SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke


When I was a tot in the 1950s, my grandmother lived with us. She smoked Raleigh cigarettes and saved the coupons in her top dresser drawer.

Raleigh cigarette coupons could be redeemed for gifts, keeping smokers loyal and addicted.

The scent of tobacco and Yardley’s English Lavender mingled in a rustic perfume that belonged uniquely to her.

Looking back, I realize how much she influenced me to become a writer. In her clipped British accent, she read Mary Poppins and Dr. Doolitle to me, awakening a love of books. She introduced me to the romance of storytelling as she related her own exciting teenage adventures, like the time she stole a boat and sailed from England to Spain

She also subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, which she used to teach me to read.

Each week when the magazine arrived by mail, we’d sit in her bedroom and giggle over the cartoons. Hazel was my favorite and became the basis for a popular 1960s TV sit-com starring Shirley Booth as the wise-cracking maid who was smarter than her bosses.

Today, the Saturday Evening Post has endured when most print magazines have disappeared.

Recently the Post unveiled their new website that includes every issue all the way back to 1821. The task of scanning and digitizing tens of thousands of pages took nine years.

For $15/year, subscribers receive six current issues plus access to nearly two hundred years of history. I just subscribed as a fond trip down memory lane because of my grandmother.

However, the deeper I delved into the Post’s archives, the more I realized what a valuable resource this could be for writers of historical fiction. Nearly two hundred years of American life are collected in one convenient location. I soon got lost in bygone eras.

Below are a few ideas how the Post archives can enliven your historical fiction:

Language: Reading prose written during your chosen era helps you better capture the particular phrasing, jargon, and speech rhythms of the time.

In an example from 1821, a fanciful story features a talking mirror warning readers about vanity with this snippet of dialogue:

“How many charming creatures have I spoiled, and made beauty the greatest misfortune that could befal [sic] them! . . . Alas, why was I made a Looking glass?”

Contrast that flowery style with the terse dialogue from Alastair MacLean’s 1960 short story, Night Without End:

“From now on, Zagero, you and Levin ride with a gun trained on you!” Mason snapped.

Setting details: Illustrations for architecture, building styles, and period home furnishings add authenticity to your story world.

Creative Commons


I was drawn to advertisements for home appliances from the 1950s, recalling brands like Kelvinator and Hotpoint, and refrigerators in a choice of colors like pink and turquoise.



Employment: In the 1910s and ’20s, many ads featured motor oil, tires, and batteries, reflecting industrialization as society changed from carriages to automobiles. A character living in Ohio then might work at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton or manufacture Grande Cord tires at the Republic Rubber Corporation in Youngstown.

Styles: Fashion illustrations in the Post showcase clothing, shoes, and hairstyles of each era. In 1927, a female character might straighten the seam lines on her Realsilk hosiery while her husband shines his stylish Selz shoes.

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

Transportation: In the span of two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches were replaced by trains and steamships which gave way to airlines like Pan American and Trans World Airways. Automobile ads from the early twentieth century feature now-forgotten brands your characters might drive, like Hupmobile, DeSoto, and LaSalle. Or they might fly on a Ford Tri-Motor.

Health/Medical: In the 1960s, ads for Chesterfield, Pall Mall, and Viceroy played counterpoint to feature articles like “Crash Effort for a Safer Cigarette” from April, 1964. By the 1990s, the Post’s focus had shifted to breakthrough medical developments, with nary a cigarette ad to be found.

Warning: resist the temptation to pack in too many details simply because you don’t want to waste the research. Use only as many as are needed to capture the flavor of the era.

Perspective: By reading Post issues prior to a major historical event, the author can find insights into what precipitated the event.

I found one example in a cautionary article from 1900 by a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Churchill. He warned that a complacent citizenry and a weak, underfunded military could lead to future conflicts. His predictions came true in 1914 with the Great War. By 1940, he became Prime Minister and led the Allies against the Axis in World War II.

Political Issues: Letters to the editor illustrate why people believed and thought the way they did at the time. They voiced opinions based on how certain topics affected them that day, without knowing what was in store in the future. Articles, bios, and op-eds from the Post can lend authenticity to the attitudes of your characters during a given period.

For instance, in early 1960, the Post interviewed then-candidate John F. Kennedy. At the time, Pope John XXIII mandated a total ban on birth control. When JFK, a Catholic, was asked about his position, he stated: “Our government does not advocate any policy concerning birth control here in the United States.”

