How to use real estate ads for research

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One of the many mistakes I made while researching and writing my abandoned storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in 1952 was reading current real estate ads for historic properties as though they’d always been that way. Regardless of which city, era, or type of housing you’re writing about, you should never assume a house or apartment is completely unchanged from the day of its creation.

So you go to a site like Zillow, choose the neighborhood or street you’re researching, plug in age range (e.g., 1880–1930), square footage, number of bedrooms, and style (condo, townhouse, apartment, detached house). You read the descriptions and look at the photos and floor plans, and start basing your fictional homes on your favorites.

Except you may be barking up the completely wrong tree.

Yes, that home physically existed in that year, but it may have looked a lot different. If it’s in a major city (e.g., NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore), and your story is set anytime from the Depression through these cities’ nadirs in the Seventies and Eighties, odds are it wasn’t used as a single-family home and was a lot smaller.

Unless one were lucky enough to already own one’s home and have fully paid it off, the Stock Market crash forced many people into new dwellings. They could no longer afford rent on luxury apartments or upkeep of rambling estates. Many townhouses and rowhouses were split up into duplexes, triplexes, and SROs.

Some townhouses had as many as 29 SRO apartments!

Others were split up in response to the severe housing crisis following WWII. Many large apartments were also chopped up into smaller units, and some tenants were pressured or outright forced into moving or accepting the decreased square footage of their homes.

Likewise, many estates in cities like St. Paul and San Francisco were used as boardinghouses and apartments. People were able to get them for free or cheap, but had a lot of work to do fixing them up.

The same went for townhouses which escaped the division into SROs, duplexes, and triplexes.

And speaking of townhouses and rowhouses, many had entry floor businesses (restaurants, shoe stores, bookstores, candy stores, business classes, photography studios, florist shops, etc.). Even if a single family owned the property, they may not have had residence on every floor.

Many amenities featured in modern apartments and condos didn’t exist until very recently. It’s one thing to create a fictional building with a pool, gorgeous courtyard, a few upscale businesses on the lower floors, and maid service, but things like dog parks, communal treehouses, Yoga studios, and bowling alleys wouldn’t have existed in all but the most contemporary hist-fic.

The above is from 1936, so it’s not entirely implausible for your characters to be well-off during the Depression and have a luxury home. However, that wasn’t very common. Not much new housing was built after the Stock Market crash, and an architect or realtor in touch with reality wouldn’t have built, developed, or marketed such upscale housing.

The former hotel being refurbished into condos in all but name, an urban kibbutz of sorts for an unrealistic amount of my characters to all conveniently live in, was beyond unrealistic. People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split up into SROs.

Forget about terraces, a three-story penthouse, sprawling apartments, a steamroom, indoor pool, libraries on every floor, and private-entry elevators! Those would’ve been added decades later, not during such a severe housing crisis.

Co-ops were uncommon until the Sixties, and condos didn’t exist in the U.S. till about the same time. However, some luxury apartments called it even after a certain amount of years paying rent, and became condos in all but name.

Obviously, things like air conditioning, central heating, and electricity were added at much later dates, but those generally aren’t the only changes. Wine cellars, wet bars, private gyms, spa rooms, I’m looking at you! Elevators are also almost certainly very recent additions.

And if that house was built before 1950, you know it wouldn’t have been a tacky open concept originally!

It’s fine to use modern real estate ads as a jumping-off point for creating your own fictional homes, but it’s also important to look up vintage ads.

You also want to look up the average home and rent prices in that area in that era. Plugging modern numbers into an inflation calculator won’t give an accurate price, since the cost of living has gone WAY up over the last few decades.

Vintage bike ads and photos

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Since I didn’t have enough time to put together a proper post, here are some of my vintage bike ads and photos to enjoy.

I’m glad they don’t look like that anymore!

Yikes!

I would not want to ride that!

Nor that!

I’d buy that just for the dinosaurs!

Tandem bikes have come a long way since 1869!

Are kids allowed to ride bikes to school anymore, or do their helicopter parents forbid it?

Check out those prices!

No comment!

I’d love a vintage Schwinn bike.

It seems like Schwinn’s best bikes were made for kids, without adult versions.

I wish more vintage bike ads had shown girls.

Speaking of females and bikes! It seems like this ad is saying the Duplex will prevent a sexually stimulating feeling during biking.

As though their competitors weren’t all claiming to be the best too!

