Lady Caroline Book 4 Trouble in the Country Isabella Bassett 1920s murder mystery book
Historical Notes

From American Dollar Princesses to German Fertilizer: Historical notes for “Trouble on a Country Lane”

Here is a peek into some of the historical research I did for “Trouble on a Country Lane”, presented in no particular order. As always, digging into the past was a very interesting and satisfying part of writing this book.

German fertilizer and WWI

As Uncle Albert correctly mentions in the book, artificial fertilizer is directly related to ammunition used by Germany in WWI. The chief ingredient of artificial fertilizer is ammonia, which is, ironically, also necessary for the nitrates used in explosives. It’s somewhat unsettling that the same compound is a precursor to both food and bombs production.

Prior to the invention of the Haber process, named for its inventor Fritz Haber, who won a Noble Prize for his work in 1918, ammonia and nitrates could not be produced on an industrial scale. But as the population grew, demand for synthetic ammonia and nitrates grew. Although the process was not invented for military purposes, but rather to ensure a reliable supply of food, this method of producing ammonia was paramount to Germany’s ability to make ammunition in WWI.

Etiquette of engagement announcements

Lady Caroline’s surprise in the book that Lady Haswell, the mother of the groom-to-be, was making the engagement announcement is based on strict engagement announcement etiquette. The morning of the formal engagement, the mother of the bride-to-be would call the newspapers to place an announcement. In the evening, the girls’s family would host a party, where her father would make the announcement to the gathered friends and family.

The Haswells and Carters broke with tradition because the Haswells were of greater standing in England.

Dollar princesses and The Titled American

Marriage between the daughters of wealthy Americans – known as “dollar princesses” because of the sizable dowry they brought with them – and the titled sons of impoverished British aristocracy was quite common in the late 19th and early 20th century. Publications, such as The Titled American, ran advertisements of titled British men looking for a wealthy bride. It also featured stories of successful matches.

Winston Churchill himself is the product of such a marriage. (As is Lady Caroline). Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker. She married Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.

The dowry these brides brought with them was put to immediate use, restoring castles and putting in modern plumbing.

The Order of the Conqueror’s Companions

The Order is completely made up, but is based on a few actual orders, such as the Order of the Golden Fleece. I had great fun making up the requirements necessary for membership.

Thomas Becket’s parents were Normans, so if an Order of the Conqueror’s Companions did in fact exist, Becket would have made a perfect founding father for the Order.

On the topic of Thomas Becket, after his murder at Canterbury Cathedral, “ampulla”, lead vessels, of the martyr’s blood were a popular souvenir among pilgrims, sold to them by opportunistic monks. The vicar in the story has such a vessel among the items he’s bringing to Canterbury.

Cigarettes vs cigars

The cavernous and highly elaborately decorated smoking rooms found in the stately homes of the British gentry are a testament to the importance assigned to the ritual of smoking. Until WWI, these rooms would have only been used to smoke cigars, or pipes, but rarely cigarettes.

The popularity of cigarettes is also directly related to WWI. Soldiers in the trenches smoked cigarettes, which were included in their ration packs, and even officers, who were almost always aristocrats, came back from the war preferring to smoke cigarettes. So by the 1920s, most young people were smoking cigarettes.

But men of the 19th century, such as Uncle Albert, would have scoffed at cigarettes and stuck to their cigars. Thus, Uncle Albert made great distinction between the two.

NYC Marriage certificates

During my research, I came across the fact that the City of New York keeps very detailed marriage records. Two records of marriage exist in New York – one was a detailed affidavit filled out by the bride and groom prior to the marriage, and the other was the marriage certificate itself. The affidavit included names and addresses of the betrothed and of the two witnesses.

These detailed documents are quite useful nowadays for genealogical research.

Boston Brahmins

I’ve written about the Boston Brahmins before, in the historical notes for “Murder at the Grand Hotel”.

The term refers to a member of Boston’s social elite. Used since the 19th century, it was applied to families of industrialists, who went to Harvard University, were Federalist (later Whigs and then Republicans), and lived in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, among many other uniting characteristics. Though its social, business, and political influence might have diminished somewhat since the 19th century, Boston’s upper class remains one of the most difficult to marry or break into.

As the keepers of some of the oldest money in America, the Boston Brahmins would have scoffed at the new money of the New York businessmen and financiers, as Caroline’s mother does in the book.

The Sargent portrait

Sargent was a highly desirable portraitist among Boston’s high society, thus it’s not surprise that Caroline’s mother would have had her portrait painted by him. In fact, so popular was Sargent in Boston, that the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts) in Boston holds the world’s largest collection of his art.

The inspiration for the description of the portrait itself in the book came from one of my favorite Sargent portraits, the portrait of Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, on display at the MET. That’s how I pictured Caroline’s mother – radiating confidence that comes from financial stability and an absolute conviction of her place in the world.

Trouble on a Country Lane” is book 4 of the Lady Caroline Murder Mysteries and is available on Amazon.

Isabella Bassett Trouble in a Country Lane Lady Caroline book 4

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