of becoming a young lady?  Those dumb booklets were written by people who think all girls in junior high are wearing their first makeup and going on dates.  I’m not even allowed to wear makeup till I’m sixteen, and I can’t go on a date till I’m in high school.”

“Well, complaining about it won’t make it go away, will it?” Mrs. van Niftrik asks. “I’ll help fix Ernestine up, and then we’ll all have some roasted marshmallows and chocolate bars.”

Re-Becoming Women


Almost as much as Klaudia loved sleeping in a real bed, she loved running a comb through her hair.  Of the three of them who remained, she was the proudest of her hair.  Even a modern girl was allowed to think of her hair as her crowning glory.

“I feel like a baby discovering her body,” she said as they got ready for bed on the fifth night of their journey. “I just love feeling the shape of my arms and legs coming back, and feeling the soft little hairs growing on my legs and arms again.  I’m becoming a woman again.”

“My favorite part is watching my bustline growing again,” Aranka said. “I no longer remember how big it was before, but I know it’s still not done coming back.”

“Do you think our busts will ever be as big as they were before?” Csilla asked. “Not that I ever cared how big mine was, but I don’t like the thought of my body being permanently deformed.  At least we were pretty much done growing and had reached our full heights before last June.  I don’t think any of us shrunk that way.”

Klaudia crossed her arms across her pajama top and tenderly cradled her recovering breasts. “I hope they go back to their former size.  It’s a miracle they’re growing back as it is.  A girl has to have some way to turn boys’ heads besides her brilliant mind.”

“You were a bit on the large side,” Aranka gently teased, reaching for her little hand mirror. “I bet Kálcsi was kept warm at night remembering them.  Did he ever get to touch them?  You can tell us now.  It’s just us girls.”

“Of course not.  We were only fourteen when we were deported.  All we did was kiss and hold hands.” Klaudia squeezed her eyes shut. “Though part of me wishes we’d at least done something.  My boyfriend should’ve been the first man to see me naked, not those thugs who didn’t deserve to look at us.  Thank God he was never one of the guys who had to shave us every three weeks.  That would’ve been beyond humiliating.”

“It would’ve been humiliating if any of our men or boys had been in that damned shaving line,” Csilla said. “I’m never touching a razor unless I develop some embarrassing female moustache or something.  Not after how we were forcibly shaved so many times.  Why do women in America shave their legs and underarms?  They’re robbing themselves of part of what makes us women.  Little girls don’t have body hair, but women do.”

“My mother taught me to trim my underarm hair so it wouldn’t get too sweaty and smell bad in the warmer months.  I guess I can kind of see why American women would want to get rid of underarm hair.”

Aranka relaxed back onto the bed and curled her head onto her pillow. “I hope we have our full pubic hair back soon too.  I felt like I’d really arrived as a true woman when I got it before.  Even if I was the only one who saw and touched it, it was still like a special marking setting me apart from the little girls.  I wish Irén were still here to have that special experience of starting to become a real woman.”

Csilla lay down in the middle of the bed as she always did, so she could have Klaudia and Aranka on either side of her and hold onto both of them even in sleep.  As far as she was concerned, these were her younger sisters now, in a bond thicker than blood, a bond forged in fire.  With no more families left, they had to cling together.

“Do we have any peppermints?” Klaudia asked, rubbing her stomach. “I don’t know what I ate that would’ve given me a stomach ache.”

“Do you think you have food poisoning?” Csilla asked. “Your portion tonight wasn’t excessive.”

“I hope not.  We can’t delay on our journey.  Maybe some of the boys have survived and are waiting for us, and they’ll leave if we don’t show up soon enough.  Maybe my Kálcsi survived and will die of a broken heart if I’m not there.”

“You’d better believe we’ll take all the time we need if you’re not feeling well.  Your health is more important than racing home just to see if some boyfriend survived.  And if Kálmán did survive and he still likes you, he won’t turn heel after only a week or so.”

Klaudia buried her head in her hands. “I don’t know how this is possible, but I think I just wet myself.”

Csilla rubbed her back. “If you did, I’ll give you my pajama pants.  It won’t hurt me to sleep half-naked for one night.”