Vintage medicine and snake oil ads

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My Wednesday post was slated to be a review of King Vidor’s début talkie, Hallelujah! (1929), but since I won’t have access to a copy till later in the week, I have to push it off till Monday. In the meantime, enjoy these vintage ads for outright snake oil and what used to pass for medicine.

Did someone type that first line with a straight face?

I’m sure this provided a nice workout, but it’s not a substitute for medicine.

What could possibly go wrong from putting cocaine in your hair?!

Found this on the same page as a story about one of my ancestors, 10 February 1910. It was too good not to save.

6 October 1887, another find while searching archived newspapers for stories about my ancestors. What didn’t this quack claim he could cure!

Talk about substituting one problem for another!

No comment!

Granted, there are a lot of misunderstandings floating around regarding corset history, just as there are about Victorian postmortem photography, lifespan, and average marriage age, but you don’t have to be well-versed in the garment’s history to know this is really dangerous. I may write a future post on myths and facts about corsets.

That’s one way around the Comstock Act, presenting sex toys as medical objects.

I have so many Castoria ads, I had to create a separate folder for them. Popular wisdom of this era had people believing a kid was automatically constipated and at Death’s door if s/he didn’t defecate at least once a day. That’s right up there with the thankfully debunked belief that babies and children couldn’t feel pain.

Another round of vintage ads

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Seeing as how my computer charger has frayed in multiple places and stopped working, I’m unable to spend a lot of time writing a more substantial post for this week. I’ll have a new charger by next week, so you can look forward to a post re: writing about ice-skating in historical fiction.

In the meantime, enjoy these vintage ads from my virtual collections!

I wouldn’t mind that at all! I’ve never made any secret of how I’ve been attracted to younger men since my senior year of high school. (Obviously, they weren’t that much younger than I was at first!). I’d like a husband about 10–12 years my junior.

Yet another ad endorsing Lysol as birth control (in very euphemistic language) and terrifying women about their supposed rampant BO.

Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, you can’t deny Reagan was a genial person with a good sense of humor. He would’ve been a fun guest at a picnic or barbecue. I recently watched an episode of I’ve Got a Secret where he was the famous guest, and got a lot of good laughs out of his segment.

So many people in ads don’t talk like normal people having a real conversation!

I loved cottage cheese and canned peaches!

I highly doubt this was a real study, or had those results!

No comment!

I’ve been fooled by some contemporary spoofs of real vintage ads, but this one is an ad for a legitimate product.

And now they’ve got kids strapped into freaking booster seats till age twelve!

I’m glad plus size companies no longer call their customer base “stout” and “chubbies”!

There’s a diagnosis that’s gone the way of other pseudoscientific conditions like hysteria!

This is beyond tasteless. If they were attempting very dark humor, they sailed WAY past a line anywhere close to acceptability!

I’m showing my age, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the quintessential song and music video of my generation. It’s one of the things which clearly indicates my membership as one of the youngest members of Gen X. I feel such a big disconnect from Gen Y, even though their oldest members are only a few years younger than I am.

And yes, I do realize that might make my attraction to younger men seem hypocritical!

More fun with vintage ads

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Here are even more of the vintage ads I’ve virtually collected. They always reveal so much about bygone eras, both bad and good.

Well, that’s certainly a unique innovation!

1937, when prevailing medical “wisdom” claimed it was a most dire health emergency if someone (esp. a child) didn’t defecate at least once a day.

That name would never be approved today!

Yet again, preying on women’s insecurities and making people believe not defecating at least once a day automatically equalled constipation!

The advertising world, shaming women about their bodies since forever.

No comment!

Or perhaps the husband can help his wife by making breakfast when she’s suffering from morning sickness!

Because don’t we all want to use the same medicine as our horses? Who’s writing these prescriptions, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush?

At least he’s not as awful as my anti-kissing ex, who still refused to kiss me even after I knocked myself out doing everything he claimed would make him more likely to want to do it. He might’ve done it ten times ever during the almost five years of our relationship, and didn’t do it for the first time until we’d been together for two years and seven months and already done everything else.

Lipstick and nailpolish often came in matching sets. Though red was the most popular nailpolish color, there were quite a few other colors to choose from in the Forties. The four without matching lipsticks are just a small sampling of what was available. I also love that there’s a purple lipstick represented.

This is a little too macabre even for me!

Those rings all look too similar to me, but then again, I never saw the appeal of colorless diamonds to begin with. My former engagement ring (which my ex made me buy myself) has three black diamonds and four small white diamonds. If I ever have another relationship, I’m either foregoing a ring altogether, or selecting something like a sapphire or teal tourmaline.