Regardless Of Your Genre, A Little History Can Help
We spend a lot of time on this blog taking little nuggets of history and expanding on them. Lately, the topics have been about little-known battles that helped shape America as we know it today. Interesting information, to be sure, with fascinating details that expand our knowledge of these significant events, many of which are celebrating anniversaries with commemorative events. But every now and then, we need to lighten things up a bit.
In addition to historical romances, I also write contemporary romance, and it was during one of my contemporary phases that I came across a little-known historical tidbit. My hero has bought an old crumbling Victorian home and is renovating it. I’d already built into the story the fact the roof had caved in several years prior. Then, I got the brilliant notion to have h/h find a box of love letters from long ago, and try to figure out who penned them. Obviously, the attic was out of play, since the elements would have damaged any box of letters stored there. Where to hide my letters in the house became an obsession. Then, I remembered a bit of history I picked up on while watching This Old House several years ago.
Newel posts are those large posts at the top and bottom of the staircase, and can range from the most basic to really ornate. They function as stopping points for youngsters sliding down the banister, true, but their original purpose was to frame the staircase and to show it off to its best advantage. Remember the newel posts on the grandiose staircase from Gone With The Wind? Old Victorian homes usually leaned toward the ornate, making the square posts as wide as the stair would allow. Posts created for homes in the mid to late 1800s were for the most part, hand-carved, and the more detailed the better. Some were of solid wood, but some were hollow, as in my second photo. And the hollow posts held a lot of mystery.
They were often used as secret compartments to hold valuables, such as jewelry, or in my case, a box of letters. The top of the post was removable, allowing for easy access. Often times, the builder of the home would place a coin in the bottom of the hollow post upon the home’s completion, for good luck. A common story about these hollow chambers was once the mortgage on the home was paid in full, the deed was placed inside the post. The post was then sealed, and a hole was drilled into the center of the top of the post, into which a button of a different kind of wood, or a piece of ivory, was placed. This was commonly referred to as a mortgage button. Since mortgages as we know them didn’t exist prior to 1934, there is some speculation about the validity of this purpose, but even today, homeowners of ancient Victorians honor the tradition by placing a mortgage button in the newel post once the home is paid for.
This little-known fact about this architectural antique gave me a perfect place to store my box of letters, which were uncovered during the renovation of the home. And it proves that, once again, history provides us with a wealth of rich detail to add layers to our stories, be they historical or contemporary.