I’ve been dipping in and out of this work-in-progress and have lately gotten back into it. I did a lot of research to start off with, but in my experience, the research never stops throughout the writing process.
The novel is about two young women in 1910 New York, one an Irish immigrant who suffers some reversals and ends up getting into terrible danger, the other a member of the wealthy class who’s just come home from four years of college, and is dealing with the competing demands of her mother’s ambition to marry her well, and her own desire to make a difference in the world. Their two stories intersect in the shadowy underworld of white slavery.
The writing is going well now, but I have started over from the beginning three times now. I began in the first person, then realized that there are so many complicated sides to what was happening that multiple third would serve me better. I also changed the timing of the beginning, and many of the events.
All this meant that yesterday, I found myself researching the department stores in New York in 1910. It was already a commercially thriving city by that time, with big department stores like Macy’s, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor opening their flagship stores in what was known as The Ladies’ Mile.
The area, now a historic district, stretches from around 15th street up to 24th (extending to 34th when Macy’s store there opened), east to what is now Park Avenue South and west to the other side of Sixth Avenue.
Thanks to the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission, most of the buildings are still there, although many have been repurposed into smaller retailers and offices.
Of course, the most iconic of them all is the Flatiron Building, but Gimbel’s and B. Altman had pretty impressive buildings themselves.
These establishments employed armies of shop girls and porters, and supplied the wealthy and the growing middle class with ready-to-wear clothes, fashion accessories, and household goods.
If you’ve been watching The Paradise or Mr. Selfridge, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what retail was like around the turn of the 20th century. Here’s a slideshow with some vintage images to enjoy!