Letters to the editor expressed concern that JFK’s Catholicism would sway his political direction. In the 1960 election, separation of church and state was considered a critical issue.

By 1962, that concern was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. As Americans stockpiled canned food and built backyard bomb shelters in anticipation of nuclear attack, JFK’s religion faded into a non-issue.

Authors and readers of historical fiction have foreknowledge. We know the North won the Civil War. However, story characters in 1860 can’t know that. Character A may feel optimistic about a certain event while character B views that same event with trepidation. The difference in opinion amplifies conflict between A and B. Plus, the reader feels an added layer of tension, knowing that event will soon lead to the bloody battle between the Union and the Confederacy.

Obviously, I fell way down the vast rabbit hole in the Saturday Evening Post archives. I’ll be back for more visits to the archives that refresh memories of my grandmother as well as tidbits about bygone days.


TKZers, what are your favorite historical references? Does reading about history tempt you to write about it?




Please check out my thriller Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15 on Amazon.

When Does License Give Way to Responsibility?

By John Gilstrap

When Six Minutes to Freedom was published in 2006, I was shocked and, frankly, dismayed by the number of fans who told me that they couldn’t wait till my next novel came out because they don’t read non-fiction. But SixMin is a thriller, I told them; it just happens to be true. Some took a chance, most didn’t, and that’s fine. People obviously have the right to read whatever suits their fancy. I’ve turned my back on non-fiction anyway. It’s too hard. In writing non-fiction, you’re constrained by what actually happened, without regard to the development of the most intriguing story arc.

Fiction is about drama; non-fiction is about reality. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in these hyper-political times, where it seems that everyone on every street corner has proclaimed him or herself to be either a rabid Republican or a rabid Democrat or rabid Something Else Entirely, I’m wondering if a little non-fiction might be in order.

McCain says that Obama voted against funding the war in Iraq. Well, not really. He voted against a bill that funded the war without setting a date for early withdrawal. Without addressing the wisdom of the vote itself, I’m dismayed that the sound bite omits the qualifier. On the other side, Obama asserts that McCain likewise voted against a bill to fund the war, but he omits the extenuation that McCain’s objection reflected the presence of a hard date for withdrawal.

Why, then, don’t they publicly argue the real issue, which is the wisdom of announcing a withdrawal date? I think it’s because that argument is a complex one, and complex arguments can’t be conveyed in a sound bite—which has become the attention span of far too many voters. I hate to let my cynicism show so clearly, but I’ll bet bucks to buttons that of every ten people who blame the worldwide financial woes on Democrats or Republicans, not two of them could cogently articulate what, exactly, their alleged culprit did wrong. I’m sorry, but the laying of blame on “Wall Street’s corporate greed” is so hyper-simplified as to be meaningless.

Does the sound bite drive the news because of viewers’ demands, I wonder, or really because the sound bite represents the depth of knowledge of the average news reader? Clearly, that’s not my call. My bag is the entertainment business. I make stuff up for a living. And if I do my job really, really well, I can create global crises that seem very plausible, even though they’re built entirely of my imagination. It’s a cool job.

But I wonder sometimes where my license to entertain ends and where my responsibility as a citizen begins. For years, I’ve been sitting on this really terrific, terrifyingly plausible terrorist plot because I worry about giving the bad guys a new idea. We’re a nation at war, and I deeply and genuinely worry about writing anything that might bring additional danger to people in harm’s way. I worry about making our nation and our leaders look worse than they already do to the rest of the world, because I believe that everything that weakens those leaders internally empowers our enemies abroad. Empowered enemies, in turn, shoot at people I love.

Now, let me state for the record: I in no way favor any form of government-imposed censorship. Ever. Never in any case, period.

But is a little voluntary restraint out of the question?

Remember a few years ago when Oliver Stone released his movie JFK? It was a complete and total fabrication of events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, and to his credit, Stone never represented it as anything but. Still, a recent poll showed that an astonishing majority of Americans believe that the film represents a historical record. Next week, Oliver Stone will release W, his “biography” of President Bush—a man whose politics Stone openly loathes. He confesses that the movie is likewise fiction, but surely he knows—as we all know—that a substantial majority of Americans will not bother to do the independent research to find the reality within the fiction, and will therefore accept his fiction as truth.

Intellectually, I understand and accept and would even defend that there’s nothing wrong with that. But deep inside where that little whirly-gig tells you what’s really right and wrong, I wonder about all those young men and women in harm’s way who will face a newly re-empowered enemy.