I thought we’d spend this week looking at some of the source materials that have gone into the making of 1879. I’ve done a lot of reading, and viewed countless hours of documentary series and movies, in the course of both general and specific research for this product line. I’d like to share a bit of my resource list with you here.
There’s just no substitute for reading, especially when it comes to primary sources. Let’s face it, the movie camera was invented a bit after the Gilded Age began, and really didn’t come into its own until after the turn of the century (and the millennium). The records of the time were put down on paper, as were the fantasies and fictions the people of that era enjoyed.
The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Baron Lytton, inspired an Order of Mages who also have a few psychics and Weird Scientists among their number. In it, Bulwer-Lytton (a much better writer than we remember him as) employs the usual frame of the engineer running afoul of peculiar circumstances and ending up in an alien civilization, to portray a race called the Vril-ya, dwellers in subterranean depths who have mastered the use of vril, or mana. These enlightened people have moved past war, poverty, and crime, and live in a somewhat stagnant utopia, an entire race of wizards every one capable of annihilating a civilization on their own. Having accepted the idea of mutually assured destruction long ago, they decided to work things out amongst themselves instead of living in a constant state of brinksmanship. This novel inspired what may have been the world’s first science fiction convention, a three-day celebration of all things Vril-ya, and gave the name of its fundamental energy to Bovril, which the British among our readers may give a slight shudder at. In the published works, you’ll find the Lytton Society in the London Sourcebook.
How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman, is a dawn to bedtime guide to Victorian life in astonishingly intimate detail, by an experiental historian who’s done her research by actually living by the rules of different eras. Ruth Goodman can be seen in a number of excellent documentaries, which I’ll make reference to later on, but this book distills her experiences and research into primary sources into a guide to what life was really like for someone in England in the Victorian age. There’s such a wealth of detail in this one book that I could carry on referencing it for the next several volumes of 1879, adventures, sourcebooks, all the small items that make the setting believable, make the GMCs seem like real people. The only imperfection is the lack of footnotes and endnotes. I really do wish Ms. Goodman had cited her sources more thoroughly. I know she’s got them, because she’s brought out primary sources in her documentaries. The book just doesn’t have the eighty pages of bibliography that I’ve come to expect.
The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, gave us a tremendous wealth of material for the Byrons, and to a lesser extent for the Brassmen, the Engineers, and the Fiddlers. This history of the telegraph, and how it changed society, covers in about 200 pages the technology, the impact on business and personal life, and the evolution from military signaling to everyday crosstown messaging that gave us the culture we all take for granted nowadays. Connectivity wasn’t invented with TCP/IP. It was created with Morse Code. If you intend to play any of the professions named above, you really ought to read this volume. Standage, by the way, also gave us A History of the World in Six Glasses, which breaks up world history into six eras by the predominant beverage, from beer to Coca-Cola.
Connections by James Burke, explores a different view of history. Instead of working in a linear fashion from A to B to C, Burke points out that history isn’t tidy like that. Someone in Egypt hears about a new thing being done in Phoenicia, and says hey, I could apply that to this problem I’ve been working on, and next thing you know you’ve got lateen sails and nuclear weapons. It all makes a sort of sense by the end of each episode. Burke’s quick delivery and dry wit make for an engaging presentation, and his theory of history as a web of interconnected coincidences and man’s complete inability to predict where the ball will land holds up quite well over the series. Inspiration lurks at every twist in the plot, and by golly there’s a lot of them, as history isn’t so much a straight line as a lot of corkscrews bunged together after a spritz of superglue.
Victorian Pharmacy, with Professor Nick Barber, Tom Quick, and Ruth Goodman takes over the high street pharmacy in Ironbridge, an Industrial Revolution era village that’s been preserved as a living history museum. Each of the four episodes moves to a new decade, and explores the medications, personal care products, and household chemicals sold by (and often made in) the pharmacy. The role of women in business gets explored, as do the sources of medications, the advent of dentistry as a sideline, and the origin of the Fireworks Act. Playing a Newtonian? A Doctor or Nurse? All sorts of ideas here, as well as substantial visual exploration of the high street chemist’s shop, and enough detail to keep a GM in descriptive phrases for many sessions.
Mark Williams on the Rails takes the actor known for playing Mr. Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, and Father Brown in the current BBC series (a role he was really born for!), and lets him loose in the trainyard. Over the course of ten enchanting episodes, Mr. Williams rides a series of locomotives, passenger wagons, and subways, and gets his hands dirty with steam enthusiasts and rail fans the world around. Beautifully shot, presented by a charming host with amazing comedic timing, factually sound, and with just the right touch of irreverence, this series lays the foundations for further explorations into the world of steam and trains in a way that leaves you really wanting more. It did me, anyway. Mark Williams went on to do a number of other documentary series, all of which are worth watching, at least in my opinion, and I’ve seen every last one of them.
So there’s three books and three documentary series to get you started. If there’s sufficient interest (see the Comments section below, or reply to the posting of this blog on social media, or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org), I’ll put up another of these source-material discussions in a month or two. In the meantime,