Antimacassars and Victorian furnishings

Antimacassar scarf for furnishings. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By Sharon K. Gilbert

When I was a young girl, men who wanted to impress ladies still used hair oils and grease to make their hair behave and shine. It was no different in the 19th century, when men slicked back their unruly locks with a pomade known as Macassar Oil.

Supposedly, the hair oil was created and popularized by a barber named Alexander Rowland in the early 19th century and eventually trademarked in 1888 (our Book One year).  Made from coconut oil or palm oil with the addition of ylang-ylang oil for a light fragrance, it not only served as a fashion statement for men but even influenced home furnishings.

I can tell you that my father and uncles’ hair often left ‘stains’ on chairs, so even in the 1950s, we still used doilies on couches and other upholstered furnishings. These became ubiquitous necessities in Victorian homes and came to be called ‘antimacassars’ in honor of the oil these small scarves hoped to absorb.

So, the next time you see a doily on a chair, think of all those oily heads and smile.

Algorithms and Writing

By Sharon K. Gilbert

Writing characters who travel and speak numerous languages fluently is less of a challenge than once it might have been, and it’s all because of algorithms. Not only am I able to use translation programs online to help me obtain the correct French phrases, but I’m also able to access entire passages from novels and newspapers in other languages. Research for the historical portions of the plot and context are also much easier, thanks to the many online dictionaries, encyclopedias, and transcribed/scanned material. 

I began plotting out much of the Redwing Saga in the early 1990s, and at that time, the Internet was rather small, connecting researchers at various colleges and universities. As a student at Indiana University, I was able to spend a great deal of time on our Intranet and the Internet, asking questions on a variety of forums and even emailing other students in England. I thought that was cool, but being able to access a wealth of knowledge with a few keystrokes truly does make this job of writing historical thrillers much easier!

Researching Ripper

Catherine Eddowes, sketched as she appeared in life. Artist unknown.

By Sharon K. Gilbert

Though the core plot and characters of The Redwing Saga series of books encompasses far more than Jack the Ripper, this series of brutal slayings does play an integral role in the early books in the series. Researching these murders is made easier with the advent of Internet archives. There are numerous Ripper websites, but one that I’ve found very useful is, which not only provides commentary but also original texts of police reports, newspaper articles, and even post-mortem reports. This morning, I’ve been reviewing the report submitted by Dr. Frederick Gordon Brown, who examined the body of Catherine Eddowes, both on scene and at the Golden Lane mortuary.

It’s heartbreaking to read how this woman met her last moments of life. Photos show an emaciated form, striped with horrific cuts and slashes, but Brown’s description makes it more chilling, because the murderer clearly ‘staged and posed’ much of what the police discovered that night.  When Catherine Eddowes lived, she surely never imagined that her name and final images would form substrate for a monster.