Klaudia got out of bed and froze when she pulled her pajama pants down.  There it was, the relentless red stain she hadn’t seen since last June.  After having those drugs mixed into their tea, and then rendered too emaciated to menstruate anyway, this was even more of a miracle than regrowing her hair.  She began laughing.

“Csicsi, Ari, look!  I’m one hundred percent a real woman again!  I can have babies someday!”

“Congratulations,” Aranka said. “I’m jealous of you.  You’re the first of us to start menstruating again.  I hope I’m next.”

Csilla hugged her, then opened the emergency supply bag she’d made up. “I organized some disposable sanitary napkins before we left, while you were busy organizing clothes and handbags.  Will you be okay with safety pins holding them in place?  I’m afraid I don’t have a belt.”

“Safety pins are fine by me.  I always hated that damned belt anyway.” Klaudia sat next to Csilla as she was fastening a napkin to a pair of female drawers. “I’m glad you’re my sister now.”

Csilla kissed her on the cheek. “I love you too.”

Sweet Saturday Samples

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples comes from Chapter 43 of Adicia’s story, “‘Don’t Get Above Your Raising.'” Adicia’s friendship with Ricky has been discovered by her oldest sister Gemma’s busybody ex-aunt-in-law Mrs. Rossi, who promptly ran and told Adicia’s mother. Now their friendship has been discovered by Allen, who caught them eating lunch together, accused Ricky of being a limousine liberal who can’t really care about Adicia, and forced Adicia to come home with him. Now he can’t believe his own wife and sisters are all against him. Then, after the argument has ended, Adicia finally reaches a milestone she thought would never come.


“Oh, come on, Allen, let her enjoy the attentions of a boy who likes her,” Lenore jumps in. “If he’s legit, he’ll get the message soon that Adicia only wants friendship and stop tryna pursue it.  He won’t be the first guy who’s ever had a romantic disappointment.  He can move onto a girl who wants to be his girlfriend and continue just getting to know Adicia as a friend.  Is he handsome?”

“He’s pretty cute,” Adicia admits. “Beautiful deep brown eyes and dark brown wavy hair.  He’s about a foot taller than me, though most guys are.  He’s nineteen.”

Lenore smiles at her excitedly. “How exciting!  An older guy likes you!  I wish Allen hadn’t insisted on being such a damn gentleman and waiting till I was eighteen to tell me he loved me.  There’s not much difference between seventeen and nineteen.”

“She’s not even eighteen yet,” Allen says, unable to believe his wife and both of his sisters are against him.

“It’s not like he’s forty or she’s twelve.  I think it’s usually better if a girl gets a boyfriend or husband who’s a little older than her.  An older man can take care of you and support you and your future family better.”

“Most of the other guys in my senior class are pretty immature and not guys I wanna date or even be friends with,” Adicia nods. “And I just discovered today that he’s a fellow southpaw.”

“No way!” Justine says. “That makes thirteen of us!”

“What’s his full name?” Lenore asks.

“Warrick Grover Carson.  Poor guy got three surnames in a row.”

“Carson is an English surname, isn’t it?” Allen asks.

“Are you tryna tell me I can’t even be friends with someone from a different ancestry?  What about the Ryans?  You were just suggesting David is a perfect match for me!”

“Well, you have to admit English immigrants haven’t had much of a bum deal.  Even his ancestors probably weren’t poor.”

“You wanted her to go out with David?” Lenore asks in amusement. “Even if she moved Upstate or he moved back here, he’s practically her brother!  The two of them knew each other since they were seven years old!”

“In the last pictures you showed us, I noticed he’s kinda cute, but if he or Adicia ever liked each other, they kept it top secret,” Justine says.

You think he’s cute?” Allen demands. “You’ll only be thirteen in March!”

“So? I can’t start noticing boys at my age?”

“He’s five years older than you!”

“I hope you don’t act this crazy and overprotective when Irene and Amelia are old enough to start noticing boys and getting date offers,” Lenore says.

Adicia gets up to go to the bathroom, a nagging cramp in the bottom of her stomach.  She assumes her stomach is all in knots from the argument and having her meeting with Ricky crashed so rudely, but she freezes when she pulls her skirt down and sees a blood stain.  This is only about four or five years overdue, she thinks as she creeps up to the door and looks around.  When she sees Allen is in the kitchen, preparing an early supper for the girls, she leans out and quietly calls for Lenore.

