Kid Gloves ‘n’ Hookers

ADVENTURES IN RESEARCH – 2
Kid Gloves ‘n’ Hookers
Barbara Hambly

So, did a hooker cost more than a pair of kid gloves?
Since the first moment long-ago when I sat down with a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper in front of me at the kitchen table to write my first “historical novel” (this was before I learned to type – and slightly before electric typewriters became sufficiently common that they’d be found in ordinary homes), I’ve been in quest of information about what things used to cost.
This is always important in detective fiction, because when your detective thinks, Hmn, he claims he’s just a poor boy from Podunk, so what’s he doing wearing $500 Tony Lama boots? it tells your reader a) that Poorboy from Podunk is lying like a rug and b) that Ms. Detective is the kind of person who notices that kind of thing. Specificity always makes your character sound more intelligent, and puts the reader firmly into the setting.
If we’re in the eighteenth century, that’s a whole nother wrinkle on that puzzle.
So, where do you get this information?
I used to go up to UCLA or UC Riverside libraries and poke around the stacks (which is how I figured out what motorcycle James Asher rides, and whether you could or couldn’t ride one if you happen to have just had your right wrist broken by an irate vampire). These days, I have a collection of books on the subject, though you can find this information about some things on the Net. (For instance, at janeausten.co.uk – an online magazine about the works of Ms. Austen – I gleaned the information that a family of five plus a maid-servant in 1825 could live on £2.11.7d a week, tough doings if Dad was only pulling in 15 shillings a week). (Which is what Scrooge paid Bob Cratchit, the wicked old skinflint, and Bob had six or seven children and no maid-servant in sight).
A History of the Cost of Living, by John Burnett, is a dandy.
So’s Oliver Bernier’s Pleasure and Privilege, for late 18th-century France.
I’ve always loved Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, for Ben January’s period – 1815-1830s (though Ben is slightly beyond that now). (It also tells what was the strongest patent-medicine opium).
Bernier sourced his book from Mercier’s Tableau de Paris, some of which has been translated: amazing stuff on Paris in the 1780s. Another good one is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, written in the 1840s-50s. Both of these have been reprinted. Also reprinted are old Sears Catalogs, which give American prices, but estimates can be jiggered with on-line currency converters (how much does Ysidro pay for his shoes?).
Most helpful of all is Liza Picard’s 4-volume series about London: Elizabeth’s London, Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London, and Victorian London. All of these can be found on abebooks.com, through which I can often buy these very dry, obscure, specific volumes for only a couple dollars over the cost of postage.
So, which was more expensive? As it is today, of course, that depended on the hooker – and the gloves.

4 responses to “Kid Gloves ‘n’ Hookers”

  1. I was absolutely delighted to find a new Benjamin January book-The Shirt On His Back! Benjamin January and Abishag Shaw are two of my favorite characters. Your attention to detail makes this series a history lesson as well as great entertainment. I hope to see many more books added to the series. Thank you!

  2. Hello. I am Taw of Paraguay!. Sorceress friends and I are convinced that you could not have written Dragonsbane without really having lived it! jeje
    Research must be one answer to this incredible feeling.
    I used a translator to read the blog and respond hope you understand something.
    Thanks !!!!!

  3. Liza Picard’s books are great!

    For the Victorian era, I also like “Inside the Victorian Home” by Judith Flanders, “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants” by Alison Light and “City of Dreadful Delight” by Judith R. Walkowitz.

    For the 18th century, there’s also “Wits, Wenchers and Wantons” by E. J. Burford. But that doesn’t really cover what things cost.

  4. This right here? This is one of the reasons I read your books – that historian’s attention to detail. Just read “Dead and Buried” (yay!) and was as absorbed by the period details as I was by the plot.

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