“What is it, sweetie? Are you getting sick?”

“I need your help,” she whispers in mortification, hoping Allen stays put in the kitchen.

Lenore leaves Justine to watch television and goes to Adicia in the bathroom. “If you’re having a stomach ache…” Her voice trails off when she sees the blood stain.

“Do you have any safety pins or something that can hold a napkin in place till I get home and can put on a belt?”

“Oh, sweetie, you’re finally a real woman!  I was starting to think this day would never come!” Lenore hugs her. “Now you can make babies!”

“Not till I’m married, I hope.”

“This is onea the things that separates girls from women.  I’m so glad I was here when you finally had this rite of passage.  It’s like pregnancy, birth, and your first consensual sex.  Now you know what the big mysterious secret is all about.  Seventeen is on the late end, but better late than never, right?”

“Are you crying, Lenore?”

“I’ve known you since you were eight years old.  Watching you and your sisters grow up has been a really special thing for me.  You were a little girl when I met you, and now you’re a full woman.”

“Please don’t tell Allen.”

“He doesn’t hafta know. Particularly not after what a beast he was to you today.  In the meantime, you can borrow some of my napkins.  Wait till you see what kind they are.”

“Those look like ordinary sanitary napkins to me,” Adicia scoffs when Lenore pulls out a box from under the sink.

“Just wait till you take one out of the box.  These are really special.”

Adicia looks at it closely on both sides. “What’s so special about it?  Are these somea those flushable ones?”

“You don’t need a belt to wear these!” Lenore whispers happily. “They have adhesive strips on the back!”

“No way!  They finally invented something you can just stick on and not use pins or a belt for?”

“You can take the whole box with you if you’d like.  As we both know, I won’t be needing any of ‘em for another eight months.”

“You’re the best sister-in-law ever. You’re the best thing we ever found at a bus stop.”

“Nothing in this world ever happens by chance. And just like it was destiny that I met you and Allen at that bus stop nine and a half years ago, it might very well be destiny that you met that cute older rich boy.  Time will only tell just why you met him when you met him.”

Sweet Saturday Samples

(If you’re looking for the A to Z post, scroll to the one below this.)

This week for Sweet Saturday Samples, since the Western Easter is tomorrow, I’m jumping back quite a bit in Adicia’s story for an excerpt from Chapter 9, “Easter 1960.” Adicia is 5, Justine is 13 months, Ernestine is 8, Emeline is 11, and Lucine is 14. As always, the only holiday cheer Adicia and her sisters get comes from the festive meal at the Bowery Mission, where they also go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remembered in my original unfinished first draft, the girls went to some kind of big soup kitchen for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I was very pleased to discover there really is a large soup kitchen and mission in their area, the wonderful Bowery Mission.

Ziessen Pesach and Happy Easter!


Adicia skips into the mission ahead of her sisters and Sarah and runs over to the nearest table with five empty place settings.  She can’t wait to be served the Easter dinner, since she knows it’ll probably be the last decent meal they’ll have a chance to eat until Thanksgiving.  The sight of the other Bowery guests makes her happy, knowing at least here they won’t be judged for not having pretty new Easter bonnets and dresses, or asked to compare Easter baskets.

Ernestine goes over to one of the mission workers, carrying the stroller and the wheel. “Excuse me, is there anyone here who can fix my baby sister’s stroller?  One of the wheels came off when we were walking to church this morning, and she’s not yet able to walk, so we’ve had to carry her around today.”

Justine smiles and coos at the mission worker from her snug place in Sarah’s arms.

“Of course we can find someone who can fix it.  We never turn away anyone who comes to us in need, particularly not on the holiest day of the year.  I’ll go get one of the handymen who works here, and we’ll come find you when it’s fixed.” The woman takes the wheel and stroller. “How old’s your sister?”

“Thirteen months,” Ernestine says proudly.

“You sure know how to make attractive girls,” the woman tells Sarah, smiling. “Are there any more besides these four?”

“Our other sister is sitting over there,” Emeline points. “We’ve also got some brothers and an older sister, who didn’t want to eat here.”

“Our oldest sister is celebrating Easter with friends, and our brothers are too proud to accept charity,” Lucine says.

“Our little brother made a big scene in church this morning,” Ernestine says. “When we were walking in, he asked loudly, ‘Who’s that on the cross?’  We went to an Episcopal church, and we usually go to Protestant churches, so he’d never seen a crucifix before.  I still don’t know how he could not know that was Jesus, even if we only go to church a few times a year.  That’s supposed to be one of the first things you learn at church!”

“I’d like to go to church more, but the other people are always judging our family when we go,” Lucine says. “On Christmas Eve the other kids were laughing about how we smelled bad.  I’m sorry, but if they’d taken a bath in cold bathwater a bunch of other people had already used without draining it, they’d smell bad too.  And they always look at us funny because our clothes aren’t as nice as theirs.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.  I hope you know no one at this mission judges other people for not looking a certain way.”

“We love your mission!” Ernestine says.

Emeline leads the others over to Adicia.  Soon they’re being served delicious candied yams, cornbread rolls, lamb, hot cross buns, some kind of dish made with eggs, roasted vegetables, chicken, mashed potatoes, and candied orange slices, with milk, fruit juice, and sparkling water to drink.  Adicia always finds it hard to believe how so much delicious food can exist in such a dismal part of the city.

At the end of the meal, someone comes over to them to deliver the stroller, whose wheels are now all firmly attached.  The mission worker also gives Justine a stuffed white rabbit.  Justine doesn’t know what to do with it at first, since she’s never had any toys before.  Then she figures out it’s meant for hugging and cuddling, and falls asleep holding it as Sarah wheels her back home.

Mr. and Mrs. Troy are out drinking when they come back, and Carlos is hanging over the fire escape in his usual drug-induced state.  Sarah puts Justine down on a blanket on the floor to see if she needs her diaper changed.

Justine wakes up and smiles up at her sisters and Sarah. “Mama.”

“Did our baby just talk?” Emeline asks excitedly.

“Our baby just said her first words!” Ernestine echoes.

Adicia looks at her sadly. “No, not Ma-ma.  Sa-rah.  Our real mother is that other woman who lives here, the mean one who looks like she rolled out of a garbage dumpster.”

“Mama,” Justine repeats.

“She’ll learn soon enough, the way the rest of us did,” Lucine sighs.

“Maybe you can adopt us and take us away from this nasty place,” Ernestine suggests. “Then Justine can grow up seeing you as her real mother and not even knowing about the horrible woman who really gave birth to us.”

“I don’t tink any of us vill be leaving here anytime soon, unless a miracle happens,” Sarah says.

Emeline jumps up and runs into the bathroom. “Can anybody help me?” she calls. “I think I need a sanitary napkin, and I don’t have a belt yet!”

“Are you sure?” Lucine asks. “You’re only eleven!  Gemma and I were both twelve and a half, and some of the girls in my eighth grade classes still haven’t gotten theirs yet!”

“I’ll be twelve next month. And those goofy booklets and filmstrips did say some girls are younger than others.  You know I’ve been developing a bustline since I was even younger than this.”

Sarah gets two extra safety pins out of Justine’s diaper bag and goes in to help Emeline.  Lucine ducks into her bedroom to get a Modess pad from the big box Mrs. Troy buys every few months and embarrassedly dumps on her oldest daughters’ bed.

“Can’t you borrow Lucine’s belt?” Adicia asks.

“That’s not really sanitary,” Lucine says. “It’s like letting someone borrow underwear or a bathing suit.”

“Our mother does make us use hand-me-down swimsuits!”

“Will Emeline still be able to go swimming with us in the summer if she’s bleeding from that part of her body?” Ernestine asks.

“Not unless she’s using an applicator,” Lucine says. “According to the booklets and filmstrips, we’re not supposed to be in cold water or get chills, but I refuse to believe that’s true. Not too long ago, people used to think we’d die if we bathed or exercised then, and now we know that’s a bunch of malarkey.”

Adicia doesn’t understand much of what her older sisters are talking about.  She hopes with everything in her that their happy little quartet will continue as it always has, even though Lucine is soon to go to high school and Emeline has undergone the strange and secretive process that turns a girl into a young woman.  The one constant in her life, the friendship she shares with her sisters, means everything to her.  Without it, she would have to figure out a whole new way to navigate the rough hand she was dealt when she was born into a family plagued by poverty for generations.